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Foreword to Theodore C. Sorensen's "Decision-Making in the White House."

September 23, 1963

THE American Presidency is a formidable, exposed, and somewhat mysterious institution. It is formidable because it represents the point of ultimate decision in the American political system. It is exposed because decision cannot take place in a vacuum: the Presidency is the center of the play of pressure, interest, and idea in the Nation; and the presidential office is the vortex into which all the elements of national decision are irresistibly drawn. And it is mysterious because the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer--often, indeed, to the decider himself.

Yet, if the process of presidential decision is obscure, the necessity for it is all too plain. To govern, as wise men have said, is to choose. Lincoln observed that we cannot escape history. It is equally true that we cannot escape choice; and, for an American President, choice is charged with a peculiar and daunting responsibility for the safety and welfare of the Nation. A President must choose among men, among measures, among methods. His choice helps determine the issues of his Presidency, their priority in the national life, and the mode and success of their execution. The heart of the Presidency is therefore informed, prudent, and resolute choice--and the secret of the presidential enterprise is to be found in an examination of the way presidential choices are made.

Many things have been written about the conditions of presidential decision. The President, for example, is rightly described as a man of extraordinary powers. Yet it is also true that he must wield these powers under extraordinary limitations--and it is these limitations which so often give the problem of choice its complexity and even poignancy. Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt once remarked, "was a sad man because he couldn't get it all at once. And nobody can." Every President must endure a gap between what he would like and what is possible.

The loneliness of the President is another well-established truism of essays on the presidential process. It is only part of the story; for, during the rest of the time, no one in the country is more assailed by divergent advice and clamorous counsel. This advice and counsel, indeed, are essential to the process of decision; for they give the President not only needed information and ideas but a sense of the possibilities and the limitations of action. A wise President therefore gathers strength and insight from the Nation. Still, in the end, he is alone. There stands the decision--and there stands the President. "I have accustomed myself to receive with respect the opinions of others," said Andrew Jackson, "but always take the responsibility of deciding for myself."

The author of this book has been an astute and sensitive collaborator in the presidential enterprise. Few writers have isolated the elements in presidential decision with such perception and precision. There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process--mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved-but Mr. Sorensen, more than any recent American writer, has helped illuminate the scene with skill and judgment. He has been a participant, as well as an observer, of important decisions in difficult days. His careful observations have been made with skill and judgment and I am sure his work will become a permanent addition to the small shelf of indispensable books on the American Presidency.


Note: Mr. Sorensen's "Decision-Making in the White House: the Olive Branch or the Arrows" was published September 23, 1963, by the Columbia University Press. The President's foreword, reprinted by special permission, is dated The White House, June 1963.

John F. Kennedy, Foreword to Theodore C. Sorensen's "Decision-Making in the White House." Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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