Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

RICHARD N. HAASS: If we could get started, please. (Striking glass.) Thank you, sir.

We're going to start a few minutes early given that we have so much ground to cover. Today's about Ted Sorensen, but before we turn to Mr. Sorensen I wanted to take an opportunity to do two things. One was to welcome those of you who haven't been here since the spring, to welcome you back, in particular, to any new members to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations; and also, just to give you some sense of what's going to be happening here in the next two weeks. This is high season at the Council, and just to give you an idea of who we're going to be hosting over the next two weeks, we have the President of Argentina, Mrs. Kirschner; we have the foreign minister of Turkey, Ali Babachan; the President of Ukraine, Mr. Yushchenko; we have the President of Colombia, Mr. Uribe; the governor of the Bank of England; Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; the deputy Prime Minister and foreign minister also of Vietnam; we have President Bachelet of Chile; President Sirleaf of Liberia; the foreign secretary of Great Britain, David Milliband; and we have the foreign minister of Iran, Mr. Mottaki.

That is now. I expect in the next couple of days we will probably add one or two names to that list. So, again, it will be an extraordinarily interesting and busy two weeks here at the Council, and we hope we see as many of you as can get to here as often as you can get to here during that time.

That will essentially kick off our fall. We will then have all sorts of events paralleling the campaign over the next seven weeks. And then, obviously, we'll have all sorts of events that will parallel the transition ultimately on into the early months of the 44th president.

That is our news. Let me then turn you over to the gentleman for whom this room is named and who has done so much for this institution previously as well as now, where he is chairman emeritus, Pete Peterson. (Applause.)

PETER PETERSON: Richard, I am very shocked but pleased that you've done so well without me. (Laughter.) It's just extraordinary really.

I approach this introduction of Ted Sorensen with profound anxiety. Many of you will recall his vicious roast of me. On that same subject, my wife is here for two reasons. First, her great admiration for Ted. Joan has high standards in every area, except of course, in the choice of husbands. She thinks Ted's new book, "Counselor," is truly a great book.

But Joan is also here to monitor me. This morning she said, under no circumstances can you repeat one more time all of those Sorensen roasts of you. She said I want to remind you this meeting's about him, not you. I will, however -- (laughter) -- refer to my last painful experience with Ted, who foolishly, I must admit, I decided to launch a first strike against him, which is roughly the equivalent of North Korea launching a first strike against the United States.

Predictably, I should have known, he launched a devastating second strike and my wounds still haven't healed. That was the occasion in which he said "Petersen is the ultimate self made man and, oh, how he worships his creator." (Laughter.) So today I'm not going to foolishly try to bury him, I'm here to praise him fulsomely. Ted is not only the most gifted roaster in the world, he is one of the most gifted writers and observers of the world. He is a devoted public citizen. He is a renaissance student of public affairs, both foreign and domestic. And Ted, I hope that these comments are fulsome enough for you to tame your animal instincts.

As a moderator, we're also privileged to have Jon Meacham, the young -- as you can see, very young -- editor of Newsweek and also a very talented writer not only of best sellers but winners of very prestigious book awards. His most recent books, "The American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of the Nation," and "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship."

Jon, it's a great privilege and pleasure to have you too. So please proceed. (Applause.)

JON MEACHAM: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It's a busy week. Shall we buy or sell? That was what we're actually all interested in. (Scattered laughter.)

Delighted to be here. Thank you Mr. Peterson. Thank you Mr. Haass. Some house keeping quickly. Please turn off, not just put on vibrate -- that's a sign of the Haass administration I guess -- your cell phones, Blackberries and all wireless devices. We are on the record, so be careful. And I am deeply honored to be here with Mr. Sorensen.

I was just about to tell him before we came out a true story, and like all great showmen and speechwriters, he said, "Save it for the room". (Laughter.) So I will tell you that when his book arrived -- this is the highest compliment I can pay any book -- when the book arrived in manuscript form, I thought, you know, all right, I'll do a flip here. And my wife was busy having our third child at the time, and I became increasingly engaged, page by page, and read it straight through, was utterly beguiled by the book which -- for those of you who haven't read it, I recommend -- I agree with Joan completely, it's a marvelous book. I will, however, always associate the stork floor of Sloan -- of Columbia Presbyterian now with Ted Sorensen. So it's a complicated image. (Laughter.)

I know you have some remarks about the former secretary of Commerce, so we will quickly get to those. (Laughter.) You'll go ahead?

TED SORENSEN: Well, I simply wanted to thank Pete for his gracious comments. I don't totally believe that it was a sense of decency that caused him to not lash out at me today. Instead, anyone whose resume features two institutions -- the Nixon administration and Lehman Brothers -- (laughter) --

PETERSON: -- ought to be careful! (Laughter.)

SORENSEN: But, in recent months Pete has been in the news, mostly for his new apartment, for which I congratulate him. But I -- speaking for myself, I respect him not so much for his better quarters, but for his better half. (Laughter, applause.)

MEACHAM: Let us begin with your own words --

SORENSEN: You just did. (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: There we are. (Laughter) We'll try to get through this in the first 100 days, if not in the life of this administration.

You quote Mrs. Kennedy in your book, saying that "Ted is like a little boy in so many ways. He hero worships Jack." Is that true?

SORENSEN: Yes. Was then and it is now, including the little boy part.

MEACHAM: Tell us why. MR SORENSEN: Because I grew up in a very special household with a wonderful father who was my first hero, and I describe him and all he did and stood for in life in the book, and I had the great good fortune to find in John Kennedy, whom I went to work for almost by accident -- that's a long story in the book -- and he had those same qualities of initiative, and compassion, and concern for the country.

And although he was not a lawyer like my father, he was a public servant like my father. And yes, I did worship John F. Kennedy as a hero. And I'm frankly aware that most people buy this book not for the first part about my growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, or even the last part about my practice of law here in New York, but for the middle part, my 11 years with -- with Kennedy. So he deserves to be a hero.

MEACHAM: What is your hero's -- what was your hero's greatest vice, and what is -- what was his greatest virtue?

SORENSEN: He's a hero -- I don't usually discuss my hero's vices -- (scattered laughter) -- but I have, for the first time in the book, a discussion of his personal life, and I acknowledge that he was not true to his marriage vows and I try to put it in context -- and I regret it. But I don't sit in moral judgment about it now, nor did I at the time.

In terms of virtue, he had many, many virtues, and I would say the first was his absolute dedication to the country and to its public (servers ?); after all, he was a rich man's son. He could have spent his life taking his ease on the beach, which he happened to enjoy. But no, instead, there he was at an early age -- I don't want to say breaking his back -- but certainly furthering the pain in his back by pursuing the presidency, which is, as Mr. Obama is now discovering, the most exhausting activity there is.

It's a big country, 50 states, and there were 50 about the time JFK started out. But he wanted to be president because he felt that as a United States Senator, there was little he could do, particularly in the area of world affairs, to change and improve this country's role and safeguard its population. He felt that -- I can certainly say here at the Council on Foreign Relations -- he felt that the massive retaliation doctrine under the Eisenhower-Dulles regime was a foolish, dangerous approach to foreign policy, and that was one of the many approaches that he wanted to change. So he was -- I would say his greatest virtue is -- that his test for every decision he made was what would best serve this nation's interests?

MR MEACHAM: Let's go back a bit and tell us, if you could -- or if you would, rather -- how did you meet Kennedy and just describe your evolution in his service.

SORENSEN: I met him soon after he had been elected to the Senate. He was in Washington looking for a staff. I was in Washington, and the second of my two early jobs in Washington had just ended -- it was a temporary congressional committee and temporary committees come to an end. And Eisenhower had just been elected president -- the first Republican president in 20 years. And Eisenhower had not unreasonably requested a freeze on executive branch employment, so I could not go back into the executive branch which I had always assumed I would.

And a wonderful Senator from Illinois, Paul Douglas, was the chairman of that temporary committee I had served, and he said don't worry, I'll arrange for you to meet some of the newly elected Senators. Some of them came from the House and they worked with me, I know them well.

I said, that would be great. And so letters were sent by Senator Douglas' chiefs of staff -- a very, very good man and friend named Bob Wallace -- to those three new Senators who came over from the House -- Scoop Jackson of Washington, Mike Mansfield of Montana and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Never heard back from Mansfield. Wallace -- sorry -- Jackson and Kennedy both offered me -- said they would meet with me. And I had very brief meetings with both, both offered me jobs. And then I had to make a choice all over again.

Wallace and my other senior mentor in Washington -- who some of you may have run across in Stanley Board (ph) -- both said go with Jackson, he's a progressive from the Northwest, he's got a great future. Kennedy's a dilettante, too close to his right wing father. But because I had been more favorably impressed with Kennedy in my very brief meeting with him -- it was in the doorway of his old House office, where a newcomer was coming in to take over the office as he was moving out -- it was chaos inside. So he just took a chair and sat -- two chairs and sat them in the doorway and that's where we had that five minute talk.

So, having been more impressed with him, I decided that I would -- being young and presumptuous -- I would go back and interview -- re-interview both of them. (Laughter.) And the rest is --

MR MEACHAM: And Kennedy did all right for you --

SORENSEN: -- in the book.

MEACHAM: -- he did all right?

SORENSEN: It lasted 11 years.

MEACHAM: This is the suck-up alert point, to use a technical Council on Foreign Relations term. (Scattered laughter.) Sir, you have written words that, as Winston Churchill once said in a very different context, will live as long as the English language is spoken in any corner of the globe. What did you read growing up? What was the mental furniture that you brought to the rhetorical tasks you undertook in the late '50s and early '60s? Something was kicking around in there.

SORENSEN: Jon, first of all, I read everything I could. When I was still very, very small, I would look into the set of encyclopedias that were on the bottom shelf of my parents' library -- it was not a real library, but shelves and shelves of books -- and read everything I could. And I read all the usual works of fictions for young people. But I also started, as I got older, reading more about public affairs.

I read -- I don't remember the exact age -- or much less the exact date -- but I read a -- I read -- I think it was by Shirley -- Roosevelt and Hopkins. I read some of the speeches of Winston Churchill, who was himself one of the great orators of the English language.

I read -- I have an article coming out in the next month or two of how I would stand in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln -- which is on the west side of the state capitol building -- famous, wonderful building in Lincoln, Nebraska -- and read the entire Gettysburg Address, which was inscribed on the granite wall behind that statue. And I read the many works of non-fiction about statesmen, about lawyers. I was on the debate team in both high school and college, as were my siblings, including my two older brothers before me, so I began researching public policy issues.

One of the debate questions as I recall, was about the business during World War II was just about to end, and whether there should be a new League of Nations. So all of that reading and learning something in debate class about how to organize a speech would pay off later on.

MR MEACHAM: So who wrote "Profiles in Courage?" (Laughter.) Sorry for the -- that was the suck-up part, now we're --

SORENSEN: (Laugh.) Ask not -- (laughter.)

MR MEACHAM: I'll bear any burden -- (laughter) -- to press on in the long twilight struggle to get you to answer.

SORENSEN: But if you read the book -- which you claimed you did when you blurbed it --

MR MEACHAM: Mm hmm. (Laughter.)

SORENSEN: -- you'll find a long chapter --

MR MEACHAM: I know --

SORENSEN: -- with that "Profiles in Courage" was written in the same process of collaboration that was responsible for his inaugural address and other speeches and writings.

MEACHAM: See, you didn't have to pay any price there. That was good.

Let me ask you this. You close a memo that you write to a generic presidential hopeful at the end of the book --

SORENSEN: Well, that's for anybody who's interested in running for president.

MEACHAM: Right. The last category is "selecting a vice president." (Laughter.) I just want to read a little bit of this and see if you think Senator McCain has read -- read the book. (Scattered laughter.)

"The criteria I would advise for selecting a vice president are: credentials to serve as president in the event of your death; 100 percent assurance of the prospect's loyalty to the presidential nominee both during the campaign and after; willingness to serve as attack dog or to deflect the oppositions' main line of attacks on you;" And then you close with "However you approach this topic your, choice will define your campaign. Good luck."

Would you evaluate Governor Palin and Senator Biden in line with --

SORENSEN: I would say that she meets all of those criteria except qualification to serve as president if the -- McCain, in view of his being the -- if he is elected, he will be the oldest president we've ever elected and he has a health record which in some ways resembles mine, and he ought to be more careful whom he selects.

MEACHAM: Senator Biden?

SORENSEN: That -- Senator Biden figures into another part of the book. And I would not have, for that reason, recommended him to Obama, but I would -- having -- I have prepared myself knowing this question would sooner or later come. (Laughter.) And I would say about Senator Biden's selection, number one, one of the lessons that I learned and practiced during the Kennedy years was loyalty. And I do not second guess the decision made by the man whom I favor for party leader and president -- who, after all, made the decision when he had in front of him all the possible names for vice president, all the polling data on all of them, probably a lot of vetting data as well. So I think it would not be, you know, helpful or wise for me to second guess. I would add to that, I am convinced that Senator Biden will be a lot better vice president than his predecessor. (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: Well, a kind of low bar there, sir. (Laughter.)

We've heard a lot about experience in the campaign. And without arguing Obama versus Kennedy in terms of years in office and that sort of thing, could you describe President Kennedy's -- growth, I think, would be a safe way of putting it, from the Bay of Pigs through the Cuban Missile Crisis?

SORENSEN: Clearly, John F. Kennedy -- and I might add as an aside, the same is true of his brothers Robert and Edward as well -- had a remarkable quality of continuing growth. I saw -- I did not know him when he was in the House, but all through his eight years as United States senator, he was growing every year -- expanding his horizons, his interests, his talents -- and that certainly continued in the presidency, as illustrated by the two incidents in Cuba you mentioned.

At the Bay of Pigs, he chose -- or at least, he permitted to go ahead -- the only option that he was given by the intelligence and military authorities -- supposed authorities, whom he inherited from his predecessor -- whereas with the Cuban Missile Crisis, he insisted that the EXCOMM, as our little group was called, provide him with every option and the pros and cons of the options. At the Bay of Pigs, he believed every premise on which the Bay of Pigs plan was sold to him by these holdovers, whereas in the Cuban Missile Crisis he was in his -- doing what he did best -- and one of the reasons why he had me around and had me in that meeting -- and that is asking questions, being a skeptical -- being a skeptic. In the Cuban missile crisis, it was all -- in the Bay of Pigs -- sorry -- it was all held so tightly, so secretly, whereas in the Cuban missile crisis, he actually engaged in communications, even a form of negotiation with the Soviets, with Khrushchev.

At the Bay of Pigs, the only tool in the presidential arsenal that he used was the military tool, the U.S. giving backing and training and arms and transportation for a Cuban exile army.

In the Cuban missile crisis, he had -- by that time he had discovered in many parts of the world that political solutions -- political problems do not lend themselves to military solutions. And so he opted against the so-called surgical airstrike and other military options, including invasion, in the Cuban missile crisis, and instead -- which is why we're all still here today -- opted instead for a more restrained, disciplined approach, which was the blockade, which we renamed the quarantine, combined with diplomacy.

MEACHAM: Sir, the persistent theme of the story of your public service in this book and elsewhere has been the -- do you need some water?

SORENSEN: No, no, but I -- the gentleman who brought him up here said he was putting my tea on the table.

MEACHAM: He did.

SORENSEN: I don't see it. Do you?

MEACHAM: (Inaudible.)

SORENSEN: Oh, right there.

MEACHAM: Can we get it to him?



MEACHAM: The persistent theme is what it's like to be in the arena, to have the forces of reality --

SORENSEN: Yeah. MEACHAM: -- what we say now -- reality-based circumstances, and yet maintain an adherence to principle; that -- in the maelstrom of a political environment, staying true to what got you there or what drove you to get there.

A lot of people in my business, in the press, and elsewhere spend a lot of time, I would say, spitballing or kicking officeholders in the shins about "Oh, if only you were as smart as we were, Mr. President, Senator, whatever, you would of course do things this way."

You wrote, actually, that you changed your perspective on people who were critics of the administration once you left the administration and became a critic and --

SORENSEN: Under the Johnson --

MEACHAM: Right, right. That your -- I think -- I think your line is you had disliked op-ed warriors until you became one, with a -- was a self-awareness.

SORENSEN: No, I discovered -- I became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations 41 years ago and discovered that every member of the Council on Foreign Relations, equipped with hindsight, is smarter than the president of the United States. (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: That may be the answer to my question. (Laughter.) Is there advice, is there admonition you would give to observers of the people who are actually making the decisions about forbearance?

SORENSEN: And I repeat -- I don't know whether I did in the book or not, but I think I may have in my first book -- a little ditty that President Kennedy liked. It was provided to him by a journalist a very, very long time ago about the bullfighter. "Bullfight critics, row on row, fill the enormous plaza full. But there's only one man in the know, and he's the one that fights the bull." (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: Right. Right. So we should be, as you also wrote -- you included some St. Paul, actually, in the inaugural address, "patient in tribulation." Is that --

SORENSEN: Is that an exact quotation? (Pause.) I wouldn't know.

MEACHAM: (Laughs.) No, it's a Trinitarian thing. You wouldn't. (Laughter.)

SORENSEN: (Laughs.) Touche.

MEACHAM: (Laughs.) I've always thought Unitarians, they just -- you cut out two-thirds of the fun. (Laughter.) You know, why -- if it's not a mystery, what good is it? (Laughter.)

Being patient in -- we talk a lot about leadership. You helped with one of the iconic texts on that. But we don't talk much about followership and what it means to be an equipped citizen who holds to principle, wants people to do better, wants those in authority to do better but also understands the reality of what it is to be behind the desk.

SORENSEN: I think one of Kennedy's great strengths was telling the citizens what they needed to do to do better. He tried to put controversial issues such as civil rights into a context, including the context of, in a democracy, every citizen's obligation to have respect for fellow citizens and try to help those who are least well off.

And yes, he was very candid about the matters he was discussing. His first speech to the country about the Cuban Missile Crisis -- contrast that with speeches to the country, if they're given at all, about other crises announced by presidents. And Kennedy was very forthcoming about exactly what it was we faced. I've even had people about your age, John -- men, usually -- I don't know if this is in the book or not, but they come up to me after I speak on the Cuban Missile Crisis and thank me for making President Kennedy's televised address to the nation the night of October 22, 1962, so scary they could convince their girlfriends it was their last minute on Earth. (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: That's as old as scripture and the Constitution, you're right.

SORENSEN: Now you're quoting from the civil rights speech.

MEACHAM: I know. Before we go to questions, I want to read a paragraph that I think goes to the Obama-McCain contest and get your thoughts on it.

You wrote, some say the age of giants is over, that the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and their peers are gone. It is true that Sarkozy is no de Gaulle. Mubarak is no Sadat. George W. Bush is no John F. Kennedy. But knowing something of what it takes to reach the top, particularly in a democracy, I do not underestimate any man or woman who leads a nation, large or small.

That seems to be in keeping with Senator Obama's call for a kind of post-partisanship. Do you agree with that?


MEACHAM: Do you think that --

SORENSEN: (Off mike.)

MEACHAM: (Laughs.) Even the George W. Bush is no John F. Kennedy part.

SORENSEN: (Laughs.) Certainly.

MEACHAM: We will go to --

SORENSEN: (Off mike.) We don't want to turn the council into a partisan forum. But I've now lived over 80 years, and this is the most reckless in international affairs, dangerous administration that has existed, during those 80 years.

MEACHAM: We are going to go to questions. And get ready for the Ask Not line again. It's a good one.

If you all would, the microphone will come to you. And if you all would, stand and announce yourself.

SORENSEN: You'll have to call on them, Jon.

MEACHAM: Yes, sir.

SORENSEN: I can't see hands being raised but I urge people not to worry about my lack of eyesight. I have more vision than the president of the United States. (Laughter, applause.)

MEACHAM: I'm glad we're not turning this into a partisan forum. (Laughter.) Question.

SORENSEN: And I think they're supposed to say who they are.

MEACHAM: They are. They are.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTIONER: (Name inaudible) -- from Thacher & Bartlett.

Since you mentioned the vision of the president of the United States, perhaps we can talk a little bit about the vision of your candidate, who failed to support surge, which by all accounts has worked out quite well, and who also at one point unconditionally supported talks with the regime in Iraq. He has backtracked a little bit from that since then.

Could you please tell us a little bit about how well he stacks up? On your list of criteria for vice president, obviously, you said earlier that Sarah Palin is unqualified with respect to experience. How qualified is Mr. Obama?

SORENSEN: Last I read, people were still being killed in Iraq. The government was still divided in Iraq. There was still no agreement among the various factions on equitable distribution of oil revenues in Iraq.

So, yes, the surge helped put more people in the neighborhoods where sectarian killing was going on, but it didn't end the sectarian killing. And the training of Iraqi police and armed forces to take the place of American troops is still, we are told, not complete despite the extra time? that they were given.

So I personally do not regard the surge as a success, and I think Mr. Obama was very -- showed very good judgment in predicting exactly what was likely to happen with a unilateral so-called preemptive invasion of Iraq, which offered no -- posed no threat to U.S. security. Sure, they got rid of an evil dictator, but there've been a lot of evil tyrants in many foreign countries in my lifetime, and none of them lasted all that many years, without a U.S. unilateral, preemptive invasion to get rid of them, because that invasion further endangered the United States, its position in the world. It convinced over 1 billion adherents to the Islamic faith that we are prejudiced against their religion, judging them by a double standard.

So I think that Mr. Obama has shown the kind of judgment that I would like to see.

And my worries about Governor Palin are not limited to her years in office. After all, John F. Kennedy did not have years of executive experience. But he demonstrated in running a nationwide campaign that he knew how to pick the right team, how to negotiate with local leaders, how to deal with all kinds of national and international issues. That's what a president does. And she has had no experience of that kind, to the best of my knowledge. Mr. Obama has acquitted himself, in my opinion, very well in those categories.

MEACHAM: Before we go over here, a quick follow-up on this, related. Your -- President Kennedy's -- that's Freudian -- President Kennedy's inaugural address is often cited as a kind of urtext of America's forward-leaning role in the world; pay any price, bear any burden. Is that taken out of context?

SORENSEN: First of all, sorry, in Nebraska we didn't use the word "urtext." I don't know. (Laughter).

MEACHAM: Didn't do that?

SORENSEN: I have no --

MEACHAM: I think you do it -- (inaudible). (Laughter.) He charged for it. (Laughter.) SORENSEN: In any event, yes, in a sense, those who say that it was a Cold War speech -- it was the height of the Cold War. But basically, those who say it was a Cold War speech, citing the one clause or two clauses that you mentioned, forget that toward the end of the speech, he offers an olive branch to the Soviet Union and says: "Together, let us explore the stars, let us push back the deserts," let us do this, let us do that, and let us combat the common enemies of mankind: poverty, misery, tyranny, interestingly enough, and war itself. So it was not a hard-line Cold War speech.


QUESTIONER: Thank you.

Mr. Sorensen, Henry Breed from the United Nations. Following on from what you've just said and the very clear characterization you've made of the current situation, I'd like to know what you think will be the single most important characteristic or perspective for whichever individual or administration follows the current one. Thank you.

SORENSEN: I'm sorry, again. For whichever one follows -- what I'm hoping will be the characteristics of whatever administration follows the current one?


SORENSEN: First, Henry, let me note that John F. Kennedy referred in his inaugural address to the United Nations as "our last best hope," and I don't know of any president who has mentioned the United Nations in his inaugural address since then.

I hope that the next administration, whoever it is, will best be remembered for restoring America's leadership in and respect from the world, its adherence to international law, its belief in international organizations, its use of international alliances and organizations, because it's a complicated world out there. And one of the reasons why this organization was founded was to make sure America did not forget the rest of the world, ignore the rest of the world, its stake in all of the world.

And the fact that we are no longer respected -- when John F. Kennedy was president, it wasn't simply our military might and our two oceans that protected us. What protected us most of all was the fact that we had the respect and the esteem, as did our president, from the rest of the world. No one hated us. No one feared us. As Kennedy said in his American University address, the world knows this country will never start a war. This generation of Americans has seen enough of war.

That's what the next president, whoever it is, must restore.

MEACHAM: Start here and I'll come back.

QUESTIONER: Bob Lifton, Ted. In the Cuban missile crisis, we were brought to the brink, but in the end, it was the mutual assured destruction concept that people think saved us from the destruction.

Now we're facing crises in Iran and Pakistan, where nuclear weapons are available, where the question is raised whether the mutual assured destruction concept will apply. If you were advising the next administration on those subjects, what would you suggest?

SORENSEN: As always, Bob, you come up with a very tough, complicated question.

I do not want to return to the days when two superpowers each have these enormously dangerous -- and, I might add, expensive -- stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Yes, there's a certain balance of horror or balance of terror.

You may recall that "mutually assured destruction" was even called by its acronym, MAD. That's what it was -- MAD. It was MAD that we came as close as we came in the Cuban missile crisis to the destruction of the planet, because had we done what the military urged Kennedy to do, which was to bomb and invade Cuba, we knew -- we found out later on that Soviet troops on Cuba had been equipped with tactical nuclear weapons and the authority to use them on their own initiative in the event of an American attack.

And had they attacked us with nuclear weapons, then, under those MAD days' rules of engagement, we would have responded with nuclear weapons -- might have been all tactical weapons to start, but once both sides are on that escalator, how long will they stay on the bottom rung? They will go up that ladder to strategic weapons and then more strategic weapons, until both the Soviet Union and the United States are obliterated, and then radioactive fallout, carried by wind and water to the far reaches of the Earth, and in time there's nothing left but what the scientists call a nuclear desert.

So I don't want to go back to those days.

Iran, to the best of the intelligence available, as I understand it, is not now even within a year or two of nuclear weapon capability that would pose any threat. However crazy their prime minister may seem to some, there are enough sensible people in Iran who do not like him or agree with him and who know that it would be folly for Iran to initiate a nuclear exchange that they could not possibly win.

The United States has leaders now who say communicating with, much less negotiating with, those who dislike us is appeasement. That's not what Prime Minister Rabin, whom you knew well, said about -- he said, "Of course I'll negotiate with my enemies. Who else would I negotiate with?"

No -- you know, there's a lot to talk about with Iran. I'm not the best officer there. I don't claim to be a first-hand expert. But I do know and there are members of this organization who know that the Iranians, not only would a discussion put nuclear proliferation on the table, because Iran surely doesn't want to see nuclear weapons springing up all around them, but Iran also could use American investment. Iran could use American markets. It could use American tourism.

There are all kinds of things that the United States and Iran could talk about if they -- if some sensible people on both sides sat down. I don't know if your question -- I don't remember your question well enough to know if you mentioned Iraq.

Oh, Pakistan, our supposed dearest ally? (Laughter.) I think -- I think it's not surprising that the military says let's have these incursions into the -- over the Afghanistan border with Pakistan. Back in Nebraska, we just call that an invasion. And to invade a sovereign country's territory, when that country has nuclear weapons and when the United States itself set the example of preemptive action, who knows what Pakistan might do, particularly if a more extremist group should gain the power and gain control of those weapons in the turbulent political scene that is Pakistan today?

MEACHAM: (Inaudible) -- here. Thank you.

QUESTIONER: (Name inaudible) -- glad to see you. To follow up on Bob's question about Pakistan, Senator Obama has made some rather belligerent remarks about -- he wants to hold them accountable to all the money we've sent them and what they've done. And he's been very careful, however, on the Georgia situation, when Senator McCain says we are all Georgians. Can you comment on that?

SORENSEN: No, I think if Senator Obama thinks there's some difference in the threat posed by Pakistan with its nuclear weapons and Georgia with its belligerent president, I agree with him. There is a substantial difference and they ought to be approached in very different ways.

I can't believe McCain meant it other than a political context when he said we are all Georgians. We're not Georgians.

The president of Georgia cites historic reasons why two provinces whose names I've already forgotten because almost nobody in the room ever knew them or memorized them -- he thinks those two provinces should continue to be part of Georgia and should not be allowed to have any kind of autonomy, gradual independence or anything of the sort, which Russia has been encouraging. And so he took some -- the president of Georgia took some provocative actions along those lines.

To paraphrase Hamlet, "what is Georgia to us and us to Georgia?" (Laughter.) I can't see going to say we're all Georgians, and sending them not only money, but arms, and next thing we know we'll be sending them American troops right there in the back yard of a still very potentially dangerous country, Russia.

So I think Obama is being prudent and cautious, just as John F. Kennedy was prudent and cautious, which is why we're still here today.


QUESTIONER: John Brademas, New York University, Third Congressional District of Indiana. (Laughter.)

Ted, I'm going -- it was a splendid talk. I much appreciated it. Next week, I'm going to be chairing a symposium at which the principal speaker will be Ahmadinejad, if I pronounce his name correctly. What question would you suggest that I put to the president of Iran?

SORENSEN: I suggest you ask him whether it isn't possible to -- and in the interests of everybody, including Iran, to reach a peaceful accommodation in which Iran's ambitions for civilian nuclear power to provide energy to their growing industry is permitted under the eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency of the U.N., and at the same time, the U.S. and other Western nations sit down and talk with Iran about how that civilian nuclear use can go forward, and some of the economic goals that I mentioned earlier for Iran can be facilitated through cooperation as well. See if he's interested in that. If he's interested only in nuclear weapons, then you've wasted your time. But it might be important to at least get that out in the open.


QUESTIONER: Ted, Cathy Gaye (sp).

With regard to respect -- getting respect back for the United States, I think that if McCain wins I'm totally pessimistic, but I'm not even really optimistic if Obama wins.

And I'd love to know about your sense of optimism in that regard. I'd also love to know how you feel in the same context about the United States vis-a-vis China and where you see that going in the next five years.

SORENSEN: Well, I'd prefer making predictions on what's going to happen 50 years from now. (Laughter.)

But no, I think that -- I am optimistic that Obama is the one person running for president this year in either party who can regain that respect. It's going to take a long time. It will take more that one term. It's fortunate that he's young.

But the damage that has been done to the image of the United States around the world is far deeper than most of us realize, including those of us who, such as my friend up here, who travels around the world and hears these statements that are being made by people who now regard America as one of the leading terrorist countries in the world. People who now regard America as a threat to their security and safety. People who regard American history, so to speak -- because eight years is a long time -- in much the same way that after World War II people regarded German history. Germany has done a good job of regaining respect. It took a long time. It's going to take us a very long time.

My hope is that if Obama is inaugurated next January, that no later than a year from now he will go to the United Nations General Assembly and make a very frank, comprehensive speech on the changes that he intends to make in American foreign policy to assure the world that this terrible chapter is over, that America is going back to its role as a leader in international law. It's going back to its role as a country that cares in a compassionate way about the fate of other countries, that it has no wish to see either members of the Islamic faith suffering indignity, humiliation that breeds resentment and hatred or to have any other country feel that that is its lot in the world.

Under Kennedy, even though it was a difficult time, the United States had a higher per capita contribution to humanitarian assistance and development assistance than most any other country, and higher than we've had at any time since. It's not politically popular, but it happens to be in our long-range and best interests. Prior to that, it comes from the government, but much of it comes from nongovernmental organizations that are suffused with generosity, in the best American tradition.

We still now have the Peace Corps, one of Kennedy's greatest achievements and, which my wife Gillian is here. Our daughter served in the Peace Corps. And that still, when she left the little village that she served, on the edge of the Sahara Desert -- it was a 100 percent Muslim population -- nobody was spewing any hatred or resentment of America. On the contrary, they were crying tears that she was leaving.

She was the only face of America they had seen other than weapons and perhaps some mercenary business types and others. So that kind of idealism, which the Peace Corps represented then and still represents today, is what I believe that Obama, who is himself an idealist, will get, will put back in our image around the world.


SORENSEN: Oh, on China, of course, China interestingly enough was the one issue that Kennedy said, to me, he would tackle in his second term, when he felt he had a little more margin of support, in the country and in the Congress.

Since then, boy, China has come a long, long way. It's opened up its economy as well as growing it to a point that it owns a large part of our debt. We keep borrowing money from China to pay to the Arab countries for their oil, which is a strange system. But China has not threatened any of its neighbors in a very long time, unless you call Taiwan it's neighbor. And Taiwan is, I think, learning to soft-peddle its ambitions for independence.

So then I see no reason why we can't stop sending, believe it or not, we've over the past several years, we've provided some arms to China which, I think, is a mistake, just as it was a mistake a generation ago to provide so many arms, to various groups in Afghanistan, which have been used against us since.

So I think that under Obama, China and the United States, without seeing eye to eye philosophically, politically or even world view, I think, there is a very good prospect that they will be partners in a different kind of world.

MEACHAM: Ma'am, if you have a very quick one, this is a lightning-round question.

QUESTIONER: Ann Tatlog (ph).

I'm interested in your advice that you would give the Obama campaign as to best counter the untruthful media and television ads of the Republicans.

MEACHAM: Another bipartisan question.

SORENSON: Well, again, let me go back, first of all, to John F. -- I'm losing my voice -- to John F. Kennedy. My favorite Kennedy line during the campaign, which I think I told him (in the book ?), was something like, "Mr. Nixon in the last 10 days has called me a spendthrift, a radical, a pied piper, this, this, this, and all I've done in return is call him a real Republican, which he says is getting really low." (Laughter.)

So I would suggest to Obama -- in fact, I indirectly have -- that a little humor in response to these ugly attacks, which are clearly untrue, believe it or not, there are still people in this country who do not know or who refuse to know his biography. They still think he's a Muslim. They still think he's not a patriot. They think he was born abroad. So you would think that by now his -- his biography is very well known, but I can tell you from 1960 it's a huge, diverse country, and it is very difficult to become well known and get all the facts out. So I think a little humor on Obama's part to turn away the ugly attacks, and more biography and demonstrable evidence of who he really is and what he's like, would help.

But Adlai Stevenson, if I may quote someone from even further back, made a point that Mr. McCain and Governor Palin will come to discover: in politics, when you throw dirt, you lose ground. (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: The book is "A Life at the Edge of History."

SORENSON: That's not the title, that's the subtitle.

MEACHAM: I understand that, sir. Thank you. (Laughter.) Appreciate that.

I was going to say something nice, but now no. (Laughter.) SORENSON: (Laughs.)

MEACHAM: It's really "In the Center of History," but no, to hell with it. "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History." It's really a remarkable book from a remarkable man. Thank you.

SORENSON: Thank you. (Applause.)








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