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Ghost’s Story

.  .  .  And the Pulitzer Prize for biography goes to Theodore Sorensen!

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By MICHAEL J. BIRKNER
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Did John F. Kennedy really write Profiles in Courage? It’s a question that has been on the table ever since Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, and with the death of Theodore Sorensen—Kennedy’s able speechwriter—the issue of authorship has again surfaced. It’s an appropriate time to add new elements to an old story.

Ghost’s Story

John F. Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen, 1960

Paul Schutzer / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

For years, Sorensen stoutly denied he’d composed Profiles in Courage, a study of eight senators who defied public opinion by taking unpopular stands on controversial issues, ranging from crusading against slavery to the Senate vote on removing a president to opposing the Nuremburg trials. Several scholars, including the Kennedy biographer Herbert Parmet, have offered compelling evidence that the book was actually composed by a committee, with Kennedy at most dictating certain paragraphs and editing copy to suit his sensibility. But with Sorensen consistently coy about his role, Parmet’s digging seems to have had little influence on the basic question. Nor did Sorensen’s 2008 autobiography, conceding he “helped choose the words” of many sentences, do much to change the storyline.

Before his death, Sorensen admitted more of the truth: He was, indeed, the main author of Profiles. In an interview conducted by a New York Times writer for use in his obituary, Sorensen confessed that he had drafted “most of the chapters” (as the obituary writer put it) or, as Sorensen said, “played an important role” and gotten handsomely recompensed for doing so. “So what?” historian Richard Bernstein suggested shortly after Sorensen died, and scholars began debating the issue on the Internet. The model of authorship, says Bernstein, was not the standard scholar’s way of writing a book; but Kennedy was involved throughout, much as judges supervise their clerks in writing legal opinions, and politicians hire ghostwriters to produce their memoirs and write books under their name.

The proper response to this cavalier defense of John F. Kennedy is to recapitulate what Kennedy actually did—and to ask whether the Pulitzer Prize has ever been awarded to any other author who had as little to do with the substantive production of a book as Kennedy did. It is also worth noting that the winner of a prestigious prize should not be judged by the same standards as a soon-to-be-discarded book on public affairs might be.

It is difficult to say precisely how Profiles was composed, but we have enough documentary evidence to suggest the following. First, Kennedy hatched the idea and shared it with at least two writers, his young aide Sorensen and Jules Davids, a diplomatic historian at Georgetown whose teaching had impressed Kennedy’s new wife, Jacqueline. Both were given the assignment of writing portions of the book, and each was paid for the assignment. Sorensen, by the evidence I have seen, wrote more of the book and was recompensed far more handsomely than Davids. 

According to Parmet, Kennedy tried writing the chapter on John Quincy Adams but quickly bogged down in minutiae, read the drafts produced by his ghosts, marked them up, and then sent them out to other historians—notably two of the most influential scholars of the day, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. at Harvard and Allan Nevins at Columbia. Nevins appears to have received the document in a late form, after a number of Sorensen rewrites and Kennedy edits. Based on my own research in the Nevins papers at Columbia, he was asked by Kennedy to read nine of the book’s 11 chapters and make pertinent comments, including “frank criticism, comment and suggestions” on substance and style. (Kennedy subsequently forwarded the first and final chapters of the book for Nevins’s review.) Impressed that a busy senator should be able to produce such work, Nevins was effusive with his praise while working to correct errors of context and fact, and smooth the prose out yet further. His work on the manuscript was acknowledged by Kennedy in Profiles in Courage, who subsequently rewarded Nevins with White House honors and minor diplomatic assignments. It is possible that Arthur Schlesinger and two other leading scholars (Walter Johnson at the University of Chicago and Arthur
Holcombe at Harvard) performed a similar service, since they are also named in Kennedy’s acknowledgments. 

Based on his research at the
Kennedy presidential library, Robert Dallek argues that Kennedy dictated “final chapter drafts” based on the materials he had accumulated from his ghostwriters and the historians who had reviewed and edited what they assumed were drafts that Kennedy himself had composed. Exactly how much Kennedy contributed to drafts others composed and edited is not known. 

In 1956 Profiles in Courage was published to considerable popular and critical success. It was serialized in the New York Times Magazine, praised in reviews across the country, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, ultimately winning despite being neither the Pulitzer jury’s first or second choice. (It had recommended Alpheus T. Mason’s biography of Harlan Fiske Stone for the biography prize.) Had the Pulitzer board known or even suspected that Kennedy was, at best, a collaborator in the writing of
Profiles in Courage, it is impossible to imagine his winning; but those were less cynical times. The fact that Kennedy possessed a Harvard degree, had published a previous book (Why England Slept) about events leading to World War II, and that he seemed thoughtfully conversant with historical issues, gave credibility to the authorship he claimed.

Surely, it does no credit to Kennedy that, in the subsequent controversy over authorship, he consistently lied about his role in producing Profiles, and about Sorensen’s responsibility for it. Moreover, Kennedy, assisted by Clark Clifford, got Sorensen to issue a false affidavit denying columnist Drew Pearson’s assertion on an ABC television program that Sorensen was the main author of Profiles in Courage.

Because of his early, tragic death, combined with his undoubted charisma and accomplishments in office, John F. Kennedy today is something of a secular saint in American politics. He is consistently ranked very high among presidents in public (as opposed to scholarly) polls, and his soaring rhetoric moved a generation. But none of Kennedy’s wit, political sagacity, or glamour should obscure a basic fact that Theodore Sorensen’s death has now confirmed: Kennedy did not write Profiles in
. He simply took credit for it.


Michael J. Birkner is professor of history at Gettysburg College.



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