The LuLac Edition #1559, April 20th, 2011
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WRITE ON WEDNESDAY
THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
"Then Everything Changed" is the title of a new book by author Jeff Greenfield. A former broadcast journalist, Greenfield answers a series of "what ifs" about significant political developments in our recent history. Here is the review of the book from the New York Times:
THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
By Jeff Greenfield
In his shrewdly written, often riveting new book, “Then Everything Changed,” the veteran political journalist Jeff Greenfield ponders some smaller-scale and more plausible what-ifs: three events, he says, “that came within a whisker of actually happening.” What if an actual attempt on John F. Kennedy’s life, shortly after his election to the White House, had succeeded? What if Sirhan Sirhan had been thwarted in assassinating Robert F. Kennedy in 1968? What if President Gerald R. Ford had corrected a misstep in the 1976 presidential debates and defeated Jimmy Carter?
Thanks to Mr. Greenfield’s own familiarity with American politics and a lot of energetic research, he turns these twists of fate into accelerating historical snowballs that rumble through our recent history, altering the social landscape in ways both small and large. In doing so he’s produced three slyly observed novellas that (with the exception of a couple of laughable lapses in the third story) have the verisimilitude of real life. His descriptions of the vicissitudes of the campaign trail have a wonderfully immediate, you-are-there feel, just as his accounts of primary face-offs between Hubert H. Humphrey and Robert Kennedy and, years later, between Edward M. Kennedy and Gary Hart attest to his detailed knowledge of the complexity and absurdities of delegate math.
Mr. Greenfield’s clever narratives are also rooted in a reporter’s understanding of how character and personal relationships inform politics and policy decisions. His insights into the personalities of his central players come partly from firsthand knowledge (he worked as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy and has covered politics for CBS News, CNN and ABC News). Partly from interviews and conversations with experts like Richard N. Goodwin, an assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and Brent Scowcroft, Ford’s national security adviser. And partly from a close reading of news accounts and political biographies — most notably, Robert A. Caro’s multivolume portrait of Johnson; Evan Thomas’s “Robert Kennedy”; and “Mutual Contempt,” Jeff Shesol’s 1997 book about the bitter feud between Johnson and R.F.K.
In the first story President-elect Kennedy is killed by a suicide bomber named Richard Pavlick — in real life, a CNN column reports, that retired postal worker was arrested in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 15, 1960, in a car filled with dynamite — and the vice president-elect, Johnson, ascends to the White House. Extrapolating from Johnson’s known tendency to “split the difference” when making important decisions, Mr. Greenfield draws a harrowing portrait of his handling of the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis, writing that nuclear catastrophe over the Cuba confrontation is averted through sheer “blind luck.”
Luck and the alignment of political stars also play pivotal roles in the second novella, in which Robert Kennedy beats out Humphrey for the 1968 Democratic nomination. Kennedy’s impulsive decision to leave his Chicago hotel room and talk to demonstrators who are massing in Grant Park helps galvanize popular support, much as his handling of his near-death experience at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan (like President Ronald Reagan’s chipper handling of the attempt on his life in 1981) wins him new sympathy and admiration. Also crucial in Mr. Greenfield’s telling is the endorsement of Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago.
Mr. Greenfield’s descriptions of a Robert Kennedy presidency reverberate with echoes of Barack Obama’s presidency and issues and debates abroad in the country today. His R.F.K. presides over a country in which war and partisanship have wrought growing disaffection with the notion that “government did more or less the right thing most of the time.” This R.F.K. has also run as “the candidate of change” and must cope as president with an unpopular and increasingly costly war (Vietnam), divisions within the country over race and class, and the high expectations raised by his ambitious agenda.
As for the final novella in this volume, it’s a decidedly clumsier performance. Mr. Greenfield’s portrait of the rivalry between Ford and Reagan lacks the authoritative intimacy that makes his depiction of the R.F.K.-L.B.J. feud so visceral and real, and his efforts to extrapolate the fallout of various events onto the wider stage of the Middle East are ridiculously contrived.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is conveniently killed off in a Diana-like car crash in Paris, and we are asked to believe that because Ford (not Jimmy Carter) was in the White House, the shah of Iran — not feeling pressured by the Americans on human rights and democracy — steps down and is succeeded by a coalition government that includes a moderate Muslim ayatollah, who rejects any alliance with Hezbollah. Israel, feeling grateful for this gesture, begins to limit the growth of settlements on the West Bank sharply.
Fortunately for the reader, this fanciful Middle East scenario is limited to a couple of passages, with Mr. Greenfield wisely confining the bulk of the narrative to the domestic political scene, which showcases his knowledge of party politics. He has Gary Hart running an insurgent, Obama-like campaign against the front-runner, Ted Kennedy; Reagan picking a little known female running mate, Sandra Day O’Connor, in hopes of shaking up the race; and the political consultant David Garth (for whom Mr. Greenfield once worked in real life) telling Mr. Hart, during debate prep, to try to take the comfort zone away from Reagan, because “in politics, Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck” — that is, the calmer, more at ease candidate always wins.
Some of Mr. Greenfield’s changes to the historical record strain a little to be deliberately ironic. A dirty-tricks scandal, reminiscent of Watergate, threatens Robert Kennedy’s presidency but fails to blow up into a scandal, and Bob Woodward ends up going to law school instead of becoming a famous investigative reporter. And a sex scandal rocks the White House of Gary Hart, not Bill Clinton.
As in the famous Ray Bradbury story “A Sound of Thunder” (in which a time traveler kills a butterfly in the days of the dinosaurs and discovers, upon returning to the present, that this tiny event has apparently created a mind-boggling cascade of changes), Mr. Greenfield’s small twists of fate set dominoes tumbling in all directions — from the small to the tragic. Because J.F.K. has been killed in 1960, Ian Fleming’s James Bond books — rumored to be a favorite of the president-elect’s — never catch on. Because R.F.K. has ended the Vietnam War early, Pol Pot never comes to power in Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge massacres are averted.
In his foreword to this gripping book Mr. Greenfield — the author of a 1995 novel, “The People’s Choice” — mentions two other powerful “what ifs” that he does not tackle in these pages: what if an assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 had succeeded, and he had not gone on to become the leader who steered the United States through the Great Depression and World War II; and what if “it had rained in Dallas on November 22, 1963, so that John Kennedy’s car was covered by a bubble top”?
Such incidents, Mr. Greenfield writes, underscore his belief that “history doesn’t turn on a dime; it turns on a plugged nickel,” that history “is as much a product of chance as of the broader forces at play.”
“Geography, topography, ethnicity, ideology, climate, natural resources, the search for wealth, mass migrations, all set the framework; but the random roll of the dice is as potent a force as any,” he writes. “A missed meeting, a shift in the weather, a slightly different choice of words open up a literally limitless series of possibilities.”