THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Comentator Jeff Greenfield has turned his knowledge of politics and history to explore the history that never happened in his book Then Everything Changed. Beginning with Richard Pavlick's aborted plan to assassinate John F. Kennedy before Inauguration Day, Greenfield posits three possible versions of the United States, each based on a more-or-less realistic change in history. He traces those changes, all of which center on the Presidency, to create credible versions of the United States that mirror, sometimes in horrific ways.
Beginning with the aforementioned assassination, Greenfield examines the roles played by Republicans and Democrats as a Constitutional crisis looms with Kennedy's death before the Electoral College meets. With Lyndon Johnson eventually ensconced in the White House three years earlier, and facing opposition and hatred from Robert Kennedy, Greenfield tweaks history, offering a mixed scenario as Lyndon Johnson tried to create a world which met both his own and Kennedy's vision in a world where Kennedy never had a chance. Greenfield doesn't shy away from the conflict between those two men, or the individuals around them. He follows Johnson's administration for only two years, until the midterm elections before he returns to our world to introduce the second branch point.
In Greenfield's 1968, nothing has happened different from our own timeline. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and Johnson took over. However, Robert Kennedy did survive Sirhan Sirhan's bullet in the Ambassador Hotel and went up to face Richard Nixon in the general election. Looking back on 1968 from our own vantage point, the aura of the fallen Robert Kennedy makes a Kennedy nomination seem as if it would have been unstoppable, but Greenfield is careful to view the events as they were seen at the time. His surviving Kennedy is a long shot and must use his political acumen to beat out the other candidates as well as the mechanizations of Lyndon Johnson. This scenario fully shows the complexity of history.
The final scenario may be the most outlandish, requiring Greenfield to spin a Gerald Ford victory over Jimmy Carter in 1976. Pursuing Ford's second term, Greenfield then explores a Reagan campaign that must deal with a country dissatisfied with his own party's policies while facing a candidate who he was not expecting to face. The key figure, however, is not Ford or Reagan, but rather a political operative who was sidelined in our own history, John Sears, driving home the point that the big names may attract all the attention, but their are millions of other people just as important who fly under the radar.
One of the strongest points made in the three essays that make up Then Everything Changed is that by using such recent history, the process of building a believable alternate history is clearly demonstrated. Greenfield makes use of actual individuals and situations, showing their complexity by making minor changes and seeing what reverberations they might have. He tracks them, creating a world which is familiar, yet different, and occasionally ironic. They are complex versions of the world, with strengths and weaknesses different from our own, and not always believable, but then, the real world has its fair share of unlikely occurences.
Greenfield does have a tendency to repeat himself in each of the three sections, reminding the reader of points already made. It doesn’t happen often, but enough that it is noticeable. He also inserts historical figures who make comments which can only be seen as ironic given their actions in the real world. Although it would have been easy to get away with this once or twice, Greenfield does it often enough that it goes beyond the stage of a wink and becomes distracting instead.
Not exactly a collection of short stories and not exactly a series of essays, Greenfield does a wonderful job bringing the history of the last fifty years to life by examining alternatives to what actually happened. His sketches are details and masterful, showing a firm understanding that history is not just made up of the individuals who live it, but by chance and the tides of change as well.
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