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Enjoyable and clever, but thin where it matters
on March 23, 2011
Political Analyst Jeff Greenfield's latest book "Then Everything Changed" takes on the field of alternative history, not so much as a novel, but as an alternate "Making of the President" for three Presidents: Lyndon Johnson becomes President in 1960 when a lone nut blows up John Kennedy one month before he is inaugurated; RFK survives the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 and goes up against Nixon for the Presidency; and Gerald Ford manages to eek out a victory over Jimmy Carter in 1976, leading to a Ronald Reagan-Gary Hart election in 1980.
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.