Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
© 2011 Jeff Greenfield
434 pages

"...playing with history is a small bit of payback for the way history has played with us."

Historical speculation may not be fruitful, but it's fun -- and former Kennedy speechwriter and longtime political journalist Jeff Greenfield definitely has his fill of it, presenting three alternate history scenarios spanning two decades. He begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy nearly two months before his inauguration as President,  resets the clock and jumps to a kitchen in Los Angeles, where JFK's brother Robert narrowly escaped an attempt on his own life. After following RFK's bitter election campaign, Greenfield restores reality again and moves us into the seventies, shortly before Gerald Ford informed Jimmy Carter that there was no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and never would be under his administration. Here, though, Ford rallies and just barely beats Carter in the election.

Greenfield's fun at history's expense provides for some great stories: for instance, after his aggressive stance offends Kruschev, the latter decides to "put a hedgehog in Uncle Sam's pants" and forces Johnson to respond to Soviet missiles in Cuba. Later, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy confronts violent students  protests in Chicago in 1968, and still later Ted Kennedy is forced to debate a man who adopts Kennedy's own brother's legacy and uses RFK's words against him. Greenfield throws in little allusions to how historical events truly played out -- both during this period and beyond. Newly-minted congressman Al Gore Jr. vows to seek a constitutional amendment that will ensure the winner of the popular vote is declared president, after a member of his own party manages to win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college:  Richard Nixon grumbles that he needs a 'fair and balanced' news network that will cut him some slack; and a young Dick Cheney rants that "next, those bastards will be trying to privatize social security!".  The book ends with a particularly humorous allusion, one that shows how ludicrously history can sometimes repeat itself.

While the author is more unkind than not to Nixon and Reagan,  his bias is toward the centrist politics of Robert Kennedy rather than traditional progressivism as espoused by McGovern or Humprey. The Kennedy clan has a central role in the book: RFK's presidential campaign is its core, and the other two scenarios draw heavily on the Kennedy influence. The scenarios featured are stirringly plausible, though generally the range of the scenarios is limited. I wanted to see him explore how the space race might have unfolded with LBJ at the head, but there's no mention of it. This is part understandable, because history becomes increasingly more predictable as its scale broadens: while someone could write a book on how the early assassination of JFK altered the entire latter half of the 20th century, Greenfield doesn't -- ostensibly because there would be too many variables to deal with. He keeps the range of his scenarios small to limit the effects of chaos.

 Greenfield also works in historical ripple effects into his narrative: in a world where Watergate never happens, Bob Woodward leaves the Washington Post to become a lawyer, and MASH fails after Vietnam ends on a less-than-agreeable note.  Greenfield is a fine storyteller, but his flawless integration of real-life speeches into a completely different historical retelling impressed me the most. Dialogue abounds, but most of it -- Greenfield says -- is taken from the official Oval Office recordings that the various presidents kept. He devotes several dozen pages at the end of the book to explain how he drew from history to make the changes he did, which is always commendable when writing alternate history or historical fiction.

A fun romp through two decades of American politics that will especially appeal to those who feel the promise of America was shortchanged by acts of violence and like seeing Richard Nixon lose elections (repeatedly).


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