Looking back at JFK and wondering, 'What if . . . '

Jeff Greenfield says JFK would not have pushed the Great Society and War on Poverty.
Jeff Greenfield says JFK would not have pushed the Great Society and War on Poverty. (FREDERICK M. BROWN / Getty Images)
Posted: October 21, 2013

Jeff Greenfield has said it before, and he'll say it again:

"History doesn't turn on a dime; it turns on a plug nickel."

The ways of chance - the slender accidents that separate what actually happened from what might have been - cast a fatal light over Greenfield's new book, If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (G.P. Putnam, 272 pages, $21.79).

It's Greenfield's second book ("and my last," he says - "I don't want to become the George Jessel of history") of what historian Niall Ferguson calls "counterfactual history" - in which, given the actual facts, evidence, and documents, writers speculate on what could or might have happened but for those slender accidents.

Lousy weather in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, prompts placement of a deflective "bubble top" on the Lincoln limo carrying John and Jacqueline Kennedy down Elm Street. Oswald fires; Kennedy is injured but survives. He lives to finish his term, run again, beat Barry Goldwater in 1964, and pilot a massive, anxious country through Cold War, Vietnam, race relations, personal scandal, and social ferment.

Starting in the late 1960s, Greenfield has had a fruitful career as a writer and analyst. Speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, longtime CNN political analyst, he now is seen often on NBC and PBS. If Kennedy Lived joins the anticipatory flood of Kennedy books toward the 50th anniversary of the traumatic events that actually happened. So, why alternative history?

"For one thing," says Greenfield, "it keeps you humble. It shows you how hard it is to predict the future. I've stopped trying. For another thing, I'm a nut for American history, and I think of this as like running a simulation. 'Given these people, with these personalities, these character traits, these circumstances, what might have been?' You keep discovering things you didn't know. All the time, I find myself saying, 'God, can you believe that?' "

Suppose Kennedy had died in the World War II battle that destroyed his PT boat in August 1943? What if Kennedy's 1954 surgery had not worked, and he could not continue his public life?

In 1960, shortly after Kennedy won the presidential election, a would-be suicide bomber parked a car packed with explosives outside Kennedy's house in Palm Beach, Fla. He waited for the president-elect to emerge. He did - but so did Jackie and 3-year-old Caroline. The bomber couldn't bring himself to act. What if?

Greenfield clearly thinks we live in an open universe, where things could go many ways at any time.

"I think it's ridiculous to say, 'What actually happens is always inevitable.' If Charles Evans Hughes had not lost California by a few thousand votes, Woodrow Wilson would not have won a second term - and then, would we ever have gotten into World War I?"

There arerules for writing speculative history.

"Your arguments have to be plausible," Greenfield says. "You can't just say, 'What if Hitler invented a laser bomb?' You have to base your speculations on facts and plausibilities that issue from the known characters and choices of the people you're writing about."

In his second term, JFK specifically does notpush for the Great Society and War on Poverty so prominent in the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

"Kennedy was always looking for the narrowest decision he could make, not the big gesture," Greenfield says. "LBJ pressed people to agree, tried to get everyone on the record, made everything personal. Kennedy was the chief at the board meeting, always asking for more information" - behavior seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis deliberations.

So Kennedy probably would have found a way not to engage in Vietnam. At his death, he was already exploring ways to ease relations with Russia and China. While he was the first president to address the nation on race - "a move with definite historic significance," Greenfield says - he would have temporized about direct ways to address race and poverty.

Kennedy's ruthlessness asserts itself as well. Based on what the brothers Kennedy did against the steel manufacturers - using power back-channels to pressure and threaten steelmakers who wanted to ramp up prices - Greenfield portrays Kennedy strong-arming a publisher considering an article on his sexcapades and drug use.

At the end of If Kennedy Lived, days before the momentous (and, in this book, startling) election of 1968, Kennedy sits in his leather jacket on the back porch of the White House, his presidency behind him, wondering what's next. Cliffhangers marital and political await.

So much turns on so little.

"You constantly wonder, 'What would have happened if I hadn't left my wife? If I hadn't gotten my job? If I hadn't missed that big opportunity?' " Greenfield says. "It's a way of thinking deeply, and often you learn more when you ask these questions."

Why are we so stuck on JFK? Why do we return to him and his era, again and again, in a way we don't for anyone except perhaps Lincoln?

Greenfield points to the four-day "ordeal by television," unprecedented in human experience, in which a world watched the death of a president, and his killer, and its aftermath, via newly expanded global communications media.

"And also, [Kennedy's tenure] was a time of optimism, just before a time of war, racial division, and upheaval," Greenfield says. "It was a brief moment when things seemed better, just before the world turned dark."




comments powered by Disqus