Cecil Stoughton / The White House via EPA file
President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy walk off Air Force One in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
It was raining in Dallas on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. But the skies cleared in time for John F. Kennedy’s motorcade to roll through the streets without a protective bubble top on the president’s car.
Jeff Greenfield, the author and political analyst, pondered what might have happened if the rain had held — the starting point for a butterfly-effect tale that imagines JFK surviving the assassination attempt and changing the course of the 1960s.
The result is “If Kennedy Lived,” an alternate history in which Kennedy rolls to a second term, welcomes the Beatles to the White House and — in a bit of catnip for historians — ends American involvement in Vietnam.
What might have been is familiar ground for Greenfield, whose previous book “Then Everything Changed” spun out different endings for three other hinge points of history, including a suicide bomber’s real attempt on Kennedy’s life in December 1960.
“It’s been a constant source of fascination to me,” he says. “I think ever since I got interested in politics, at an indecently early age... How much politics, and, I later learned, history in general, can be fundamentally altered by these tiny turns of fate.”
In Greenfield’s telling, Walter Cronkite interrupts “As the World Turns” on CBS to report the shots fired, the bubble top shattered and the president hit — but never has reason to remove his horn-rimmed glances. Kennedy is given last rites at Parkland Memorial Hospital, but only as a precaution.
Three-year-old John Jr. offers his crisp salute three weeks later, when the president, wounded but alive, touches down in Marine One on the White House lawn. Kennedy soars to re-election in 1964.
And then history spins in a completely different direction.
Evan Agostini / AP
The young president, educated by the close call of the Cuban missile crisis and eager to lower the world’s temperature, ends American involvement in Vietnam. Without a war to oppose, the counterculture movement of the ’60s, at least as we know it, never happens.
De-escalation in Vietnam is the book’s most thought-provoking and controversial turn, and not all historians are persuaded.
H.W. Brands, an author and history professor at the University of Texas, wrote in a review for The Washington Post that the American effort in Vietnam “looked promising to most observers” until what would have been late in JFK’s second term.
“Of course, Greenfield’s Kennedy is blessed with the author’s hindsight,” he wrote. “Real presidents aren’t so fortunate.”
Greenfield says he has no problem with the second-guessing, comparing the work of his own imaginations to the computer simulations that statisticians run to predict the outcomes of elections and sporting events.
What matters most, he says, is plausibility — plugging in everything we know about Kennedy’s temperament, beliefs, impulses and real experiences, keeping the story as grounded as possible in facts. And then playing out the rest.
“You’re talking about probability,” he says. “Anybody who asserts with a moral certainty that they know is blowing smoke.”
The advances of the civil rights movement still happen in Greenfield’s story, far too powerful a force of history to be denied. The twist: Kennedy gets civil rights passed with critical advice from Lyndon Johnson — on the phone from Texas, where he is living out his years after resigning the vice presidency.
A corruption investigation into the vice president, also very real, was shelved by the editors at Life magazine in the sensitive weeks after Kennedy was killed. Had he survived, Greenfield surmises, Johnson would have been taken down.
The book has plenty of irresistible turns for political junkies: Richard Nixon, fuming over a Kennedy power grab, complains that “Just because a president does it does not mean it’s legal.”
And a young Al Gore, talking political strategy with his senator father in 1968, can’t conceive of a presidential candidate’s losing his home state. (Greenfield re-imagined the contested 2000 election in an e-book released last year.)
“I just put little nuggets in there for people to enjoy,” Greenfield says. “A way of rewarding people who watch C-SPAN for erotic arousal.”
Greenfield’s research included the mountain of Kennedy-era biographies and memoirs and interviews with a cadre of presidential historians.
The book is not exactly a Camelot tale: JFK is nearly undone by revelations about his private life, and severely damaged by assertions of abuse of power and misuse of the IRS — plot threads both firmly grounded in history.
The story ends in the final days of Kennedy’s second term, just before a close 1968 election between Hubert Humphrey and the Republican nominee, an insurgent candidate named Ronald Reagan.
Kennedy, who was assassinated at 46 and would have been 51 at the end of a second term, ponders his future over a cigar on the Truman Balcony, after a deliciously intriguing conversation with the first lady.
“My guess is that ’68 would have been very close. People look for change,” Greenfield says. “Reagan was a powerful communicator. On the other hand, we would have had a peace-and-prosperity attempt to continue Kennedy.”
“So,” he concludes, “I don’t know how it would have turned out.”
First published November 19 2013, 5:52 PM