GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A top White House adviser said today that the president “would be outraged … at any thought of postponing” a presidential debate.
The president was John F. Kennedy. The adviser and speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, is taking part in a three-day symposium on JFK and his times at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where Kennedy spoke 45 years ago today — less than two months before he was assassinated in Dallas.
Sorenson, 80, the last living member of Kennedy’s inner circle, was sharply critical of Republican nominee John McCain’s suggestion yesterday that the nation’s financial crisis warranted postponement of the first debate between McCain and Barack Obama Friday in Mississippi.
Since Kennedy and Richard Nixon held the first televised debate in 1960, the quadrennial face-offs have been “an essential component of the election and helping people make their decisions,” he said. Canceling a series of debates would be “almost as bad as canceling an election.”
’13 most dangerous days’
Sorenson recalled an earlier traumatic time for the nation — the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union went to the brink of war — and the importance that Kennedy placed on maintaining routines.
The crisis has been called “the 13 most dangerous days in the history of mankind,” Sorenson said, and some of Kennedy’s advisers recommended at the outset that he cancel scheduled trips and appearances.
“On the contrary, he urged those of us advising him to keep to our schedules,” he said. “He didn’t want the people to panic. And the next day, he flew to Connecticut to make a campaign appearance” that had been arranged weeks earlier.
Sorenson, who called McCain’s proposal to postpone the first debate “a snap judgment,” can’t be called a disinterested observer. He has made stand-in campaign appearances for Obama in a half-dozen states, he said, and introduced him in several cities.
‘Torch has been passed’
Kennedy’s celebrated wordsmith said he has not written speeches for Obama, however.
“The torch has been passed to a new generation, to coin a phrase,” he said, smiling and borrowing a famous line from Kennedy’s inaugural address — which Sorenson helped compose.
He said that Obama “is more like JFK than any other candidate since 1960, with the exception of Robert Kennedy.”
JFK had to overcome suspicion because of his Catholic faith, and Obama faces “a demographic hurdle” because of his skin color, he said. Like Kennedy, who was an ambassador’s son, Obama “has lived abroad and gained perspective on this country’s place in the world,” and “Obama, like Kennedy, is a gifted speaker, relaxed at the podium.”