John Ashcroft, Meet Ted Sorensen

Amid the discussion of whether John Ashcroft should be denied, on purely ideological grounds, the post of attorney general, Chatterbox is surprised that Theodore Sorensen’s name has scarcely been mentioned. Sorensen is best known as John F. Kennedy’s White House aide and biographer, but he was also Jimmy Carter’s choice to succeed George Bush as director of the Central Intelligence Agency back in 1977. The nomination stirred considerable ideological controversy within the Senate–basically, Sorensen was perceived to be too liberal for the job–and, a few days before Carter’s inauguration, Sorensen withdrew his name.

The Sorensen case is more instructive than some of the other precedents for Senate rejection of presidential Cabinet and sub-Cabinet nominees because it occurred in the prelapsarian era before Robert Bork. It’s often said that partisan conflict wasn’t a routine factor in Senate confirmations until liberals successfully sank Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987. (To read Bork’s own version of this spiel, click here.) That may be true, but Sorensen’s case is a reminder that even in the pre-Bork era, the Senate was hardly reluctant to risk souring a presidential honeymoon by rejecting a Cabinet nominee if it disagreed strongly with that nominee’s beliefs.

If John Ashcroft’s chief liability is his religious fundamentalism, Sorensen’s was a much more vestigial pacifism. Here is how Sorensen explained it in a 1996 C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb:

[W]hen I had registered for the draft at a time [1946] when there was no war, I had reflected my mother’s pacifist outlook, not by saying I was a conscientious objector to military service, but by registering for non-combatant military service. Well, the fact that I wasn’t willing to kill people, they thought, was a disqualification for being head of CIA. And there were a number of other similarly strong objections which boiled down to the fact that they thought if I became CIA director, I might make some changes. They’re right. I would have.

“There’s a three-word answer to the charge that [Sorensen] was a security risk,” Hendrik Hertzberg, who served as Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, pointed out to Chatterbox: “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Sorensen was among the Kennedy aides who seriously considered bombing Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Hertzberg also noted that Max Kampelman, Ronald Reagan’s chief arms negotiator, had been a conscientious objector during World War II. Still, as Sorensen himself pointed out, Sorensen was no hawk.

Another parallel with Ashcroft is that vague and unconvincing aspersions were cast on his character. (Although Chatterbox has pointed out that Ashcroft’s no saint, neither is he an especially notable sinner.) In Ashcroft’s case, the shaky allegation is that he’s a racist. In Sorensen’s case, the shaky allegation was that it was unethical for him to have carted off a few classified documents when he left the Johnson administration to write Kennedy. Far from keeping this a secret (as Linda Chavez did her illegal-alien “house guest”), Sorensen had disclosed his actions in an affidavit he gave in the Pentagon Papers case arguing that the government had a tendency to overuse its prerogative to classify documents, often doing so when there was no actual threat to national security. (Sorensen was also chided for taking an $87,000 tax deduction when he donated these and various other unclassified documents he’d taken with him from the White House, a practice that was quite legal at the time.) Writing in the Wall Street Journal in January 1977, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented,

As one who had the same unspeakable traffic with classified documents in my own memoir of the Kennedy administration, I must declare an interest. … The fact is that Mr. Sorensen used his classified documents with the utmost circumspection. No one has ever charged a breach of security against his excellent Kennedy (or against [Schlesinger’s own] A Thousand Days, for that matter). All the episode shows is that Mr. Sorensen has the capacity to distinguish between secrets that ought to be kept and information that ought to be disclosed. This is exactly what one would want, I would think, as head of CIA. … If only Mr. Sorensen, instead of writing an invaluable work in contemporary American history, had spent his time planning napalm attacks against Vietnamese peasants, the senators would doubtless have confirmed him by acclamation.

It’s true that the Senate didn’t formally vote Sorensen down, as they may do with Ashcroft. But Sorensen’s withdrawal came after Robert Byrd, the Democratic Senate majority leader, pronounced that Sorensen faced “considerable difficulty” winning confirmation. Among those complaining of Sorensen’s “soft attitude toward Russia” was Sen. Bob Dole, who publicly urged Sorensen to withdraw and “save Carter and his new administration embarrassment.” The CIA was also suspected of lobbying against Sorensen, though Schlesinger claimed in his Journal op-ed that the fiercest opposition came from the Pentagon, which feared that a Sorensen-led CIA would lower estimates of Soviet strength and threaten defense budgets. Whatever its source, the pressure proved too great to resist, and Sorensen pulled out while delivering the opening statement at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Chatterbox thinks Sorensen might well have made an excellent CIA chief. Does that mean the Senate lacked the moral right to rule him out on ideological grounds? Of course not. As the Boston Globe columnist and amateur historian Jeff Jacoby observed in 1995 (in the course of urging Senate rejection of Dr. Henry Foster Jr., the Clinton nominee for surgeon general), “Try telling John Tower or Theodore Sorensen that the only proper yardstick by which to measure presidential nominees is whether they ever ran afoul of the law.” In that column, Jacoby drew a shaky parallel between Tower’s heavy drinking and what he erroneously identified as Sorensen’s “claiming conscientious-objector status.” A better parallel would be between Sorensen’s skepticism about covert action and Ashcroft’s skepticism about the separation between church and state, the acceptability of legalized abortion and certain forms of contraception, and the desirability of providing drug treatment to addicts instead of throwing them in jail.