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Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reaga n Hardcover – March 8, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Speculation isn't history, but it's catnip to pundits and journalists like veteran CBS News reporter and commentator Greenfield (The Real Campaign), who can be excused for this romp into what ifs. He rightly says that alternative history's foundation is plausibility. And since he's read widely in the sources, his excursions into possible histories are decently anchored to the ground. In the first narrative, an actual failed attempt to assassinate JFK before his inauguration instead succeeds. LBJ takes his place, Guantánamo is wiped out by a rogue Soviet missile, and war with the U.S.S.R. is only narrowly averted. In the second narrative, Robert Kennedy isn't assassinated, beats Nixon in 1968, winds down the Vietnam War, and with no Watergate scandal, the cultural changes of the 1970s are averted. The third account has Ford winning re-election, but in 1980 it's Hart vs. Reagan, and Hart wins. Of course, there are other possible scenarios, which Greenfield doesn't discuss. And in these novelistic narratives, readers drown in excess, irrelevant detail (dinner menus, precise times of meetings, exact conversations)—all wonkish pundit stuff, and none essential to Greenfield's purpose. In the end, fun but insubstantial. (Mar.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Greenfield, chief political correspondent for CBS News, is also a successful novelist. Here, he tries something different: alternate history, delivering takes on three different moments in the not-so-distant American past. Not many people remember that in December 1960, President-elect Kennedy was almost assassinated. What if Richard Pavlick had gotten to Kennedy three years before Lee Harvey Oswald? Conversely, what if Robert Kennedy had not gone through the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel where Sirhan Sirhan lay in wait? And, in 1976, had Gerald Ford not made a mistake in his debate with Jimmy Carter, that election might have gone a different way. Inevitably, speculation plays a role in Greenfield�s accounts, but he bolsters possible scenarios with ancedotes, quotes, and oral histories, all of which are sourced at the end of the book. This reliance on sources is why Greenfield prefers that his work be called nonfiction, though some may disagree. Perhaps readers who remember the actual events and casts of players will be the book�s best audience, but any history buff will appreciate these fascinating reinterpertations. --Ilene Cooper
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I'm a big fan of alternate history, and having watched Greenfield talk about this book, he obviously is as well. The best alternative histories always turn on one single event going slightly differently, and for the first 2/3 of the book or so Greenfield paints a great "what might have been". The first story is probably the best. In the real world, there was a lone, John Birch type nut who was planning on blowing up JFK in December of 1960. In our world, he got close but never succeeded, but Greenfied's world he kills Kennedy and throws the nation into a Constitutional crisis. Greenfield deftly weaves the tale of a nation in mourning with the back-room politicians who are so stunned they are falling all over themselves to make sure that the right thing happens and is SEEN as happening, so that the country knows that it's government will continue. His description of Lyndon Johnson is spot on. The LBJ who was Master of the Senate comes through very clearly as he takes the reigns of a shattered nation after the Age of Camelot is snuffed out before it even begins.
The problem with the story, and indeed the book, is that Greenfield is so interested in setting up HOW his alternate history happens, that he loses focus when the campaigning ends and the governing begins. There is so much detail in the RFK election story that almost 3/4 of that story, which begins with RFK avoiding assassination by Sirhan Sirhan, deal with the business of RFK winning the election. And while it's fun to read about real world backroom dealings, in my opinion the strength of alternate history would come from how RFK would govern once elected. Greenfield describes it, but not with the minute detail of the campaign. I won't spoil what Greenfield describes as an RFK presidency, but I will say that I found his writing on that to be a combination of wish fulfillment and goofy historical callbacks in the way of people like George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and a weird caper at the Republican National Committee that promises to go somewhere interesting and then just stops.
Perhaps because Greenfield was only interested in getting his fictionalized President's elected (or placed into power), he didn't feel the need to put all that much into how they governed. The Ford story, by far the weakest, seems to exist just to set up a Reagan-Hart match up in 1980, and here Greenfield's writing is sloppy and his characters act more like he wants them to act then they would act, which was not as big a problem in the first two stories. And considering how much historical information is available about these figures, Greenfield's final story smacks entirely of wish fulfillment, and not of a real analysis of what might have been.
All in all I would give the book 3 and 1/2 stars. Political junkies will love the backroom politics, but fans of history may well balk when they look at how Greenfield re imagines world and domestic events.
I thought all three were good concepts fir change and the last two were very well executed. The first I thought could have been the best, but I don't think it was developed well. It was the shortest at 112 pages vs 154 & 130.
The three stories showed some familiar people whose career paths were altered significantly, including Hillary in DC in 1980, John McCain, and Sean Connery.
This time I think Greenfield wrote a winner.
Greenfield altered three events -- one a footnote event -- and tried to extrapolate what would have happened if the event had been altered. The footnote event was a would be assassin who backed off trying to kill President-elect Kennedy in Dec 1960. In Greenfield's version this assassin carries out his attempt and succeeds. Who would be president and what does he do in terms of some of the major domestic and international events of the early 1960s?
The second event is Sirhan Sirhan failing in his attempt to assassinate Senator Robert Kennedy in Jun 1968. Would Kennedy have finagled the Democratic nomination away from Hubert Humphrey who was well on his way to the nomination and probably would have been the nominee any way? How would the 1968 campaign have played out?
The third event is President Ford correcting himself in a debate about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. He knew what to say but he did not say it. In Greenfield's scenario Ford does say what he knew to say. Would his correct response save his campaign to where he could overcome the lead Jimmy Carter had in the polls and win the 1976 election?
The problem I have with most alternative histories is that they are either not very plausible -- in my opinion -- or the author races toward an attempt to tie everything together neatly which is not easy to do given the alternative variables associated with the event. Although I do not necessarily agree with the scenarios or how subsequent events are resolved in this alternative history I think Jeff Greenfield actually succeeded in doing the difficult and doing so with interesting scenarios.
If Jeff Greenfield were to write another alternate history book similar to this I would be less reluctant to buy the book.