Jeff Nussbaum returning to St. Louis with facinating new book on historical undelivered speeches

In “Undelivered,” the former Biden speechwriter builds an alternate history through the speeches leaders never had to make.

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Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

The great speeches of history have lifted our hearts during dark times, given us hope in times of despair, provided courage when we felt fear and helped define the course of human history. But, what about the great speeches that were never delivered? Many do exist and are the premise of a new book by author and political speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum.

In “Undelivered” Nussbaum presents the most notable speeches the public never heard, from Dwight Eisenhower’s apology for a D-Day failure to Richard Nixon’s refusal to resign the presidency, and even Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of a 2016 victory—the latter never seen until now.

Jeff Nussbaum and “Undelivered”

Jeff Nussbaum did not grow up in St. Louis, but his family is well-rooted here. His father Sam Nussbaum came to St. Louis in 1996 to become executive vice president of Medical Affairs and System Integration of BJC Health Care. Sam Nussbaum fell in love with the city of St. Louis and was deeply involved in the Clayton and Washington University communities.

“Initially when my parents moved to St. Louis, I was in college. But they basically recreated my childhood bedroom in St. Louis,” said Nussbaum. “I’ve visited a lot, and come in for sports events, and my children get excited about the City Museum. It feels like home.”

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The idea for the book came on election night 2000. Jeff Nussbaum was a young speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore’s campaign.  That night, Gore had prepared remarks for three different election night outcomes—a victory, a loss and an Electoral College (but not a popular vote) win. Gore ultimately didn’t speak that night. Instead, the campaign chairman announced at 4 a.m. that the race would continue until the results in Florida were official.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about how the world would look if Gore had won the election?” said Nussbaum. “Would 9/11 still have happened? Would we be further along in the climate change fight? This sent me on a quest to find other moments in history where the outcome was so in doubt, that a speech was prepared for the road not traveled.  And not just in politics, but in other events in world history.”

Jeff Nussbaum would continue to work in Democratic politics. In 2008, he was overseeing the speechwriting operation of the Democratic National Convention when he was asked to help prepare speeches for, and travel with, whomever was picked as the vice-presidential nominee. This was when he first met Joe Biden.

“When I first met then-Senator Biden, he crossed himself and said, ‘I’ve been in the Senate longer than you’ve been alive!’ And so rather than writing for him, initially, he had me work on the speech his late son Beau gave introducing him,” recalled Nussbaum.  “But he watched us work together.  And when that speech became a powerful moment at the convention, Senator Biden began to be willing to work with me.”

The art of speechwriting

This month, and prior to the release of “Undelivered,” Nussbaum ended a one-year run as a speechwriter for President Biden.

“Speechwriting is an art for the ear, not the eye, which is why so many people from so many backgrounds find their way into it. Peggy Noonan, who wrote for President Reagan, was a radio writer,” said Nussbaum. “I’ve worked with people from the music business, and pollsters, but what they all share is a curiosity about ideas and how to connect them to the issues we’re wrestling with and the circumstances we’re living in. And, they all have a true love of language.”

“Undelivered”

In each of the book’s six sections, Nussbaum re-creates a chapter in history – sometimes less well-known, sometimes forgotten. He shares the key players, the central drama and then, ultimately, the undelivered speech.  Each chapter also includes a digression where Nussbaum pulls back the curtain on the speechwriting process, looking at how they might have been written, and what techniques are being demonstrated.

The speeches

The six parts of the book are also broken into categories of why each of the speeches was not delivered. In Part 1, “Words That Are Too Hot,” Nussbaum details the story of remarks prepared by civil rights leader and future Congressman John Lewis. On the day of the march on Washington in 1963, Lewis changed his speech after complaints from the Kennedy Administration.

The organizers of the march knew that President John F. Kennedy wanted the Catholic Church’s blessing on the gathering, but Lewis had a line in his comments where he questioned patience. Patience is a virtue, and if the church pulled its support, Kennedy was likely to do the same.

“A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize the march told Lewis, ‘I’ve waited 22 years for this. Please don’t ruin it,’ and so in the end Lewis changed his speech,” said Nussbaum.

John Lewis makes changes to his speech on the morning of the March on Washington.
John Lewis makes changes to his speech on the morning of the March on Washington. JOHNSON PUBLISHING COMPANY ARCHIVE, COURTESY FORD FOUNDATION, J. PAUL GETTY TRUST, JOHN D. AND CATHERINE T. MACARTHUR FOUNDATION, ANDREW W. MELLON FOUNDATION, AND SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

To provide even more context, Nussbaum shows you the speech as it was, and how it ended up, side by side in his book.

 

President Nixon

In Part 2, just a week before he would resign from office, a speech was written in which President Richard Nixon proclaimed hadn’t done anything justifying his removal from office, along with a pledge to fight to stay in office.

The “refusal-to-resign draft” was later found among the 40 million pages of Nixon documents at the National Archives.

The world changers

There are several speeches where the alternate outcome could have been world-changing.  Eisenhower’s apology for the D-Day failure is one, of course. And it provides a wonderful lesson about the language of leadership. We see, in Eisenhower’s own hand, his switch from the passive “The troops have been withdrawn” to the active “I have withdrawn the troops.” And it’s a reminder that the passive voice is incompatible with leadership.

“But I think the most compelling is the speech JFK had prepared announcing airstrikes on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Nussbaum. “I just continue to be haunted by that parenthetical where it says, “(Follows a description of first reports of action.)”. They were waiting for information that would fill that parenthetical, and we didn’t know at the time that the first reports of action could have been a nuclear counterstrike.

Other Speeches

All told, “Undelivered” contains 20 never heard speeches including:

  • Edward VIII’s refusal to abdicate the Throne, December 1936
  • Boston Mayor Kevin White on School Busing, December 1974
  • Emperor Hirohito Apologizes for World War II, 1948
  • Hillary Clinton’s Undelivered 2016 Victory Speech, November 2016

Finding the speeches

Knowing about an undelivered speech and actually having it are two different things. Like a detective, Nussbaum used a mix of instinct, chutzpah and luck. One such story involves finding a speech by former New York Mayor Abraham Beame from 1976.

“I saw a New York Times story, which indicated bankruptcy was so close at hand that Beame actually had prepared a speech. I first found Beame’s communications consigliere from that time, Howard Rubenstein. In the intervening years, Rubenstein had become a well-known New York publicist, so the challenge wasn’t finding him, it was getting a meeting,” saidJeff Nussbaum.

Rubenstein remembered writing a speech, but he didn’t have a copy, and he recalled that there were only two other people who had seen a copy. One was Sid Frigand, the mayor’s then press secretary. Frigand told Nussbaum he’d look for the speech. But, within months, he’d passed away, and no speech could be found in his archives.

“Another person who might have had the speech was the lawyer who prepared the bankruptcy filings, Ira Millstein,” said Jeff Nussbaum. “Millstein was in poor health and unable to see me, but he had the original bankruptcy filing on his wall and told me I was welcome to go to his office and photograph it. When I did, I chatted with his longtime executive assistant, Sally Sasso (always chat up the gatekeepers). She opened a filing cabinet and said, ‘I think I might have what you’re looking for.’ And she did.”

The ones that got away

Not all undelivered speeches from history played nice. A few were able to defy Nussbaum’s attempts to locate, including the speech that Bill Quandt prepared for President Jimmy Carter in 1978, had the Camp David discussions broken down.

“At that time, President Carter had spent over a week sequestered at Camp David alongside Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Israel’s Menachem Begin and their respective delegations,” said Nussbaum. “But a deal proved elusive. At one point, Sadat and the Egyptian delegation went so far as to pack their bags. In a tense meeting, Carter told Sadat his departure would mean the end of the United States’ relationship with Egypt, their personal relationship and probably Carter’s presidency.”

Yet it was Begin who ultimately proved the most unwilling. Quandt prepared a speech, which would have been delivered to a joint session of Congress, laying the blame largely at the feet of Begin and perhaps foreshadowing Carter’s later pro-Palestinian stance.

“President Carter reviewed and marked up the draft, but the speed of events, particularly as the negotiations accelerated in the final days, meant that papers and drafts routinely got discarded and misfiled,” said Nussbaum. “For example, everything that was on President Carter’s desk on the last day of the Camp David meetings was simply tossed into one box. Unfortunately, the draft isn’t in there, nor was I able to find it anywhere else. Perhaps the publication of this book will trigger its reemergence.”