Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories

Jeff Greenfield is a political correspondent and commentator for CBS News. He previously worked for ABC, contributing to “Nightline” when it was a serious program. For a while, he was also part of what CNN modestly calls, “the best political reporting team in television.”

He knows a great deal about politics, having worked for Robert Kennedy when RFK was a senator and then presidential candidate in 1968. Greenfield has seen the good, bad, and ugly of politics from the inside and outside.

Because United States history is tarnished with four presidential assassinations and even a greater number of attempted ones, we have come to expect the unexpected. This leads inevitably to “what if” ruminations about what might have been had we not experienced unforeseen detours.

Greenfield, who has previously written a variety of non-fiction and fiction books, has taken a series of accurate historical facts and mixed them with three hypothetical “what ifs” to create scenarios of what-might-have-been in his novel, Then Everything Changed. It is a fascinating read that generates more “what ifs” on the part of the reader. He enlightens and entertains by ensuring that the alternative scenarios have Sarah Palin, Monica Lewinsky, and George W. Bush moments, only with different people in different settings.

The first of the three “everything changed” moments was in 1960. It occurred after John F. Kennedy had been elected, but not really. In this scenario, something happens before the esteemed Electoral College codifies the popular election of John F. Kennedy. The event that changed everything is an alteration of a documented event that did not occur because of good fortune.

The second event falls in the category of “wishful thinking” for people who were alive, conscious, and semi-progressive in 1968. When Sirhan Sirhan attempts to assassinate Robert Kennedy, someone literally intervenes and Robert Kennedy leaves the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles alive and well. Greenfield was actually present that evening. Undoubtedly during those fleeting moments between when it became clear the Kennedy had won the California primary and when he was slain by Sirhan Sirhan, Greenfield did what so many other Kennedy aides did. He was gaming certain strategies so that RFK’s popularity among the Democratic electorate could be transferred into a majority of delegates at the August convention in Chicago. To his credit, Greenfield doesn’t even try to make the happenings in Chicago any more bizarre than they actually were.

The third “everything changed” moment involved President Gerald Ford. If you’re thinking that Greenfield altered history by having either Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme or Sarah Jane Moore successfully assassinate Ford in their separate attempts in California in September, 1975, you’re wrong. You have to fast-forward to October 6, 1976, when Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter were in a televised debate from The Palace of Fine Arts Theater in San Francisco. In a moment that might be attributed to fatigue, Ford said the following, thirteen years prior to the end of the Cold War:

“There is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

Even after he was given a second chance to correct his faux pas, Ford stood by his initial words.

In Then Everything Changed, Greenfield hypothesizes that, upon further reflection, Ford recognizes that he had mis-spoken his position and assures everyone that he is well aware of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. He commits himself to do everything he can to extend liberty to the peoples of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and a number of other buffer countries on the Soviet Union’s western border.

Even though Carter presented himself as, and in many ways was, the beacon of integrity that the United States needed after the Nixon years, Ford came remarkably close to defeating him. Ford barely lost both Ohio and Wisconsin, states wit large immigrant populations from Eastern Europe, many of whom were baffled by his repeated misstatement.

The book ends shortly after a scintillating campaign in 1980. By this time, Ford was term-limited out and could not run again after his hypothetical victory in 1976.

Greenfield’s thirty-seven page Afterword provides enough factual credibility to the alternate histories to give them plausibility and credibility.

At the end of the book, Greenfield references a political genius who is not only gaming scenarios for the presidential election of 2012, but also for 2016 and 2020. I wonder how many combinations and permutations he has. He’s looking nine years ahead. Nine years ago who heard of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, or Rand Paul? Nine years ago Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator who was more than two years removed from gaining his initial visibility at the 2004 Democratic convention.

What is clear from Greenfield’s book is that the United States is a very resilient country. But if we fast forward thirty years from the conclusion his book in April, 1980, we might wonder how much reserve there is left in our resilience. A year of lying by an otherwise very capable president in the 1990s, the unexpected a vicious attack of September 11, 2001, the “wag the dog” war of Iraq, the absurdity of American being involved in its longest war in a country that has not been conquered since A.D. 600, and a large portion of the electorate thinking that the president of the United States was born in a different country.

We can find amusement and engagement in Then Everything Changed. We might also take it as a parable of caution as to how much stress we can place on the world’s oldest democracy. As Greenfield subtly asserts, we came close to achieving stable governance that was progressive during the Kennedy years. Are we doing that now; can it be done now? Much to think about.