ELEANOR VS. IKE
by Robin Gerber
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ever since Hillary Clinton announced her decision to run for the Senate, scuttlebutt has suggested, hoped, or warned that she had her sights on running for the position her husband held from 1993 through 2001. Of course, in 2007, she announced that she would run for the Presidency, ultimately losing in the primary to the eventual winner. Robin Gerber's Eleanor Vs. Ike looks at an earlier first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and postulates a run for the Presidency in 1952 against Dwight David Eisenhower. Although it is tempting to Read Gerber's novel as a hopeful substitution of Roosevelt for Clinton, to do so would do a disservice to Gerber and her novel.
Gerber hews relatively close to the historical record until Adlai E. Stevenson's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When Stevenson dies of an heart attack as he approaches the podium, Eleanor Roosevelt is dragooned into running for the Presidency as a compromise candidate. Despite Eleanor's abilities and charisma, Gerber is unable to make the case that the male-dominated world of politics in the early 1950s would have supported the candidacy of Roosevelt, a prospect which seems even more unlikely given that no woman has been nominated for the office in the 56 years since that election.
For the most part, Gerber focuses on Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Eisenhower. However, their political machinations are not the most interesting part of the book. Roosevelt attempts to woo in Negro vote in the South, and, despite a few nasty incidents, including one focused on historical figure Edgar Ray Killen. While Gerber includes a point person, another historical figure, Barbara Rose Johns, Roosevelt's Southern strategy seems to go a little more smoothly, and a little more successfully than seems feasible. The fact that much of the activity is shown at a distance, through polls and reports from Johns to Roosevelt, although distances the efforts from the reader.
One of the more interesting changes Gerber introduces is Joan Black, a reporter working for Roosevelt, and Jonathan Chamberlain, an operative in Eisenhower's camp. Both have ideas of revolutionizing the way elections are run, and their own relationship seems reminiscent of the relationship between Mary Matalin and James Carville in the real world. Unfortunately, both Black and Chamberlain are support characters, rather than the protagonists of Gerber's novel. Their ideas, whether the ones that are used by Roosevelt and Eisenhower, or the ones shelves, make a much more interesting look at the counterfactual possibilities of Gerber's world of 1952.
Gerber's writing is smooth and carries the reader along towards the conclusion of the novel and the political race. There are a few, minor, missteps where Gerber makes an error in geography or an anachronism, but these are relatively minor. Instead, she focuses on the political race, but ends the novel with her examination of the politics, barely touching on the societal changes that might have come from having Roosevelt run, successfully or unsuccessfully, for the office of the Presidency.
Eleanor Vs. Ike is an entertaining book, and will come as a pleasant thought experiment for those who have not read many counterfactual novels. However, Gerber makes some of the basic mistakes in the alternate history genre by focusing too closely on the changes as they relate to the principles without a full examination of the wider range of effects the change has. In part, this is due to Gerber's decision to end her story on election night, but even during the course of the election, she doesn't really explore the immediate ramifications of Roosevelt's candidacy or Chamberlain and Black's electoral innovations.
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