New book examines the most notable political speeches that were never given

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s prepared remarks if D-Day failed, and warnings President John F. Kennedy would have issued in Dallas had he not been assassinated are among many potential addresses examined in a new book, "Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches that would have Rewritten History." Amna Nawaz spoke with author Jeff Nussbaum, President Biden's former senior speech writer, to learn more.

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  • William Brangham:

    General Dwight Eisenhower prepared remarks and an apology in case D-Day failed. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice planned to give a foreign policy speech on September 11, 2001, but scrapped it when America was attacked. President John F. Kennedy planned to offer America a warning in Dallas, but was assassinated before he could do so.

    Amna Nawaz recently spoke with President Biden's former senior speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum, who examines those speeches and many others in his new book, "Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the author, Jeff Nussbaum, joins us now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Jeffrey Nussbaum, Author, "Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History": Good to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So you have been chasing down some of these speeches for years, right?

    Why? Why the obsession?

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    Well, the obsession began election night 2000. I was the kid speechwriter for Al Gore, less of a kid now.

    But we had three speeches, a victory, a concession, and, strangely enough, we thought he would win the Electoral College, but lose the popular vote. And that night, election night 2000, he gave none of those speeches.

    But this set me on this quest to find, where are the other moments in American history where the outcome is so in doubt, not just elections, but where the outcome rests on a razor's edge, that both outcomes had to be envisioned?

    And I started finding them in all sorts of different places.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are so many wonderful stories in this book.

    I want to ask you about a couple. And you tell the story behind why the speeches weren't delivered. There's the story of John Lewis, right, and his original speech for that August 1963 March on Washington. The words were quite militant when they were drafted.

    I want to read just one excerpt you include. He wrote: "We will March through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched-earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground nonviolently."

    He was talked out of using that language. What happened there?

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    So, in retrospect, in his later years, we started to see John Lewis as almost a warm, fuzzy fighter, and we sanded the rough edges off what he was in his youth, which was, he was the voice of the young, angry, activist civil rights movement.

    And that was what he wanted his role at the March on Washington to be. In fact, he was very clear: I want this to be a march on Washington, not a march in Washington.

    But the other organizers of the march were hoping to have an event that would be more approachable by the vast majority of Americans. They wanted it sanctioned by the Catholic Church. They wanted it sanctioned by the labor unions. They wanted President Kennedy to see that he could work with the civil rights community to pass his civil rights bill.

    And, at another point in that speech, John Lewis wanted to say: I can't support the civil rights bill. It's too little and too late.

    And so, out of desperation, the organizers said: John, please tone it down.

    And he kind of got his back up against the wall, and resisted and resisted. And then, finally, the march organizers basically said: Please, John, we have come this far together. Let us stay together.

    And he retreated under the Lincoln Memorial, and worked and reworked his speech to the point that it was acceptable. And, still, it was the most fiery speech — speech of the day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's just incredible to see.

    You also share words that were never spoken because the person didn't live long enough to deliver them, right? And there's one example I want to ask you about. You tell the story of a speech that President Kennedy intended to deliver in Dallas. He planned to address the rise in right-wing misinformation campaigns. And he planned to call out, as you quote him, voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, which really hits home right now.

    Look, your book says that some of these words, if delivered, could have rewritten history. What do you think would be different if Kennedy had spoken these words?

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    Yes, this is a really interesting one, because, to the extent people remember it, they think of it as a foreign policy speech.

    They remember that he said: "We're the watchmen on the walls of world freedom."

    And that it was. However, if you read the speech carefully, he also says that watchmen shouldn't just be looking outside the walls of the U.S., has to be looking inside as well to these voices wholly unrelated to reality.

    And so I think, several times in this book, we find examples of warnings made in their moment of time that resonate even more clearly today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's not all politics and policy, though. You do include the story of director Barry Jenkins, man behind the 2017 film "Moonlight."

    I think everything everyone remembers that Academy Award ceremony where they announced the wrong film had won best picture. The wrong staff and cast went up there. Then they said, no, really, it was "Moonlight."

    Barry Jenkins had intended to deliver a powerful speech about that film that he never got to deliver, because the moment was lost to the flub.

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    Exactly.

    Here we have this moment where Barry Jenkins was going to win for best picture. And he was going to talk about what that — what that win meant. And he was going to talk about something he experienced on the set that really brought it home for him.

    And he tells the story of how, in filming the movie in Liberty City, Miami, they had to come in and bring in lights, so they could film at night. And in a lot of poor neighborhoods like this one in which he grew up, there wasn't light. And bringing in the light brought out the children.

    And at one point during the filming, he looked over to video village, where all the monitors and editing equipment were, and he sees a young man wearing his headset who's just planted himself in the chair.

    And, in that moment, he said: "I saw in this child the possibility which I hadn't believed I could ever see for myself."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have to ask you.

    You have now left the White House, where you were a senior speechwriter for President Biden. And you have been writing for him and with him for a while, though, right?

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How has that changed over the years?

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    That's a great question.

    He has always been who he has been. I have described writing for President Biden as like being a session musician in a band that's already released two greatest hits albums.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Nussbaum:

    It's not so much about the new track. It's about applying the values that he's espoused his entire career to the moment.

    And so that's what's really changed, is that his optimism, his desire to find consensus, it's still about finding ways for those things to take root. But it's about recognizing that he's trying to get them to take root in much rockier terrain today than they had to earlier in his career.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The book is "Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches That Would Have Rewritten History." The author is Jeff Nussbaum.

    Thanks for being here.

  • Jeff Nussbaum:

    Thank you for having me.

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