Some bosses still give speechwriters titles—Communications Director, Deputy Press Secretary—aimed at disguising the fact that someone else writes their speeches.
Admitting the truth is more acceptable these days than it used to be. But not entirely. Which is one reason books by speechwriters about their work are relatively scarce—and why we should welcome Jeff Nussbaum’s unique, thoughtful, and generally terrific book, Undelivered, out this week. It’s far more than a look back in history. Undelivered is dramatic, in places almost cinematic, with insight into many things that make it indispensible for the speechwriters who read ProRhetoric.
Full Disclosure. I not only know Jeff Nussbaum. Long ago, he was my intern in the White House. He says some generous things about those years in his book; take that into account as you read this review.
Meanwhile, what makes it so valuable for us?
In part, it’s because Undelivered takes on a subject cloaked in secrecy. Speechwriters might know that when there’s a big policy decision—a war, resignation, election result, or a vote—their bosses sometimes commission drafts on both sides. Almost everyone else knows only of the speeches that get delivered.
Nussbaum has asked: What about the ones that weren’t? What could those undelivered and unread speeches tell us about the event and the speakers?
With some admirable detective work, he has uncovered fifteen examples of speeches written for speakers who never delivered them—like John Lewis’s during the 1963 March on Washington, Richard Nixon’s decision about whether or not to resign, JFK’s decision about Russian efforts to plant nukes in Cuba, and Hillary Clinton’s victory speech in 2016.
His publishers have sensibly chosen a subtitle aimed at general readers: The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History.
Well, what really rewrites history are the events—not the announcement of them. But that’s a quibble. The examples Nussbaum has found offer insights on many levels.
Take the JFK example. To read the never-delivered speech announcing what at one point JFK favored—”a massive, surprise airstrike against Cuba”—is chilling, and enlightening. Most Americans have no idea how fierce policy debates can be, or how much work goes into not just devising policy but explaining it. Undelivered allows readers to see that politics can sometimes be more nuanced than what politicians disclose. Nussbaum’s book is worthwhile for that insight alone.
For speechwriters, there are lots of others.
In addition to what he tells us about politics, Nussbaum shows us what speeches must do, and how speechwriters can work to create them. He offers insight into the technique, elements, ethical needs, and tactics of the speechwriter, while never abandoning the narrative verve readers need. He shows speechwriters ways to research before we write, or how to remain ethical in a field where truth is in short supply—and does it with candor.
Take, for example, his chapter on the controversial speech by Native American Wamsutta Frank James, invited to speak at the 350th Anniversary of the Pilgrim’s Landing at Plymouth Rock. The story of how horrified organizers were by his determination to speak about the Native American view of that event is disturbing.
But it’s also valuable to see Nussbaum digress and take two pages to describe his favorite structure for persuasive speech, the five-step sequence that rhetoric professor Alan Monroe devised in the 1940s to win attention and move audiences to action. Do all speechwriters know it? No. Nussbaum’s summary is accurate, useful, and witty.
Or take what he writes about ways to make language memorable.
Nussbaum’s chapter on the way Boston Mayor Kevin White struggled to settle Boston’s bitter 1974 fight over integrating schools shows us a draft in which White lists a series of unrecognized “truths,” each one using that word.
Then Nussbaum digresses again, this time about the value of repetition.
“An important trick of speechcraft called litany,” he calls the kind of repetition Martin Luther King used in his “dream” speech.
From 8th grade, we might remember teachers telling students not to repeat themselves. Nussbaum educates us by discussing anaphora, epistrophe, or other techniques Aristotle knew but speechwriters often don’t. He makes us see that repetition may be bad in grade school but the secret of power in persuasive speech.
And in his thoroughly engrossing account of Helen Keller’s never uttered speech at a 1913 rally the day before Woodrow Wilson’s Inauguration, Nussbaum offers a tutorial on another technique speechwriters should use: antithesis, a way to show contrast people remember, as did Keller’s example (“I am blind but I see the dawning light of a new day!”)
Does he limit such insight to language? No. Here’s one from his chapter on Richard Nixon’s attempt to talk about whether or not he would resign. Nussbaum uses it to explain one of the thorny issues speechwriters must confront.
“I’m often asked,” he writes, “whether I’ve had to write a speech for someone I disagree with.”
Is there a speechwriter who hasn’t wrestled with that dilemma? Is there anyone who’s written about it? Nussbaum actually gives us an example, details about the issue, and his own agonizing struggle.
The book is sometimes startlingly honest. It’s rare for speechwriters to criticize a boss even long after they have moved on. Nussbaum writes about the need open a speech by winning attention fast—then mentions his former boss, Al Gore, calling him “one of the greatest violators of that rule.” As he was.
My purpose here is not to make sure readers understand why these points are so valuable. It’s to make clear that the book is full of them, most of which I don’t have room to describe.
And in case one thinks Undelivered is a dry compendium of tips, be assured. Nussbaum is a storyteller. His chapters open dramatically, leave us in suspense as he outlines the issues, and close with the speeches no reader will have ever seen.
Sure, some chapters are more interesting than others. The one dealing with Hirohito’s draft apology after World War II will be less compelling to Americans than the one detailing Hillary Clinton’s agonizing internal debate after it became clear she would lose to Donald Trump.
There is no chapter worth skipping, though. Sometimes readers will find value in only a paragraph or two. That was the case for me, reading the conclusion of Hillary Clinton’s undelivered 2016 victory speech. I had never heard of the writer or seen the draft. But in poet Jorie Graham’s moving conclusion, we can see an imaginative technique worth using in speeches far removed from politics.
Nussbaum took a long time writing this book. It is worth the wait. For it’s still controversial that an unnamed writer should write the words a politician speaks.
Of course people in public life need speechwriters. Barack Obama spoke thousands of times during his two terms as President. Should he have taken the time to write those speeches himself? With Undelivered, Jeff Nussbaum makes the role of a speechwriter clear in a way that should make readers happy he didn’t.
It’s one more reason that by showing readers what moments of great tension are really like in politics, and by bringing to life the way speechwriters contribute, Undelivered, well, delivers.
Novelist, journalist, and teacher, Bob Lehrman is a former Chief speechwriter for vice president Al Gore. He has published award-winning novels and short stories, written many articles and op-eds, and thousands of speeches. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (CQPress, 2010), and with longtime collaborator and co-teacher Eric Schnure, its highly acclaimed Second Edition (SAGE , 2020). With Schnure, Bob, whose last name literally means “Teacherman,” co-teaches speechwriting at American University, and has given speechwriting workshops in the United States and around the world.