Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics

  • Jeff Greenfield
  • G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • 448 pp.

A skilled political observer imagines how things might have turned out.

Reviewed by Charles Lane

The “butterfly effect” is a well-known paradox of imagined time travel. It posits that if you could visit the past, your presence there could alter the course of events, however slightly, with ever-widening ripple effects through time, such that you would return to a barely recognizable present. In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder,” four men travel back millions of years to hunt dinosaurs, but one hunter accidentally steps on a butterfly — and by the time the group gets home to the 21st century, English itself has changed and a different man has been elected president of the United States.

Jeff Greenfield conducts a similar thought experiment on the last half-century or so of American politics, with results that are no less entertaining and thought provoking than Bradbury’s tale. In this collection of three fictional pieces — rooted firmly in fact and in Greenfield’s own deep experience as political participant and observer — Greenfield ponders what might have happened if an actual, but long-forgotten, assassination plot against John F. Kennedy in December 1960 had succeeded; or if Robert F. Kennedy had dodged Sirhan Sirhan’s deadly bullet in June 1968; or if Gerald R. Ford had not blunderingly denied Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in his 1976 presidential debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter.

In the first scenario, Greenfield invites us to contemplate the death of President-elect John Kennedy before his apparent victory over Richard Nixon had actually been affirmed by the Electoral College. He leads us through the high-pressure negotiations among the Republican and Democratic power-brokers of the day, who, lacking clear constitutional instructions on how to proceed, arrange for the House of Representatives to pick then-Vice President-elect Lyndon B. Johnson as president. Among the results is a swifter expansion of voting rights for blacks, as the ever-political LBJ chooses to emphasize the ballot box as the key to civil rights, and uses his mastery of the Senate to make it happen.

In the second scenario, Robert Kennedy’s survival in 1968 leads to his winning the nomination at a brokered — and much less tumultuous — Democratic convention in Chicago, followed by victory over Richard Nixon in the fall. There is no Watergate, but Nixon still goes to China, this time as RFK’s secret personal envoy. As for the third scenario: If Gerald Ford had not stumbled in a debate with Jimmy Carter, his campaign’s momentum would have continued to build, enabling him to eke out an Electoral College majority. The repercussions of this outcome spread all the way to the Middle East, where the Shah of Iran, trusting a Republican administration, voluntarily yields power to a coalition that includes moderate clerics, instead of hanging on until he is overthrown by an Islamist revolution.

Readers can quibble endlessly with these scenarios. I am less confident than Greenfield that the RFK presidency would have turned into a laboratory of smaller-government “New Democrat” policy solutions. Greenfield plausibly predicts that with Ford barred by the Constitution from running a second time, Ronald Reagan would have won the GOP nomination in 1980, as he did, but then Reagan would have been forced to defend the bad economic conditions he so deftly blamed on Carter in real life. But would the Democrats have made Gary Hart, with his flawed character, their standard-bearer against Reagan, and would he have won, as Greenfield suggests? I have my doubts.

But that’s just the fun — Greenfield need not convince completely to entertain thoroughly. His book passes the test of plausibility, which is the only relevant one. It presents alternative reality not only in outline but in delightfully fine detail. One of his defter suggestions is that a John Kennedy death in December 1960 would have precluded the James Bond literary boom that followed JFK’s real-life praise for From Russia With Love in March 1961. To be sure, some of Greenfield’s imaginings struck me as a bit contrived, like the moment in which “President” Hart’s “deputy chief of staff,” Hillary Clinton, breaks in on her boss and an intern in mid-philander — har, har.

But for the most part, Greenfield’s prose is vivid and clear, portraying political players from John Connally to Tom Hayden to Everett Dirksen with confidence and color. Greenfield is especially good at getting inside the head of his former boss, Robert Kennedy, for whom the author obviously harbors a strong residual admiration. A challenge for this book, however, will be to connect with younger readers who do not recall the dramatis personae of yesteryear.

Whether you agree or not with Greenfield on all the what-ifs, he implicitly wins a broader philosophical argument — against historical determinism of all kinds. Yes, political leaders are caught up to some extent in larger geographical, economic and social forces. But their decisions, shaped by their intelligence and will, make a difference. So does that ineffable, dangerous force Machiavelli called fortuna. Greenfield’s meditation on circumstance, personality and chance shows how easily our national story might have taken many very different turns — and reminds us that our choices today may be more fateful than we imagine.

Charles Lane is an editorial writer for The Washington Post and author of The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.


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