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When this genre is done well, it helps readers perceive what was and what could have been.
Jeff Greenfield Looks At What Could Have Been
Trade Paperback. 434 pp.
February 2012. Berkley Books.
Alternative history is not really my thing. Don't get me wrong: I think that imagining "what if" can be done really well, and I think that it can be an important and helpful exercise in understanding the role of our leaders, the consequences of their actions, and the impact of events. Picturing what could have happened is often an effective vehicle for teaching people the significance of what really did happen.
But alternative history is not really my thing. Perhaps it is because I read so much true history and biography that it's difficult for me to fit alternate histories into my reading schedule, and it's often difficult for me to suspend my disbelief and allow my brain to think of "what if." I have the same problem with reading historical fiction. In order for me to enjoy it--or even read it from cover to cover--it has to be really good, and the author has to know his or her subject.
Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan comes from the mind of one of the most astute political analysts of our time, Jeff Greenfield. Most observers of politics or viewers of television know Jeff Greenfield from his work as a political commentator for CBS, ABC, CNN, PBS, and NBC, work for which he has won three Emmy Awards. Greenfield has written for Time, the New York Times, and Slate.com, among others, and authored or co-authored a dozen books--important because a good alternative history book requires solid writing skills as well as in-depth knowledge of the subject(s) at hand. And that knowledge--in this case, in-depth knowledge of the inner-workings of some of the most game-changing political campaigns of the 20th Century--is definitely one of Greenfield's attributes. Besides analyzing nearly every major campaign of the past three decades, Greenfield was on the front lines of New York Democratic politics--as a speechwriter and aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, he was working for RFK's 1968 Presidential campaign in Los Angeles on the night Kennedy was assassinated. Greenfield was also an aide and speechwriter to New York City Mayor John Lindsay.
In Then Everything Changed, Greenfield focuses on three moments in American political history of the past half-century and speculates on the possibilities where a subtle, split-second difference could have wrought massive changes to the historical narrative. I really liked the way that Greenfield sets up the moment and then expands on how and what would likely have changed if things had gone differently. Because of Greenfield's deep knowledge and the politics and players in each instance, these situations play out in great detail. If there is any stone left unturned, it's a stone that nobody else would have stumbled upon either. Some of Greenfield's alternate histories can be easily imagined, and some require a more faithful suspension of disbelief, but the best aspect is that all of Greenfield's reworkings remain entirely plausible. I didn't find myself being taken out of the alternate history by wild variations on what I know actually occurred.
The first situation that Greenfield examines in Then Everything Changed was the most interesting, and it focuses on an incident that remains remarkably unreported to this day. On December 11, 1960, a 73-year-old man named Richard Pavlick waited in his car outside the vacation home of President-elect John F. Kennedy and was seconds away from a suicide bombing that would have killed JFK before he was even inaugurated and likely brought about a Constitutional crisis. Pavlick's car was packed with dynamite, and he held the ignition switch in his hand as JFK walked out of his home. Had he detonated the bomb, it would have killed Kennedy and dozens of nearby press and onlookers. The only reason that Pavlick didn't detonate the bomb is because Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy came to the door to say goodbye to the President-elect, and Pavlick didn't want to kill Kennedy in front of his family. Greenfield takes a look at the ramifications if Kennedy hadn't even made it to Inauguration Day. Most likely, the Electoral College (which hadn't made their official votes yet) would have switched their votes for President to Kennedy's running mate, Lyndon Johnson. And while LBJ did eventually succeed JFK after an assassination, Greenfield looks at the differences if Kennedy had never made it to the White House and it was LBJ instead who faced issues like that disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Greenfield's second alternate history looks at how things might have changed if New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy had not been shot on June 4, 1968 after he won the California Primary and picked up some momentum in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. This chapter of Then Everything Changed is where Greenfield truly shines, as he was an aide for RFK and at the Ambassador Hotel on the night of Kennedy's assassination. Because of his knowledge of Kennedy's 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination, there is fascinating speculation about how RFK would have proceeded from California as he attempted to close the gap between himself and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Potential strategies for winning enough delegates to force a battle at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago raise interesting possibilities, and Greenfield plays out not only what might have happened in a race that pitted RFK against Richard Nixon but also the role that outgoing President Lyndon B. Johnson may have taken. Would LBJ have supported his hated rival, RFK, or would he not-so-secretly have worked to elect Nixon as his successor? Going even further, Greenfield envisions what an RFK Administration would have looked like in the troubled period of protests, civil unrest, and the Vietnam War.
The final reimagining in Then Everything Changed begins with the least dramatic of the three seminal moments in the book as Greenfield visualizes the 1976 Presidential campaign without President Gerald Ford's verbal stumble at the October 6, 1976 debate with Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter. At that debate in San Francisco, President Ford famously said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," a miscue that gave voters a perception that Ford was, at best, stubbornly ignoring the facts, or far worse, woefully out-of-touch. At the time of that debate, Ford had closed a seemingly insurmountable lead by Carter and was riding a wave of momentum. Ford's debate disaster likely cost him the support of ethnic, blue-collar voters in the Midwest, cut off any momentum he had previously enjoyed, and was possibly the difference in Carter's narrow victory. Greenfield contemplates a Ford victory and the effects that may have had on the history of Iran and Iraq, the American economy, the 1980 and 1984 campaigns, and the political careers of Ford, Carter, Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Gary Hart, among others. Of the three scenarios, I found the Ford/Carter/Reagan alternative history to be the weakest--not so much because of its believability, but because it's almost too expansive and ambitious. While Greenfield's knowledge of the players and politics is, as always, spot-on, I felt as if he attempted to shoehorn far too many people and events into the post-1976 era as he possibly could. If Greenfield overreaches at all, it is in this chapter.
To me, however, everything is redeemed by Greenfield's concluding chapter, which he titles "How Reality Shapes Speculation" and which acts as part bibliography and part reset of the real history that we are familiar with. In this afterword, Greenfield gives examples of why his mind took him down certain alternative paths to the history that we know, and it shows you just how closely connected to reality many of his imagined situations are. Greenfield never tries to sneak anything past the reader except a few bad, forced jokes that could be seen coming from miles away. With that said, there's also some good humor, mostly based in irony, that longtime observers of Greenfield will appreciate. Then Everything Changed is the best of alternative history--well-written, entirely plausible, deeply-researched, and entertaining. When this genre is done well, it helps readers perceive what was and what could have been, and I have a lot of respect for anyone who is able to help others understand history from a variety of viewpoints. Greenfield does just that, and this book is appealing to hardcore history nerds or political junkies, casual fans of some of the giants of recent American politics, and people who just love a good story.
Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan by Jeff Greenfield is available now from Berkley Books. It can be ordered from Amazon, or downloaded instantly for your Kindle. Jeff Greenfield is on Twitter and his website is jeffgreenfield.net.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.