Sorensen: Presidential Leadership Depends on Judgment, Options, Timing

April 16, 2010 — Presidential leadership comes down to making decisions – all day, every day – and good judgment involves considering a number of options and properly timing a response, Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy's speechwriter and counselor, said in a Thursday evening address at the University of Virginia.

By those criteria, Kennedy and Barack Obama have proven their mettle as leaders, while President George W. Bush failed on several counts, Sorensen argued during his speech on "Presidential Leadership: Now and Then," delivered to a standing-room-only crowd in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom.

Sorensen's appearance was sponsored by U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, named for Sorensen's late brother, Tom. He was introduced by his former student at Princeton University, Batten School Dean Harry Harding.

Kennedy demonstrated his judgment during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in formulating his response to Southern governors who stood in the way of the integration of their states' public universities, and his inspiring 1961 call to put a man on the moon within a decade, undoing the Soviet Union's early lead in the space race, said Sorensen, now 81 and partially blind.

Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis averted a potential nuclear war and rebuffed a strategic provocation by the Soviet Union, said Sorensen, who was a member of ExComm, a group that advised Kennedy during the crisis.

By keeping ExComm quite small, Kennedy was able to strategize and consider options for almost a week before news of the crisis leaked. A "surgical" air strike option, pushed by military leaders and later by members of Congress, "we now know would have resulted in a nuclear war," Sorensen said.

After urging ExComm to produce alternative options, Kennedy chose a more measured response – a naval blockade and secret negotiations with the Soviets to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. later secretly pulling missiles out of Turkey.

"Thank God we had a president who had judgment and who had considered other options, and who had been exactly right in the timing of his response," Sorensen said.

While admitting that Kennedy was not quick to recognize the importance of civil rights during his service in Congress, in the Senate or even in his first year or two as president, Sorensen said that Kennedy displayed great timing in his confrontation with Gov. George Wallace over integrating the University of Alabama.

After Wallace famously stood in the doorway of the schoolhouse and then stepped aside, Kennedy recognized it was the right moment to deliver a major speech supporting civil rights – a speech Sorensen had not yet begun to draft.

Sorensen drew upon his own civil rights activism as a college student as he scrambled to write the speech in one afternoon. It turned out to be "one of his best speeches," calling civil rights a moral issue "as old as Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution," he recalled.

Sorensen listed several examples of what he described as poor decisions by Bush.

When Bush received a national security briefing in August 2001 titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.," he did not interrupt his vacation and asked staffers to take care of it. If he had chosen to focus on the threat identified in the memo, "I believe a lot of lives would have been saved on 9/11," Sorensen said.

Months later, when 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden was within sight of U.S. special forces  in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, Sorensen said, Bush soon opted to shift the military's focus to Iraq.

In tandem with Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sorensen was one of candidate Obama's earliest supporters, spurred by what he saw as striking parallels between Obama and Kennedy. Both Kennedy and Obama faced seemingly insuperable demographic hurdles (Kennedy's Catholicism, Obama's race); both were stars at Harvard; both were young, with young families, and appealed to the young; had lived abroad and gained insights on how America looks to others; and both were "old-fashioned orators who didn't talk down to audiences – and knew how to pronounce 'nuclear,'" he added with a wink.

Like Kennedy, Sorensen said, Obama has demonstrated his good judgment since assuming office, particularly his quick response to the economic downturn and his passage of health care reform. 

In both instances, Obama was second-guessed by many, but his judgment and timing are proving correct, Sorensen said. The health care reform is not a perfect plan, but a basic plan is now on the books, and can be improved and strengthened in coming years, he noted, just as Social Security was after President Franklin Roosevelt passed it amid huge partisan controversy.

Obama's biggest looming challenge is ensuring domestic security now that much of the Muslim world has fallen into an adversarial attitude toward America, Sorensen said.

To regain the friendship and admiration of the world that was in great supply during Kennedy's presidency, Sorensen said, "We have to prove that the values Kennedy talked about – compassion, humanitarianism, equality – are still the values of this country. Only then, in my opinion, will we be much safer, and that's got to be our most important challenge."

As Sorensen was leaving the podium to sign copies of his memoir, "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History," he joked about his failing eyesight: "Don't worry, I've got more vision than some members of Congress."

— By Brevy Cannon