Theodore Sorensen: Counselor

In 1953, at the age of 24, Ted Sorensen joined the staff of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. For the next decade, as Kennedy plotted his course to the presidency and then assumed the role of the nation’s chief executive, Sorensen served JFK as aide, advisor, strategist, and, most famously, speechwriter. In his 1967 book, Kennedy, composed in the long shadow of its subject’s assassination, Sorensen chronicled in close detail the aspirations, hard work, and achievements of JFK’s political career. In his new memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, Sorensen takes a more personal look at his friendship and collaboration with JFK, documenting his own role in the administration and illuminating through memory and reflection Kennedy’s legacy as a leader. At the same time, Sorensen vividly portrays his formative years in Lincoln, Nebraska and his post-White House adventures in politics and international law. Filled with insight into the political process, presidential decision-making, and such critical historical events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Counselor is an eloquent and absorbing testament to private principles and public service. It is a book that is especially compelling in the current election year.


In advance of its publication, and a few weeks before the author’s eightieth birthday, I spoke with Ted Sorensen in his Manhattan home, overlooking Central Park. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. --James Mustich 



James Mustich: In the preface to your new book, you quote the historian David McCullough’s worry that we are "losing the national memory of America’s story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far." With that in mind as I read the first hundred pages of Counselor -- a lovely evocation of your coming-of-age in Nebraska under the influence of your parents’ traditions of public service as well as the broader civic sway of regional knowledge and heritage -- it struck me that story and memory are tied to such local culture, which has lost much of its authority in the current age of mass media and the easy dissemination of placeless information over the internet.  It seems to me that part of the national memory we’re in danger of losing has always been nourished by the regional roots you celebrate in the book’s early chapter.  


Ted Sorensen: I used to think that one of my values to John F. Kennedy, who came from a somewhat elitist background (a rich, Harvard-educated, Eastern young man from a famous family), was that I, coming from the Middle West and middle class, and being the middle child of a family of five children, was somebody who really understood the national pulse, and could help explain him to the country, and the country to him. On reflection, I am not so sure I was right about that, because, for the very reasons you suggest, Nebraska was a special place to grow up, even then. It had its own traditions of the frontier, where my father had been born. It had its own very wholesome way of life. Lincoln was a wonderful, quiet, leafy city. But my parents were a mixed marriage, between Jew and Gentile -- very rare in Nebraska in those days. They were two very special people, as I try to explain in the book. So perhaps I was more special than I realized when I thought I had the Everyman touch.


In terms of the "national story" that McCullough refers to, my eightieth birthday is just a couple of weeks away; eighty years -- that’s a third of the life of this country. I think the story in this book, including the story of my parents and my grandparents, is the story of America. It goes back a long time in this comparatively young country’s history.


JM: In the current day and age, the way we get our information and interpret events seems quite often to be divorced from memory. This happens, that happens, and there are media firestorms about each thing happening, which seem to burn up the thread of a narrative that might provide a meaningful context. Events are not composed into stories that are informed by any sense of complexity.


TS: They are not put in historical perspective at all. And that’s a weakness in this country. I think -- without being turned into a hawker of my own book -- that one of the reasons why biographies and histories are particularly valuable is because Americans need to have that historical context. One of John F. Kennedy’s great strengths as a president was his knowledge of history, his interest in history. He had been reading history and biography all his still young life, and he was able to put events in that historical perspective, which was very important in being able to separate what was big and new from what was common and not earthshaking. He was able to know from precedent how problems had been handled previously.


Since then, sad to say, and not to become political about it, we’ve had a series of presidents with no or very little knowledge of American history -- even the history of the presidency. History, as my late friend Arthur Schlesinger said before he died, is so important to all of us as citizens, even if we’re not leaders or officials; we need it to make judgments about the country.


JM: In reflecting on your portrait of Kennedy, I was struck by a common characteristic of his speeches, on so many of which you collaborated so closely with him. A palpable sense of history, or even, if not precisely of history, of some narrative larger than the moment at hand, seems to have informed what he had to say and to have shaped its expression. Storytelling is the wrong word. But there is a visionary element to his best speeches -- they reach beyond specific facts and details and policies in an attempt to grasp a part of a national narrative that maybe is not yet history, but is conscious that it’s becoming history. That reach is lacking from the public pronouncements of most politicians on the scene now.


TS: I think that’s all very true. Let me emphasize that not only did I not claim the credit for all of the ideas and aspirations of Kennedy’s speeches, but he knew a lot more about American history than I did. I had a good education in the public schools of Lincoln, Nebraska, and then the University of Nebraska, but I had not read as much history as he had as a young man, both as a student and on his own. Think of how important it was. For example, here he is, a Boston Irish-Catholic who wants to run for national office, and he’s going to speak in South Carolina. Sounds formidable. Sounds almost dangerous. But Kennedy thinks about the links between Massachusetts and South Carolina historically, about the links between the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled New England and the early Jamestown descendants who settled South Carolina, and then between Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. Who today talks about John C. Calhoun? No one. But it was a brilliant bridge. It made a wonderful speech that the South Carolinians ate up, even though it came from this young liberal from New England. I don’t think that’s in the book. It should have been.


JM: It seems to be a critical role that a political leader can, and even should, play: tying the diverse elements of the American story into common themes. Do you think the ability to do that is a personal quality in a leader such as JFK, or that it’s a skill that can be learned? Or is it something that the national culture of the 1950s and early 1960s made possible, but is no longer possible today?


TS: I won’t guess on whether the culture today makes it possible or impossible. We may be discovering more about that in the next several months. But I will say that almost every politician, by the very definition of the word, wants to please all the people all the time, and is often tempted to say whatever will please his audience most -- pandering to some audiences, or appealing to their self-interest, usually through their pocketbooks. That wasn’t Kennedy’s way. Kennedy had an ability to build a bridge to almost every audience, to find some common interest, some common goal, some common link, such as the historical links that I’ve been mentioning, and therefore he had an ability to appeal to all kinds of audiences in all parts of the country and in all economic, racial, religious, and other sectors in the country. I was part of that, but the real genius was his.


JM: Have you seen anyone else in your lifetime in American politics who possessed a similar quality?


TS: Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were both great communicators -- Reagan especially when reading from a Peggy Noonan text. But I don’t think they had the same historical grounding that JFK did. It’s my hope that Senator Obama does, and I believe he is more like JFK in the range and tone of his speeches than any president or presidential candidate, other than RFK, since JFK.


JM: I’m interested in your sense -- both at the time and in retrospect -- of what Kennedy saw in you to make you such a trusted advisor.


TS: I do at least speculate on that in the chapter in the book where I, in effect, choose him over Senator Henry Jackson, who also offered me a job (Editor’s note: Henry "Scoop" Jackson served as senator from Washington from 1953 to 1983; he mounted presidential campaigns in 1972 and 1976). Kennedy chose me, even though he could have had his pick of brilliant Harvard-trained lawyers from his own state of Massachusetts. I think there was a certain spark of idealism he saw, and an approach of rational, objective thinking about public policy, which he felt were compatible with his methods and goals, and I think he was right.


JM: He was clearly an astute politician, able to recognize what needed to be done in specific circumstances to achieve a particular result; a successful politician is, by definition, always to some degree an opportunist. Was your idealism, kept close at hand, helpful to him as a kind of fixed point around which certain principles cohered, regardless of the pragmatic demands of the political moment?


TS: I think so. I don’t remember my exact words, but somewhere in the book I point out that he started out from his father’s house with a more conservative, hard-headed point of view, and I started out from my father’s house with a very idealistic approach to the world and its problems; in the realm of politics and government, we met, our views and backgrounds mixed, and the combination turned out to work. And he was interested in what worked.


JM: I imagine that in the heat of White House life, it would be very easy to do things that work today, and to lose sight of what the larger picture is -- the tomorrows that what works today make possible, or abandon.


TS: An even greater temptation is not in the White House, but in the campaign. As JFK reminded us once in a while, he was all that stood between the country and Richard Nixon, and therefore, while he never repudiated his principles and ideals, there were times, I am certain, when he couched them in more attractive, reasonable, careful ways to ensure that he was still progressing toward the ultimate goal, victory.


JM: When you started to work with him, you were a very young man.


TS: Very -- even a little younger than he knew. My mentor at the time said, "Well, you’ll be 25 pretty soon. Twenty-four is awfully young for a job like this, so I’m going to put down that you’re 25."


JM: Over the years, have you reflected on how things might have turned out for you if you’d accepted Senator Jackson’s job offer instead of JFK’s? While Jackson was considered more liberal than Kennedy at the time you were considering his offer (in the mid-1950s), he drifted down a much harder neoconservative line through the 1960s. In fact, many prominent neoconservatives -- Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Alan Keyes, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith -- fell into Jackson’s orbit early in their careers.


TS: First of all, I learned a lot from JFK, just as I hope he was learning something from me. But I therefore was able to help JFK fulfill his ideals and goals. Later, Jackson had aspirations to the presidency, but with a very different set of goals in mind. Would I, with that same sense of devotion to my boss and loyalty to his principles, have found myself joining wholeheartedly with the Perles and the Keyes and Feiths and so on of this world, in trying to foist a neocon attitude of belligerence in foreign policy on the United States? I hope not. I hope I would have been imbued strongly enough in the ideals of my youth that I would have tried to go against that tide and bring Jackson around to my way of thinking.


JM: Your portrait of Kennedy in Counselor paints a vivid image of the sense of possibility a certain kind of leadership inspires -- the way it can ally tactical decisions to visionary aspirations. I’m thinking specifically of JFK’s famous determination to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. As you describe it in the book, you came up with that idea because our ability to overtake the Russians in the space race required a goal so ambitious we’d have enough time to overcome their considerable early lead.


TS: That’s right. First, let me emphasize how serious the space race was. This was the height of the Cold War, and the Cold War was potentially for the survival of the West and its values and ideals and safety, not only because of the nuclear arms race but also because of the importance of whether the rest of the world saw Communism as the wave of the future or continued to look at democracy and freedom as the best system for mankind. So Kennedy felt that we had to challenge the Soviet leadership in space.


Second, yes, I, who had no technical, scientific, or engineering background at all, was simply inquiring of those who did where we might be able to seize the lead in the exploration of outer space, and, step by step by step, it looked impossible until we reached the literally far-out question of a lunar landing. That was so new, so far-out, required so much, that we had at least as much chance as the Soviets did of doing it first, and I instantly knew, knowing John F. Kennedy, that he would see the fit of that goal with his philosophy of government, the whole idea of New Frontiers, the whole idea of doing better and winning the Cold War not by force of arms but by demonstrating what our country could do. It was in that spirit that I went to him. Don’t give me any credit. Can you think of any other president who wouldn’t have simply laughed that off and said, "We’re not playing games here. Sending a man to the moon?!" And yet, John F. Kennedy responded immediately.


JM: Immediately?


TS: He said, "Let’s staff it out. Here are the people I want you to get reports and answers from." But yes, he was interested.


JM: You’ve included a very instructive chapter on speechwriting in Counselor. Your work with Kennedy on his speeches certainly is legendary, and has, to no small degree, overshadowed your other contributions to JFK’s administration, as well as the considerable achievements of your post-Washington career. It’s always "Theodore Sorensen, speechwriter."


TS: As I’ve said on many occasions, I know that my obituary in the New York Times (which I have already been interviewed for, by the way, although I’m hoping its publication is a good way off) -- I know it is going to say, "Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy’s Speechwriter." (And they’ll probably misspell my name again when they do   -- S-O-R-E-N-S-O-N.) But I’ve decided, on balance, that "Kennedy’s speechwriter" is not so bad. After all, there are at least a dozen of JFK’s speeches that rank in most lists of the best hundred speeches of the 20th century. So I’ll accept that label, even though, as you say, both in the White House and in my years since, I have done some other things.


JM: In the book you write: “I do not dismiss the potential of the right speech, delivered by the right speaker in the right way at the right moment. It can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and in all these ways, change the world. I know. I saw it happen.” I wonder if you might expand a little bit on your views of the importance of eloquence to leadership, and the cost of its lack.


TS: Two things. In Kennedy’s case, his mere words, his rhetoric, his speeches, not only helped elect him president of the United States, but also were essential to his success as president of the United States. His inaugural address won new respect for Kennedy and this country all over the world. His speech on peace at American University in June 1963 helped to change Khrushchev’s mind about a nuclear test ban treaty, which Khrushchev would indeed sign a few months later. JFK’s speech -- interestingly enough, the following day -- to the nation on civil rights totally turned around the direction in which this country had been heading for decades regarding the treatment of its black citizens. So mere words can be very important, and were in Kennedy’s case.


The second item is the ancient comparison between Cicero and Demosthenes, which goes like this: when Cicero spoke, the people said, "How wise he speaks;" when Demosthenes spoke, they said, "Let us march." That’s the difference.


JM: Do you have any reflections on the way speechwriting itself has become a contentious issue in this year’s presidential campaign, with Senator Obama’s eloquence being dismissed as "just words," and with the accusation that, in combating this dismissal, he resorted to plagiarizing a speech by the governor of Massachusetts?


TS: Well, of course, every speechwriter has a different view of so-called plagiarism. Believe me, having worked for eight years in the United States Senate as a Senate staffer, I have seen politicians get up and read materials they have never seen before in their lives that were prepared by the speechwriter, who may or may not have borrowed it from someone else. That’s not plagiarism, but it doesn’t say much for the intelligence and imagination of the speaker. I am certain Obama never in his life got up and read a speech that he was reading for the first time, and the fact that he used quotations suggested by one of his national co-chairs, the governor of Massachusetts, meant he was certainly not stealing or even borrowing somebody else’s words. In fact, as I recall, the words themselves were references to famous quotations in America’s own history. So only an act of desperation would call that plagiarism.


JM: Another phenomenon that has been prevalent in this campaign, and I suppose in most political contests of recent vintage, is what Elizabeth Drew, writing in the New York Review of Books, recently called "molehill politics" -- the relentless focus on a single gaffe or turn of phrase to the exclusion of matters of issue and substance. That phenomenon has certainly been exacerbated, if not entirely created, by the 24-hour news cycle of cable-TV and the internet, and the unforgetting, unforgiving, never-closing eye of YouTube. But perhaps you in fact faced similar kinds of challenges in JFK’s 1960 campaign.


TS: It was different. I’m sorry to say that one big difference was the religious issue, and that every day there was some new molehill being expanded into a mountain on that score, in which Kennedy had to answer for some statement made by some pope hundreds of years earlier, or he had to respond to some action taken by some priest in another country. Finally, Kennedy in his famous Houston Ministers Address on the subject, said, "I do not regard myself as bound by those statements. Why should you regard me as bound by them?" I am suggesting that Obama could say the very same thing about everybody trying to tie him to outrageous statements coming from his pastor.


JM: Counselor is filled with candor, but there’s one line in particular that really struck me. You say, "The White House is inherently a political institution. That is why I have not joined those in subsequent years who lamented that any particular president was playing politics with foreign policy or some other issue. Of course, he is playing politics. The president in a democracy is required to play politics with every issue if this country is to be governed with the consent of the governed."


TS: I don’t think that needs any comment. I still agree with that.


JM: I was very glad to read it. Politicians are always using that phrase about each other -- "Well you’re playing politics with that issue," or "You’re politicizing it" -- as if there was some other standard of authenticity readily available in the political arena. Pundits and commentators on the right and the left take that line often as well. But it’s like watching the Mets and accusing the second baseman of playing baseball; that’s what he’s supposed to be doing.


TS: It’s a little bit like Kennedy being criticized for interfering in the State Department or Defense Department when he’s president of the United States. He’s supposed to interfere in the departments under his control.


JM: In a book you wrote in 1984, called A Different Kind of Presidency, you attempted to address the problem of political stalemate between Congress and the White House with an ingenious hypothetical solution -- a temporary bipartisan coalition of national unity. You suggested that the next president and vice-president come from opposite parties and agree to serve only four-year terms, with the cabinet being equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, along the lines of a European coalition government. The strategic goal was to break the deadlock and recurring bitterness that characterized politics in the early 1980s. Do you think the situation has changed in this country over the past two decades, or do you feel some similar sort of radical rejuvenation of the system remains necessary?


TS: [LAUGHS] Well, to be perfectly frank, that proposal was a reflection of the fact that Reagan Republicanism was in the saddle and showed every sign of remaining in the saddle, and at the time, it looked as though the Democrats might retain control of Congress, and therefore, the deadlock, which was not healthy for the American people, would continue. George W. Bush and the neoconservatives are not in a position today anything like the one Reagan and his party were in then. On the contrary, it may be just the opposite. It may well be that Obama will bring such a new appeal to the country,  attracting to the polls young voters, new voters, minority voters, that he will take office with a real mandate -- with a sufficient margin for him and his party to allow him to do something about that mandate. So the deadlock will be broken by the American people --which is probably the healthiest way to break it.


JM: What are your thoughts on the current state of the Democratic campaign? Do you think the superdelegate structure of the nominating process will serve the party -- and the people -- well? (Editor’s note: our conversation took place on April 16, 2008, in the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary.)


TS: Well, first of all, once again, looking at things in historical context, let me say that I’ve seen a lot of handwringing by the pundits and the politicians themselves every four years: "Oh, the process is not working, we need to change this, we need to change that." But usually the people solve those problems for the politicians by making a choice. And I think they will this year. I think that there will probably be a decision before the Democratic convention, and that means that one candidate, in my opinion -- and I hope it is and I predict it will be Obama -- will have a majority at the convention, which means two things: (A) his delegates will have the majority on the Credentials Committee, on the Rules Committee, on the Platform Committee, and on the floor, when those committees report; and (B) since there will be only two candidates left by that time, it means victory on the first ballot. That was all-important for Kennedy, because we still had several competitors, and Kennedy did not think he would emerge a winner from a back room conclave of the big boys and bosses. So we felt we had to win on the first ballot, and we did it on the last state of the roll call, Wyoming.


JM: It was on the very last state?


TS: The very last state. Now, after the states would have come the territories, and I had negotiated a very acceptable compromise on Puerto Rico, which I would commend to Obama if he’s faced with the same situation. In fact, the Puerto Rico compromise was a little encapsulation of the whole Kennedy campaign. They sent two delegations to the convention. One represented the establishment of the Democratic party of Puerto Rico; it was headed by the wonderful, distinguished Luis Muñoz Marin, a great statesman. He and his colleagues had been persuaded by some of the national Democratic party establishment -- whose lawyers happened to be their lawyers -- that they should be committed to LBJ, having been told that LBJ was going to win. But Kennedy, in typical fashion, went to Puerto Rico long before 1960. He and I met with the populist, in every sense of the word, head of the territorial Democratic party, a man named Pepe Benitez; he had a grass-roots delegation which also came to the convention, and it was committed to Kennedy. Both delegations wanted to be seated -- nobody goes to a convention to sit on the outside. So I negotiated a compromise. Both delegations would be seated, which meant each one of them would have a half-vote, and all of them would be committed to Kennedy. Nice compromise.


JM: You write of that 1960 campaign (well, as you describe it, it is more accurately described as the 1956 through 1960 campaign!): "The whole experience was unlike any physical ordeal I had ever faced. The exhilaration did not always offset the exhaustion. Too many all-nighters working, too many overnight flights, too many early morning meetings." As a result of that experience, I wonder if you look at the current campaign with some degree of sympathy for the people involved in it -- sympathy a normal citizen might not have.


TS: It is a physical ordeal. I have a very good friend -- the young man who helped me research the book when I couldn’t see, and whom I salute in a special preface -- who’s now one of the speechwriters on the Obama campaign, and I’ve warned him that as exhausted as he is now, it’s going to get worse after the convention.


JM: There has been much talk in the past few months about the nature, breadth, and depth of the respective candidates’ experience. In your 1963 book, Decision-Making in the White House, you wrote, "No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency."


TS: I still believe that, very strongly.


JM: Two questions. One is: What kind of experience, then, is valuable, if we’re appraising candidates? And two: what do you think JFK learned in his short time as president? The current administration -- how might I phrase this diplomatically? -- never seemed to pride itself on having much to learn . . . 


TS: Prided itself on not having anything to learn.


JM: Thank you. [LAUGHS] You are a good editor.


TS: Anyway, finish your sentence.


JM: Well, being a firm believer in the transforming and positive energy of continuing education, it has occurred to me that it might be good for the country -- and for the candidates -- to recognize that what a new president brings to the job is not as important as how he or she will learn from it.


TS: The capacity to learn and grow with the job is paramount. That’s what Kennedy had. Of course, he was young and had no previous executive experience. But Cheney and Rumsfeld are a very good demonstration of the fact that vast experience, even White House experience, does not prepare one for wise decision-making. But the leadership of a national campaign, as Kennedy demonstrated, requires you to select the right people; it then requires you to choose the right strategy; it then requires you to negotiate with all kinds of low-level people in all kinds of different situations. That’s very much like being president of the United States. So Kennedy had that experience -- for more than a year in his case -- of conducting a national campaign, and Obama has demonstrated that experience in conducting his national campaign. He has a superb team which, to the best of my knowledge, has had no feuds, factions, splits of any kind, in contrast to his opponent. So there are different kinds of experience which produce judgment, and the single most important quality in the White House is the judgment the president must exercise in making the kinds of choices I just mentioned -- choosing a team, choosing a strategy, choosing a policy, choosing the timing for action.


JM: If he had been blessed with the years to look back on his experience, what do you think Kennedy might say the presidency taught him?


TS: Number one, it taught him not to try to solve what are essentially political problems with military solutions. He learned a lesson from the Bay of Pigs. Political solutions mean negotiations, which were absolutely essential in cooling down Berlin and in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Number two, I think he learned a lot about how to be the leader of a democracy. You don’t just give orders. You don’t say to the Secretary of This or the Secretary of That, "Go do this; I instruct that . . ." No, no, no. A good leader asks for recommendations. He wants to know what his options are. He wants to persuade members of his team, and the Congress, and the country, to go along. It’s not just sitting there and issuing orders.


Number three, he learned that the president needs to know a lot about his allies in the world. There are times when some allies -- we’re talking, in Kennedy’s day, about a de Gaulle or an Adenauer; I’m sure every president would have his own names for the list -- need a certain amount of careful cultivating, reassuring, praising, and buttering, and so on. Even though you might say, “Oh, well, they’re our allies; they’ll do whatever we tell them to do,” you find out that the world doesn’t work that way. Sometimes that’s true of your allies in Washington, too. [LAUGHS] That’s not bad. I should have had that in the book.


JM: In some of the episodes that you detail in Counselor, it is apparent that Kennedy was quite conscious of what we’ve come to call “globalization,” although I don’t believe the word was current in the early 1960s.  


TS: No, it was not. But that’s very true.


JM: I was struck by a remark he made in 1963. He was speaking in Great Falls, Montana . . .


TS: Yes -- I remember now. He was on the so-called "conservation tour," and it turned into a peace tour. I wasn’t on the tour, by the way. I was back in the White House, getting reports on it.


JM: In describing it in the book, you write that he extemporaneously strayed from the text to say, "[T]his generation of Americans has to make up its mind for security and for our peace, because what happens in Europe or Latin America or Africa or Asia directly affects the security of the people who live in this city." That strikes me as a remarkable statement to make in 1963.


TS: Especially in Great Falls, Montana. I don’t think I wrote that. I think that was heartfelt, spontaneous, reflecting his increasing determination to make peace the focus of his 1964 reelection.


JM: Remarks like that suggest that he was growing towards a foreign policy that would have been ahead of the globalization curve rather than being driven by it.


TS: That’s a very good way to put it. [LAUGHS] You should be a speechwriter.

But Kennedy also was a great believer in trade, as shown in the emphasis he placed on the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 or 1963, and the speech he delivered in New Orleans on that subject, and he would have been in the same trouble that proponents of trade in both parties are today. Except he had this extraordinary quality of explaining problems in perspective to the American voters, and getting them to realize why the national interest was served by certain new steps that had a little pain accompanying them.


JM: He also had a knack for explaining why the national interest was in fact their interest.


TS: Yes. Exactly.


JM: There’s a fascinating section of your book devoted to your post-Kennedy career -- about your travels around the world in your legal work and on other projects.


TS: I was very fortunate to have a very interesting life.


JM: At one point you share a list you drew up for the partners in your law practice, characterizing the world leaders you’d met and with whom you’d worked -- "most charismatic," "most corrupt," "most visionary," "most puzzling," and so on. I wonder if you would expand for a moment on two in particular. First, you describe Nelson Mandela as "most impressive."


TS: Two episodes in particular stand out. One was his press conference in my law firm’s offices, in which he answered a question -- about having to share the Liberty Bell prize with South African President de Klerk -- in a very, very statesmanlike answer. "Right now," Mandela said, "President de Klerk and I need each other, and we will continue to be bound together until we go our separate ways."


The second was the long talk that he and I had, coming back on the plane together from a meeting in the Caribbean, in which he was asking me questions, and telling me facts about his life, and reflecting on his imprisonment, and all the rest. I’ve met a lot of very impressive leaders in other countries, but I never met anyone as able in all the qualities of leadership that we’ve been talking about as Mandela.


JM: You describe Anwar Sadat of Egypt as the "most intriguing."


TS: He was a man of many parts. He always saw the big picture. He was a visionary. He was able to rise above the historical problems that confronted anybody living in that dangerous neighborhood with respect to the existence of Israel, which he recognized. But he also had many facets to his interests. I think I mention in the book, for example, he wanted me to explore the idea of a shrine on Mount Sinai to all three faiths -- the Christian, the Jewish, and the Muslim. He was a very multi-faceted individual.


JM: My last question. I hear you’re a big Mets fan.


TS: You’re right. This is the year.


JM: It occurs to me that both the Mets and the Democrats are in increasingly desperate need of a closer.


TS: [LAUGHS] I’m not worried. I have already said publicly that this is my big year. My book is coming out, and I hope it does well. I am turning 80 years old, and that’s going to be much noted. My team, the Mets, I believe will not only win their division, but the National League pennant and the World Series, too. And, my candidate, Obama, and my party, the Democrats, are going to be successful, first at the convention in August, and, ultimately, in the election in November. That will make it quite a year for me.


                                                                                                      — April 16, 2008

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).