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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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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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