... ingenious ... a kind of Bizarro World funhouse mirror of alternate history filled with fresh glimpses of the great under pressure and useful insights into how the speakers really felt about the issues they were struggling with ... is actually two books skillfully interwoven, the way a polished scribe melds two complementary speech texts. One deals with the undelivered speeches and the often-fraught historical settings in which they were crafted and ultimately stashed in history’s rabbit hole. The other is a wry inside look at the rhetorical sausage-making process inding colorful local references for a campaigning pol’s speech so the locals marvel at the speaker’s familiarity with their lives.
Nussbaum, speechwriter for powerful politicians, including then–Vice President Joe Biden, tells the stories of speeches that never made history because events prevented their delivery—often happily, at times unhappily...The unifying premise of Undelivered is to highlight the central role of speeches in the making of history and the glimpses they offer of alternative worlds we might inhabit...The hitch, however, is that some undelivered speeches turn out to have been simply undeliverable or never intended for delivery, making it difficult to imagine them as keys to alternative worlds...Undelivered longs for enlightened leadership...But the book’s own account of how speechwriters have come to craft lines for politicians pretending intimacy with their audiences illuminates some of the sources of diminishing faith in such figures.
... delightful ... Nussbaum is a veteran of the profession, possessing a witty, Art Buchwald-esque writing style ... Another of the book’s strong suits is its resurfacing of potentially incendiary speeches that were never set ablaze ... 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 ... in Nussbaum’s able hands, this cruise through what-might-have-been offers a hell of a fun ride.