Transcript for Jeff Greenfield on "Then Everything Changed"

Jim Fleming: We live in a world where the present is uncertain and the future is unknown, so we look to the past to figure out where we've been and where we're going. What we often don't think about is how little it would take to change everything.

If it had rained in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, we might be celebrating the life of a ninety-something John F. Kennedy. Just one little thing could have changed everything.

But if one thing could change, so could another, and to a man who has followed American politics for the last half-century --that-- is a fascinating subject.

Jeff Greenfield explores some alternatives in a triptych of political could have been novellas called "Then Everything Changed."

Why were they so compelling?

Jeff Greenfield: It's basically, I think, a lifetime in and covering politics, where the role of fate, random chance, sliding doors, the flip of a coin, has had an enormous influence.

And you are quite right once the past has happened, we tend to impose on it a pattern, but over and over again, it struck me, both in reading history and living through it, how much just a twist of fate would change everything.

I mean, the first example in my book is December of 1960, there's a suicide bomber parked outside John Kennedy's Palm Beach home ready to blow him up, secret service didn't see him. He only didn't do it 'cause Jacqueline and Caroline came to the door. Now, that's fact. It's gone all but ignored.

So if you simply say, "Well, Jackie had a tough childbirth recently, she slept in, Kennedy came to the door by himself" and you then have a country where John Kennedy is killed before ever becoming president. Which, as I recounted, leads to a very different history.

And I think there are examples, both in my book and outside, over and over again, where you just, you shake your head, and you think, "My god, it could have easily been X as Y."

Fleming: Now, this is an interesting decision that you made. Frankly, it would have been more obvious, I would have thought, for you to make Lee Harvey Oswald miss and allowed Kennedy to live. That's, for most people, the change point of the 1960's, you moved back from that. Is part of that because we know so much about who L.B.J. was? Lyndon Johnson? Is it in some ways easier to see and alternative history with him taking Kennedy's place with no Kennedy in his past?

Greenfield: If the thesis of the book is that a tiny little change can lead to an enormous result, it's just for me more interesting, in two ways.

One, nobody remembers that John Kennedy was almost killed in Palm Beach and it's a way of reminding people how easy it is to forget the random chance factor. I mean, obviously everybody knows Dallas.

The second thing is, the change it leads to when you get to the Cuban Missile Crisis is to say the least consequential and it's a product of not just of the little flip of fate, but having an understanding of who this man is, what were his strengths, his weaknesses, you know, he knew congress like the back of his hand. So in my history, we get voting rights and a poverty program years earlier.

But, if you know how he thought or didn't think about foreign policy his lack of skepticism, and the fact that, in my book, it's not a fact, but my notion that Robert Kennedy would have taken John's seat in Massachusetts, and would have had a much harder line than he developed after a couple of years around his brother, learning not necessarily to trust the easy assurances of military people. So you have a whole... it just to me was a much more interesting alternate history.

Fleming: It startled me when I got to the end of the first one and you did a reset to reality, as you call it, you tell us what really happened in those years and why this was so different. And then when you start the second story, it doesn't follow out of the first one.

Greenfield: Yeah, it's June 4th of 1968, in the Ambassador Hotel, Robert Kennedy has just claimed victory in the California primary, and what I learned, and this was a chilling learning process. I'd gone up to the John F. Kennedy Library to read the oral histories of some of Robert Kennedy's close associates.

I worked in that campaign as a young aide, and I came across this oral history by his brother-in-law Steve Smith, who said, "You know, normally I'd have been in front of the senator." "I just made it a practice," he said "to always be in front of him to help clear the way," but because he'd gotten to the downstairs later, he, like all the other people around Robert Kennedy were behind him.

So by changing just, he gets there a few minutes earlier in my alternate history, is in front Robert Kennedy, knocks Sirhan down and then Robert Kennedy survives and one thing that hit me, when I started thinking about this, was you have to see what happened when Ronald Reagan survived John Hinckley's attempt on his life with good humor and grace, it produced an enormous flow of good will and affection and relief, and my notion is that had Robert Kennedy survived an assassination attempt, they would have changed the whole dynamic of that 1968 battle.

You know, it was eight weeks after King's murder, more or less. People still remembered obviously what had happened in Dallas and there would have been a sense of, "Wait a minute, we almost lost this guy" and what I then did was just intensely try to figure out an alternative history, that led to Robert Kennedy's nomination and ultimate election. Because that, I'm sure that part was therapy.

Fleming: There must have been several times in your career as a reporter, as an analyst, when you said to yourself, "If only..." I don't get the sense that you disliked Johnson. You have tried to maintain through all of these stories absolute plausibility.

Greenfield: Quite right. That was the standard. None of what happens is like a sci-fi thing, "let's have Hitler invent the laser beam and win World War II." All of these things, not just the incidents that trigger the alternate history but, for instance, some of the speeches, most of the speeches, in this book that Robert Kennedy gives are speeches he actually gave, just moved, and many of them denounced the size and power of the federal government.

He wants local control, he thinks the government's gotten too out of hand, too distant from people. Which almost sounds like Tea Party rhetoric, unless you knew that what Robert Kennedy was talking about was a much more intensive public-private partnership where they were resources to help particularly inner-city folks and rural poor people, but that they got control of it.

I mean, one of the things about Robert Kennedy that were so striking and where the law still suffers is, he was trying to redefine, if I can use a Wisconsin word, progressivism.

He thought that money alone wasn't absolutely going to solve the public school crisis, that structurally it had to change. I think teacher's unions would not have been happy, for instance, with Robert Kennedy's notion of letting high school kids take a few hours a day and work, to a) bring some money to those families and teach young women and specially young men, because of the time, the whole nature of a job and self-sufficiency.

And it's striking, when you look at those speeches from a distance of, now, forty-five years or so, to say, "Oh, that's what he was up to." But as I said to you, those were not made up.

Fleming: One of the interesting things for you must have been to give yourself and by extension your readers the opportunity to rediscover the man.

Greenfield: Absolutely, I'm wondering in fact if you haven't stumbled on one of the key motivations, certainly for that part of the book. You know, he is sort of surrounded by gauze for the past, and the idea of saying,"Look, I want you to know what he stood for, I want you to understand what he was arguing."

So that for instance, in inventing [??] a presidency, he gets a lot of resistance from traditional liberals and big city democratic mayors, because he wants power devolved into the localities, he wants work given to people who aren't necessarily members of what were then all-white craft unions, and so traditional type democrats, new-deal democrats would have said, "What do you mean you don't like public housing?"

Well, you know, he actually did in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, offer an alternative to public housing, he thought it was dehumanizing and yes, you are quite right, I wanted people to get a sense of who this guy really was and what he thought.

Fleming: Fascinating that it should all come from that one, little thing, but also, you know, when you start looking at the past every time you change one thing fifty others change.

Greenfield: Indeed, I mean, things big and small. One of the things I had fun with in the book was looking at pop culture, because there's no president Kennedy, there's no interview in Life Magazine where he salutes Ian Fleming's book and so there is no James Bond phenomenon.

I also have Robert Kennedy, basically, settle the Vietnam War really quickly, 'cause it was such a bone in the throat of the country, so that by the time  MASH comes out, the movie in 1970, nobody wants to see it, you know, it's a brilliant parable about a war that ended so there is no TV series.

Fleming: This comes back to your notion of plausibility, you really wanted to create a world that could have happened.

Greenfield: And I was aided by the things that real history taught me. I didn't know what Lyndon Johnson would have done to try to stop Bobby, and I thought maybe he'd want the nomination for himself after all, it turns out he did. In real life, in 1968, he had operative in Chicago with the convention, he had planed to announce a summit with the Soviet Union, fly to Chicago, give a speech, the end of which you can read in the book, I mean, this is a real speech drafted for him, and hope that maybe the delegates would swing to him. In "inventing" [??] that notion I didn't have to invent it.

And a lot of times I found in real history, this nuggets where you just sit there and you go, "Oh!" So it's amazing to me, you know, as you are sitting there at the keyboard and googling, and reading your histories and going, "Gee, how am I going to make this happen?" and then reality smacks you upside the head and says, "Try this."

Fleming: Jeff, thank you very much.

Veteran political journalist Jeff Greenfield is the author of "Then Everything Changed."


Comments for this interview

No comments yet.