Book review of “Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History” by Jeff Nussbaum

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There’s an old joke in which a political speechwriter dies and goes before Saint Peter, who gives him a choice between heaven and hell. Keeping an open mind, the speechwriter asks to see both. Saint Peter takes him to hell first, showing him a room packed with exhausted-looking speechwriters, all typing away madly, racing to hit their deadlines. “That’s my worst nightmare!” says the speechwriter. “Please show me heaven.” So, Saint Peter takes him there and shows him another room, also full of frantically typing speechwriters. “But this is the same as hell!” the writer protests. “Not at all,” Saint Peter answers. “Up here, we use their stuff.”

That neatly sums up the strange world of professional speechwriting, a land of ghost drafts, scraps, rewrites, recycles, deep-dive research, retractions, excisions, cross-outs and hurry-ups. While there have been many books written about the art — Peggy Noonan’s “The Time of Our Lives: Collected Writings” (2015) and Ted Sorensen’s “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History” (2008) jump to mind — Jeff Nussbaum’s delightful “Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History” stands alone in celebrating orphaned speeches that never made it to the podium, yet retain historical resonance.

Nussbaum is a veteran of the profession, possessing a witty, Art Buchwald-esque writing style. He superb produced work for Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, co-wrote “Had Enough?: A Handbook for Fighting Back” (with James Carville) and “Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror” (with Bob Graham), and is a partner in the speechwriting and strategy firm West Wing Writers. Boldly, Nussbaum claims that speechwriting’s dirty secret is that most of what political, business and cultural leaders say is pablum. For every JFK “Ask not what your country can do for you” prayer there are a dozen Gerald Ford clunkers and another dozen that never get delivered at all — and it’s the cream of those latter that “Undelivered” takes as its subject matter, giving Nussbaum fertile ground for rethinking how significant prayer is made. Sometimes a speech will go undelivered because of something as simple as a snowstorm or a scheduling change, he says, but at other times “History — with a capital H —interventions, when leaders are forced to choose, and the words they didn’t use tell us as much as the ones they did.”

Scavenging among the documents of unrealized futures, Nussbaum resurrects speeches such as Condoleezza Rice’s undelivered doctrine from Sept. 11, 2001, and Hillary Clinton’s aborted presidential victory speech of Nov. 5, 2016. Both lead Nussbaum, a Democratic strategist, to ponder how the 21st century would have been different had terrorists not brought down the World Trade Center towers or the electoral college delivered the presidency to Donald Trump — or, for that matter, had his old boss Al Gore has been declared the 2000 presidential winner over George W. Bush and made climate change America’s top public policy issue.

Older speeches lay clear the perils of historic pivot-points. Dwight Eisenhower’s apology for the failure of the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, for example, is a seminal part of World War II history, standing out as the most riveting example that history isn’t preordained and leaders don’t have the luxury of hindsight. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” Eisenhower would have said had the Allied invasion turned into a Dunkirk-like boondoggle. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

As Nussbaum points out, Eisenhower’s undelivered message has led great military historians like Stephen E. Ambrose and Dennis Showalter to ponder how an Allied loss at Normandy would have changed history for the worse. Fortunately, Eisenhower never had to deliver the speech. In Nussbaum’s able hands, Ike’s filed-away draft serves as an object lesson in the language of leadership and responsibility.

Another of the book’s strong suits is its resurfacing of potentially incendiary speeches that were never set ablaze. I was particularly taken by the speech that anarchist Emma Goldman would have delivered at her sentencing for inciting a riot in 1893, had she decided to rile up her supporters. Nussbaum also includes a powerful speech Helen Keller planned to deliver at a suffrage parade in 1913, had she not become concerned for her personal safety.

Conversely, I’m baffled why Nussbaum included Mayor Abe Beame’s draft 1975 speech announcing that New York was teetering on bankruptcy — which is unreservedly dull. Sometimes, too, the book lurches into the quicksand of what former Atlantic Monthly managing editor Cullen Murphy once called “provisional history,” or seems to weave from port to port with no ultimate destination in mind. To some degree that’s to be expected, a lack of through-line being almost inevitable in a compendium of speeches that, for various reasons, went unspoken. But I did sometimes have the feeling of sifting through a Christie’s or Sotheby’s catalogue: its listings factually accurate, well curated, and interesting in and of themselves, but telling no overarching story.

Some chapters, however, hold up in dramatic ways, and the closing one is particularly strong, with Nussbaum reflecting on how great figures’ last words can live in immortality. Scholars debate, for instance, whether Thomas Jefferson’s final words were “No doctor, nothing more” or “Is it the Fourth yet?” — the latter the far more glorious option because, as Nussbaum puts it, “we want last words to be meaningful, lasting, and profound.” For prescient but undelivered last words by an American president, the award must go to John F. Kennedy, whose speech at the Dallas Trade Mart on the night of his assassination would have addressed “misinformation” that could undermine America’s standing in the world. “We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people,’” the speech reads. “But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”

As Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote in his classic “Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History” (1992), a speech on a page is like a movie’s screenplay: of limited appeal when read as literature. “What makes a draft speech a real speech is the speaking of it,” he noted. That the speeches in “Undelivered” were never orated does take some of the helium out of their balloons, but in Nussbaum’s able hands, this cruise through what-might-have-been offers a hell of a fun ride.

Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown chair in humanities and professor of history at Rice University and the author of “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.”

The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History

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