Author and political commentator Jeff Greenfield will speak 7 p.m. Thursday in the Main Library’s McMaster Center at Authors! Authors!, cosponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Rain starts. Rain stops.
Suppose the rain didn’t stop. The bubble top would have remained on the 1961 Lincoln Continental as it drove through Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
“History turns on a dime. Or as I say, it doesn’t turn on a dime, it turns on a plugged nickel,” said political commentator Jeff Greenfield.
His new book, If Kennedy Lived (The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History), is hinged on that meteorological twist of fate: JFK survives the assassination attempt and completes eight years in office. How would life in the United States have been different?
The New York City native will explore that topic at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Main Library’s McMaster Center at Authors! Authors!, cosponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
“It’s what I hope is informed speculation,” he said.
It’s the 13th book Greenfield, 70, has written or co-authored in a career that’s been honored with five Emmy Awards for excellence in television reporting and commentary. He no longer appears regularly on television but consults with HBO on specific programs, writes a political column twice a month for Yahoo! News, and is working on a political novel. Early in his career, he worked in politics as a Senate aide, for former New York mayor John Lindsay, and for Robert F. Kennedy when Greenfield was fresh out of Yale’s law school.
“Suppose he would have survived Dallas. What would our history have been like? And I’ve done this sort of thing before. The whole point for me of doing what is called counter-factual history is to understand how much our history can be shaped by small twists of fate that might put different people with very different traits, beliefs, character, and impulses, in positions of power,” he said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home.
“A lot of historians have argued for what is called a deterministic account of history: ‘Look, this happened and it’s the only thing that could have happened.’ And I have a very different view of how life works.” It’s a view in which verbs tend to the “might/could/would have been.”
“A twist of fate can lead to enormous consequences, even in our personal lives. You go to a party and somebody shows up and that’s the person you spend the rest of your life with. You take one course instead of another and your whole career path changes. I think history works that way too.”
Elected president but not yet inaugurated in early 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was giving an impromptu talk in Miami when Giuseppe Zangara opened fire, hitting five people but missing FDR. “Do we think America would have been different if Roosevelt had not been around during the Depression?” Greenfield asks.
Winston Churchill looked the wrong way on a New York street in 1931, was struck by a car, and seriously injured. Might British history have been different had he died?
“If he wasn’t there when Britain was facing its biggest test, would Britain have survived World War II? And if Hitler had not decided to turn and invade Russia in 1941 and kept aiming all his firepower at Britain, maybe even with Churchill it couldn’t have survived.
“We really have to stop thinking that we know how to predict. We have to bring some humility, particularly people who do what I do. I always read these things about this guy’s gonna win, this guy’s gonna lose. And fate plays a very powerful role not just in our personal lives but in the lives of our county and the world.”
In the new book, “neither all sunshine nor all darkness,” Greenfield writes on how Kennedy would have dealt with civil rights, his health, publicity about his extramarital escapades, and Vietnam.
“I think Kennedy would not have escalated the war in Vietnam. This is a matter of big historical debate, but if you look at his impulses he was a very cautious person about the use of force. He was a skeptic about how much we really knew about a country like Vietnam. He’d been through the Cuban missile crisis, which had brought the world very close to nuclear holocaust, and he knew how critical it was not to miscalculate, not to work on false premises.
“He was a political animal and he would have been very cautious about being seen to have retreated in the face of a communist insurgency. But my feeling is based on what I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot, that he would have cautiously figured out a way to back out of Vietnam slowly and in a politically prudent way.
“If that had happened, if we had not had a [protracted] war in Vietnam, the second most important thing is the counter culture of the 1960s would not have been as dark as it was. We would have had sex, drugs, and rock and roll because we had a huge younger generation, you had birth control pills, and you had a revolution in music and culture. But you would not have had people burning American flags and you would not have had violence on that side. In that sense, it would have been a very different country. What you might have had is a kinder, gentler polarization. You might have had young people working in things like the domestic Peace Corps because they wouldn’t have been as cynical about the government.”
In the book’s final 16 pages, Greenfield details his sources of speculation, citing memoirs, materials, and new interviews he conducted. On the counter culture, he spoke with Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin, founders of Students for a Democratic Society, and progressive journalist David Talbot. Greenfield himself was editor of the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin when President Kennedy was killed.
Civil rights and race would have been challenging for any president, he figures, adding that President Lyndon B. Johnson may have handled them more effectively, because domestic affairs and an understanding of how Congress worked were among his strengths.
And JFK’s many romantic liaisons? The book plays out a dark scenario in which the president and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, went to enormous lengths to keep them secret.
“I was basing this on what they had done during the big controversy in 1962 when the steel companies raised their prices and President Kennedy felt they had broken their word to him. This was all about keeping down steel prices and damping down inflation, so the Kennedy administration and Robert Kennedy in particular used the power they had in a way that would have been highly, highly controversial had it become known. They were using tax returns of the steel executives and they were threatening anti-trust actions. So I extrapolated from that, if that’s what they did to stop the steel price increases, I think they would have used every means fair and not so fair to keep the story from bringing him down.”
Greenfield wrote a counter-factual book in 2011, Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, in which JFK never became president, RFK did become president, and Gerald Ford beat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
He decided to write a magazine story on JFK living to serve eight years as president and sent it to his agent, who sent it to Greenfield’s editor, “who said ‘I want this book but it has to be in bookstores a month before November for the timing [of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death].’ So I wrote this book in four months.” He worked on it full time at the Santa Barbara, Calif., home he shares with his wife, Dena Sklar, a Realtor. He plays tennis, swims, and loves time with his grandchildren. “My wife and I like hiking. We’re off to Vietnam and Cambodia soon.”
Where does he turn for news?
“The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post because it’s a brassy tabloid. I look at lots of Web sites ranging from Politico to Buzzfeed, to Talkingpoints. I try to drink from the fire hose.”
Contact Tahree Lane: at email@example.com or 419-724-6075.