JFK's Pulitzer Prize Winning Book Wasn't Written By JFK
In the US, Profiles In Courage sits high in the canon of sacred American texts. Politicians from both parties have embraced it to prove themselves worthy of voters' respect, citing it as an influential work. However, the real reason this book is so revered has nothing to do with the themes, prose, or academic merit of the actual work. Instead, the true value is as a lasting testament to the legacy of JFK as a martyr. By the time he died, his legacy was already set in concrete in the pantheon of heroes and leaders, usually regarded as one of the public's most adored public figures.
Profiles In Courage stands as exhibit A in how historians massage and manufacture cultural heroes. Big mistake. Before you history teachers get worked up, this article has nothing to do with the subject matter nor personalities discussed within Profiles In Courage but rather concerns Kennedy's role in its production or lack thereof. Why would we discuss the book? He didn't write it. Sorry, Pete Buttigieg, your childhood is ruined.
Kennedy's book was reportedly organized, researched, written, and edited by a ghostwriter. Not that you would know that by popular depictions of him or mainstream documentaries. We're not talking about the standard editing and proofreading either. According to most researchers, the 35th president had about as much input in the construction of his book as you did in the assemblage of your meatball sub at Subway.
If JFK was too lazy to write a book that is now mandatory reading in tons of American high schools, why in the unholy hell should kids bust their ass reading it to complete a book report? Few books send a worst message to children or grown adults. Profiles In Courage (1956) was the non-fiction work that demonstrated then-Senator John F. Kennedy's credibility and expertise in the field of political history, composed while he was still an unknown political commodity in the US Senate. According to the JFK Presidential Library, he wrote it while recovering from a chronic back injury suffered in his WWII days. JFK's biographical study detailed the lives and courageous choices of several pivotal politicians, and the book was rewarded with a Pulitzer.
If only it was that neat and simple. Near the end of his life, JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen revealed the truth, Profiles In Courage was not the sole work of one man, and very least JFK. Sorensen refused to take the credit he deserved for years, though he performed all the heavy lifting, content with a brief shoutout as Kennedy's "research assistant." But make no mistake who drafted and birthed this book into existence. Which makes the dedication to another man's wife all the more surreal. Perhaps Ted was trying to send his boss a subtle message about keeping his nose in his books and his ass out of possible scandals before he ran into the clichéd career-destroying affair.
Kennedy's contributions remain unknown, but it seems to have been limited to simply outlining the chapters and making helpful suggestions in the margins. While ghostwriting is an accepted aspect of the profession and most celebrity books are basically impossible without the aid of more experienced writers, it's necessary to point out Kennedy was a Harvard grad and already a best-selling, internationally-respected author before finishing college. If he'd fessed up, that'd be one thing, but the lie was covered up with the passion usually reserved for crashed UFOs.
When the going got tough, he paid a bunch of smarter people to do it for him because he had a filthy rich dad and was too busy trying to get famous. Joe Kennedy, JFK's dad, drafted the contract offering Sorensen royalties. From the very start, journalists smelled something fishy. When reporters tried to report on the true scale of Sorensen's role in the book, they were allegedly bullied into submission. For 50 years, it was an open secret among DC intelligentsia. Not that JFK didn't go out of his way to try and fool journalists and his closest friends and family into thinking he was the sole creator of his own speeches. Out of insecurity, he laboriously wrote out by hand Sorensen's notes word by word to con naïve onlookers. The sad thing is, it tricked almost everybody.
In other words, the rich jock made the nerd do his homework. Leaning on nepotism one more time, JFK called in some favors. Kennedy's brother-in-law was an editor at Harper & Brothers, the publisher that produced his supposed magnum opus. As you can see, this is probably the worst lesson imaginable for kids; every step of this book's production is more sordid than the next. His rapidly-expanding ego was responsible for one of the douchiest pick-up lines/humblebrags in history, with the Massachusetts senator uttering the line, "I would rather win a Pulitzer Prize than be president." This while actively in the process of paying a 24-year-old newbie staffer to write a book for him in order to enhance his political reputation to stage a presidential run.
We should at very least grant Sorensen some credit instead of focusing entirely on the guy who did jack squat, especially since Sorensen is (secretly) one the most important speechwriters in history. He showed humility in deferring credit, taking all the credit for grammatical errors, voluntarily destroying evidence corroborating his role in writing most of Kennedy's words, assisted and defended his best friend every step of the way, and refused to spoil the illusion for generations of Kennedy's idealistic admirers. We wouldn't be surprised if he ghostwrote JFK's family Christmas card to boot.
It also so happens Sorensen wrote the "ask what you can do for your country" line into JFK's inaugural speech, one of the most iconic moments in American history, and also was behind his "rising tide lifts all boats" quip. Sorensen was a deeply loyal, conflicted man, torn between telling the truth and honoring his oath to his dead friend. Ironically, he didn't have the name-power to attract many readers when he wrote his life story in 2008. When writing under his own name, no one gave a shit about him, and his memoirs sold substantially worse. Granted, it would have looked weird if Sorensen slapped JFK's name on the dust cover of his autobiography.
Top Image: National Archives and Records Administration