Tuesday, October 23, 2012

For Good or Ill, What Might Have Been: Jeff Greenfield's Then Everything Changed

 "President Robert Kennedy", speaking on August 3, 1969

As a lifelong science fiction buff I must confess that my favourite sub-genre in the field is the alternate-history novel. Likely stemming from my interest in history and its many ramifications (I have a minor degree in it, to go with my major in Political Science) I’ve always been gripped by stories of the Nazis winning the Second World War – being Jewish makes that one more understandable, of course – or of the South triumphing in the US Civil War, among many other tropes. (Clearly I'm not alone, as these two “alternate realities” are the ones that have appeared most often in alt history novels.) That’s because, in my view, history can turn on a dime and one deviation from the norm can trigger any number of side effects or alternate history scenarios, which is absolutely compelling to someone who also likes reading SF as much as I do. (Imagine if Archduke Ferdinand had not been assassinated when he was; or if Adolf Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union when he did, to name two of the most obvious examples of history changed by one specific action.) And now that the pivotal crucial American presidential election is merely two weeks away, it’s worth examining Jeff Greenfield’s latest book, Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (G.P. Putnam and Sons, 2011) for a fresh take on the what-if basis of alternate history.

Greenfield’s book differs in significant ways from such classics as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or more recently Philip Roth’s (not quite classic) The Plot Against America – alternate American histories revolving around aspects of a different WWII timeline – in that Greenfield is not a fiction writer, but a political reporter who’s long toiled for television news, covering all the vagaries of American politics. So his book brings a more grounded, perhaps less fanciful look at a particularly pertinent present-day subject: the character of the man who would become President of the United States, or more specifically an imagining of a world where different men became President or were either catapulted into office earlier than expected or won elections that they lost in real life. The results of his literary musings are both fascinating and thought-provoking.

In essence, Greenfield re-writes three key pivotal moments in American history, one of which is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch, but also the most original of his three what-if propositions. The first involves the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or rather the President- elect who is blown up by one Richard Pavlick in December of 1960 before he actually assumes office. (Pavlick, whom I had never heard of, actually planned to blow up JFK, but hesitated at the last minute because wife Jackie Kennedy and his daughter Caroline would have been killed, as well, and he couldn’t bring himself to carry out the murder knowing they would die too.) Greenfield’s second change to our recorded history has Robert Kennedy surviving his assassination in 1968 because of a decision which meant he was not in the wrong place when Sirhan Sirhan opened fire on him. The third is more subtle, with Gerald Ford defeating Jimmy Carter in 1976 by avoiding the gaffe when he declared, during a Presidential debate, that Eastern Europe was not occupied by the Soviet Union. (That also leads to an alternate scenario for 1980 and a different Commander-in-Chief than Ronald Reagan; I won’t tell you who wins that election so as not to spoil the surprise, but I certainly would have welcomed a different outcome in that race.)

With those three wrinkles in time, Greenfield ranges far afield to showcase how the alternate Presidencies would have impacted on America and the world at large. Thus, Lyndon Johnson’s ascendancy as President three year earlier makes for different outcomes and trajectories from the prosecution of the Vietnam War to the passage of his groundbreaking Civil Rights Act. But Johnson’s doubts, temperament and vacillations aren’t ignored either. (Then Everything Changed isn’t pure SF in that Greenfield, for the most part, still works from the known facts about his subjects.) A Robert Kennedy presidency would have been even more significant, deviating from Richard Nixon’s in virtually every way one can imagine. It’s enthralling to read Greenfield’s passages where Robert heads out to Grant Park in Chicago, at considerable personal risk, to speak to the protesters there because it’s so easy to imagine him doing just that, thus ameliorating the horrible, violent outcome of the 1968 Democratic National Convention as we know it. This Kennedy – unlike his more cautious older brother, who also never got a chance to reap major changes on America – decisively changes things for the better. As for Ford’s second term as President, it’s more of an excuse for Greenfield to leap ahead to a riveting 1980 presidential race and a scathing take on Reagan’s underhanded attempts to win the Presidency and his dire underestimation of his Democratic opponent. In all three speculations, Greenfield has fun with known facts and acts and postulates how other aspects of the culture, entertainment, diplomacy and reaction to aggression aboard could have played out in new ways because of the man in the Oval Office. He also throws in alternate personal histories for the likes of Iran’s fundamentalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example. These examinations are clever but occasionally facile, too.  That's a criticism that can also be applied to the book’s admittedly amusing conclusion regarding the 1980 winner of the Presidency.

Jeff Greenfield
Then Everything Changed may be a bit too breezy for its own good – Greenfield’s literary failings sometimes mean his descriptive powers don’t entirely do justice to his subjects – but it’s also quite a valuable read, which I suspect is why the book was written in the first place by someone who understands the genuine complexity of politics. It has become much too easy for cynics, on both the right and the left, to postulate that it doesn’t ultimately much matter who actually inhabits the highest office in the land, because in effect, there is no substantive difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. Conservatives point to the big government mantra practised by both sides of the political spectrum, which is true. (Note, too, that many Conservatives, despite their late embrace of Mitt Romney, consider him  to be excessively liberal, pointing to his non-ideological stint as government of Massachusetts.) And many left-wing Democrats don’t think Obama has gone far enough to assuage their concerns, as if the American electorate had elected a Noam Chomsky clone to the White House. Yet, that’s too easy a speculation as you have only to consider who the opponents have been in pretty much any recent American Presidential election you can think of (Obama vs. McCain; Gore vs. George W. Bush; Reagan vs. Carter) to see substantive variations between the men. Changes on the level of size of government or how things are really done are larger than any one President or leader can possibly achieve in one four-year term, let alone two. A real revolution in America would be almost impossible to pull off by anyone, no matter how determined they were to upset the apple cart. (It's not quite the same in Canada, where the differences between the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservatives were historically never that wide, and yet, the current Conservative Prime Minster Stephen Harper has pushed his party much further away from the two current centre-left parties, The Liberals and The New Democratic Party, than has ever been the case in Canadian history.)

Greenfield's book belies simplistic observations of that sort to get at an unfashionable truth: the man (or hopefully some day woman) who becomes President can and often does still matter in the scheme of things. A President Nixon during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis would have likely, unlike Kennedy, bent to the will of the American generals who wanted Cuba nuked. An Al Gore as President instead of George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 might not have demonstrated a forceful enough response to the terror attacks even if he mercifully avoided the setbacks of war in Iraq.  You need look no further than the current Presidential race and imagine November 7, the day after the 2012 election, when people will already be pondering what would have happened if Romney had won, or if Obama had garnered a second term. That’s because on virtually every issue – abortion, gay marriage, health care, Iran, the Arab Spring, everything except the security of Israel – these two men, despite some of Romney's claims in the third Presidential debate, are polar opposites, and whoever becomes President will reflect those beliefs and institute their own approaches to the matters at hand, resulting in very different outcomes. Then Everything Changed reminds us that it has always been thus, and allows us to speculate on how things might have been, thus functioning as a pertinent lesson in the genuine value of one citizen’s vote and the distinct choices available, each election, to the populace at large.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses and will also be reprising his course, Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft: The Social Cinema of Sidney Lumet, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina - Toronto), beginning Monday October 15 from 7-9 p.m: http://mnjcc.org/arts/900-intelligent-art-and-meticulous-craft-the-social-cinema-of-sidney-lumet

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