Friday, November 22, 2013

Imagine!: Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived

Photo by Walt Cisco/Dallas Morning News

I was only four years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, fifty years ago today, also on Friday. Though I don’t remember that event I've always admired the man, despite the later revelations of his philandering before and during his years at the White House. I’m Canadian but like so many people I felt that JFK symbolized a promise for a better future for his country and by extension the rest of the planet, which also took to his fresh, youthful vigour. His was a promise, of course, cut tragically short when he was still in his prime. And I, too, have wondered what a two term John F. Kennedy presidency would have meant, in light of America’s continuing presence in Vietnam and its challenges surrounding race relations. In that vein, Jeff Greenfield’s new speculative book, If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (Putnam) is a welcome imaginative journey into a world that so many of us wish had come to be and a timely reminder that one man can make a huge difference in the world.

Greenfield, a veteran journalist who has already made a previous, effective foray into presidential alternate history with his book Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, keeps to a modest tone throughout. He never overstates his points, but emphasizes that a continuing Kennedy presidency would have been significantly at odds with the Lyndon B. Johnson one we actually lived through.

The reason Kennedy doesn’t die in Dallas in the book is pretty simple. Unlike what actually happened, the weather in the city on Nov. 22, 1963 is overcast and rainy. This necessitates a Plexiglas cover for the limo Kennedy is riding in, a shield which ultimately deflects the bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald at the President, resulting in him being seriously but not fatally wounded. (Greenfield makes it clear that Oswald is the only shooter; no flights of fancy into unverified conspiracy theorizing for this sober reporter, thankfully.) After that everything changes, not just Kennedy’s life, obviously, but those of all the politicians directly or indirectly affected by the killing of the President, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey to Robert Kennedy.

But the America Greenfield now envisions is altered in so many significant ways, simply because the very act of Kennedy’s survival changes the complexion of the country and how it sees itself. Kennedy’s murder was a body blow to the United States’ positive, invulnerable sense of itself, akin to the shock the nation felt after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and one which took years, even decades, to recover if it ever did. And that positive theme runs straight through If Kennedy Lived. It’s almost, Greenfield postulates, that his not being killed was enough in itself to steer the nation on the right (moral) course through the rest of the decade.

Of course, a John Kennedy who lived would have to finally deal with whether his country would stay or leave Vietnam – he had stated that the U.S. would stay the course in that land but towards the end of his life was giving signs that he was changing his views on the subject. He would also need to decide how and how fast to proceed on improving the dire plight of the nation’s oppressed black population and, not incidentally, hide his serious health issues, the debilitating Addison’s disease that grievously afflicted him and which few Americans knew anything about. Then, too, there was the issue of his continuous adulterous affairs. Would the press have finally decided to lift the shackles of self-censorship in that regard, the reticence to delve into a public figures’ personal life, which shielded the President from opprobrium during this three years in office? Remember, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover hated the Kennedys with a passion and furthermore had a lot of dirt on both John and Robert Kennedy.

Carefully parsing the genuine possibilities of what Kennedy might have done and not done, and delving into many books already written on the late President, often lifting genuine scenes and real speeches and placing them in another context or putting the words in someone’s else mouth, Greenfield comes up with a plausible what-if? scenario that rarely stumbles in its execution. The exception is his less than elegant writing. Words appear twice in one sentence and adjectives repeat. But then again Jeff Greenfield is foremost a journalist and not a novelist, so I’ll blame his editors for failing to improve his prose. He also keeps his cleverness to a minimum – there was a bit too much of it in Then Everything Changed – though he, perhaps, evokes too much of the present in events that came before. History may indeed repeat itself but modern tropes, like George W. Bush’s too cocky "mission accomplished" comments concerning Iraq, don’t necessarily have antecedents in the past. No matter, at its best, If Kennedy Lived makes you think how things would have and could have changed if history played out in another fashion.

One key omission in the book is the Middle East. Would the Six Day War have happened or ended in the same manner and would the U.S. response to Israel’s lightning quick victory and its capturing of lands still being disputed today have been the same? That’s a crucial question as the present day very close U.S.–Israel special relationship has its genesis in the climactic events of June 1967. Otherwise, Greenfield ably covers all the necessary bases, including the state of Soviet–U.S. relations and American reaction to the new nationalisms then roiling the developing world.

Jeff Greenfield
Embedded in the science fiction-like speculations, however, is likely the main reason Greenfield wrote If Kennedy Lived, the idea of what the man meant to the nation and how his legacy would have played out if he had completed his mandate. (Greenfield was twenty years of age in November 1963, so he would have been profoundly affected by his death, not least because Kennedy’s words and actions spoke especially to the young, something addressed forcefully in the book.) I won’t spill the beans on what happens in Greenfield’s ‘world’ but suffice it to say that a two term John F. Kennedy presidency would have had a measurable and largely salutary effect on his nation even if his detractors would have seemed to be gaining the upper hand at times. And that’s what one takes out of the book. In my lifetime, when few American presidents have actually improved the lot of their citizens – Johnson, Bill Clinton, maybe, oddly enough, Richard Nixon – and others have been either mediocre (both Bushes), ineffectual (Jimmy Carter) or damaging (Ronald Reagan), a triumphant, successful JFK would certainly have had a lasting impact. (So would a President Robert Kennedy, as is made clear in Mitchell J. Freedman's incredibly detailed and thoughtful 700 plus page book A Disturbance of Fate: The Presidency of Robert F. Kennedy [Ibooks Inc., 2006].) 

Consider the present occupant of the White House, Barack Obama, a decent man who came to power promising change similar to that of John F. Kennedy (and who broke though a colour barrier not that dissimilar to Kennedy’s religious one) but who of late has squandered the good will of the populace, with his weak and disappointing stand on Syria and his regrettably botched health care plan, the latter partially undone by the unpleasant realities of the toxic and partisan political system of today. By comparison, one can’t help but fervently wish that things had changed on Nov 22, 1963 as its improvements - pace Greenfield - would likely have continued on through to the present. Neither we nor he can say for sure what would have happened if Oswald had failed in his violent mission, but for the duration of If Kennedy Lived, we can only dream of and hope for what might have been. Greenfield’s is a lovely tribute to a (still) admirable man, who was taken from us all too soon. We’ll always remember you, Jack.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is just finishing teaching a course on acting archetypes.

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