Book Review: Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
Jeff Greenfield
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright 2011 by the author

Greenfield, author and political analyst, adds his considerable knowledge and experience to the “alternate history” field with this surprising and insightful trio of lengthy essays. He takes great care to avoid creating words for historical personages, instead taking what they actually said (albeit in different contexts) and using that to bring his hypotheses to life.

His first essay deals with the prospects of a John Kennedy administration. The early 1960s are fertile ground for counterfactual history. Given the constitutional crisis resulting from Richard Pavlick’s assassination of Jack Kennedy before he had been confirmed as president by the Electoral College, it’s no wonder. We all know how Lyndon Johnson took the reins of power through the sheer force of his personality and guided us through that crisis. But without it, Greenfield suggests that the charisma of Kennedy would have blinded us to his utter lack of political experience and the many scandals waiting to happen just below the surface.

The “Sixty Minutes War” is also quite popular among writers, who love to speculate on what could have happened if Johnson hadn’t suffered a heart attack in the middle of the crisis, or Vice President Humphrey hadn’t quickly called Krushchev and worked out a deal while the mushroom cloud was still rising over Guantanamo. Greenfield reasons that Kennedy’s masterful use of the media during the crisis would have embarrassed the Soviets into backing down (helped along by a back-channel deal involving our Jupiter missiles in Turkey). His conclusion, that a Kennedy presidency would have the net result of just delaying Johnson’s civil rights legislation by four years, is eminently plausible. Though his speculations on the progress of the Vietnam War have to be nothing more than that – pure speculation.

He really hits his stride in the second essay. He looks at the little known assassination attempt by Sirhan Sirhan on Robert Kennedy. Knowing many of the key people involved in Bobby’s campaign, he is able to pin the turning point to campaign staffer Steve Smith’s shoes. Smith said that he preferred working in his stocking feet, but that June night at the Ambassador Hotel, he was too elated over the results of the primary to focus on crunching the numbers. So when Kennedy and his party passed by his room on the way to the ballroom for the victory celebration, he decided to join in. So he was in his usual spot in the front of the pack when Kennedy and his team slipped out through a kitchen. Smith saw Sirhan and was able to tackle him before he could get more than one wild shot off. Greenfield chooses to speculate on what could have happened if Smith had decided to kick his shoes off and relax instead.

He feels that a Democratic campaign without Kennedy would have been a chaotic mess, with no one to really represent the anti-war wing. The chaos would have continued right up to the convention in Chicago, where, instead of the comparatively quiet protests, the city (in Greenfield’s view) would have erupted in outright riots. The scene as he describes it makes you feel happy and relieved that Kennedy was there and went in person to one of the demonstrations to calm them down (even though he was rather confrontational). Greenfield goes on to describe how a revived Richard Nixon, after some time in the political “wilderness”, returned to capture the Republican nomination and then the presidency on a “Law and Order” platform. And instead of Kennedy’s winding down and withdrawal from Vietnam, he has Nixon escalating the war by bombing Cambodia, eventually leading to a communist dictatorship taking over that country. In the end, Greenfield says, the same lust for power and sense of entitlement that led to the scandals of the Kennedy administration, tarnishing Bobby’s legacy, would have brought down Nixon as well.

Greenfield really shines here, with his intricate knowledge of the workings of primaries, campaigns, and conventions. Where he drops the ball is when he makes unnecessary guesses as to the effect of politics on popular culture. For example, he boldly surmises that a 1970 movie (based on a 1968 book) set in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War would have come to symbolize the “inanity and insanity” of the Vietnam War, and would be made into a TV series that would run for over a decade. Seriously, Jeff? The movie was given a mediocre reception by both the critics and the public; how in any world could it have been a success?

Greenfield runs off the rails into flights of sheer fantasy in his final essay centered on the 1976 presidential campaign. He finds a moment buried in the October 6th debate between President Ford and Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter. He notes that Ford flubbed an answer to a question asked by Max Frankel of the New York Times. When given a chance to clarify his response, Ford deftly recovered. Greenfield guesses about what would happen if Ford, behind in the polls but closing quickly, had not recovered his own fumble.

He figures that the flub would have been fatal, as the press would have not let him forget his error. He might, says Greenfield, have made a good showing in November, but not enough for a victory. As it was, he just squeaked by thanks to the rules of the Electoral College. While Greenfield concurs that the economic problems that plagued the Ford administration would have hampered Carter as well, he finds a key difference in their handling of the Middle East. Carter was completely inexperienced in foreign policy. This would have worked against him when dealing with the decline of the Shah of Iran. With an indecisive Carter in charge, claims Greenfield, the more radical elements in Iran would have taken over after the Shah’s death, and the hostage crisis at the embassy in Tehran would have dragged on to the end of Carter’s sole term in office rather than having been settled in six days.

While Carter’s good nature may have helped resolve the stagnated peace talks between Egypt and Israel, according to Greenfield, the net result would have been a reactionary coup in Egypt, leading to the creation of an international terrorist network with its sole goal the destruction of the United States. It’s clear that Greenfield is talking nonsense with this one. The rise of the moderates in the Middle East is one of the things that Ford was not directly involved in; it very well could have happened in a Carter administration as well. Greenfield goes further into fantasy land when he picks Ronald Reagan to win the presidency over Gary Hart in 1980, and then again in 1984! Look, we all know Hart wasn’t the best of presidents (his personal failings overwhelmed anything and everything he accomplished in his two terms), but after seeing all the flaws in Reagan (clearly pointed out by Greenfield), how could any sane person have re-elected him?

Greenfield again speculates in a little silliness on the side. Senator Al Gore’s tireless campaigning on behalf of electoral reform is well known, but without the close results of the 1976 election (where Carter actually won the popular vote) to motivate him, he figures that the freshman Congressman would have found another cause. Having him win a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on environmental issues is a bit much, though.…

OK, this is rather silly. My review, not the book. I stole the concept from a great writer, though. In the wonderful collection of alternate histories (arguably the archetype of the genre), If It Had Happened Otherwise (edited by J.C. Squire; published in 1931), one of the essays is “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” by some forgotten politician, Winston S. Churchill. There, Churchill writes a review of a book where Lee and the Confederacy lost at Gettysburg. To explain how the world turned out in that account, he gives a brief recap of the relevant history in the world where Lee did win…. As a gentle reminder to everyone imagining a Confederate victory, the effects on politics in Great Britain are rather interesting….

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