Political novels are a dying breed, and the death has been a long, slow one. But into the void steps Jeff Greenfield with a smart, well conceived set of political short stories called “Then Everything Changed“. In less than 400 pages, Greenfield, one of Robert Kennedy’s best speechwriters and an accomplished journalist, pulls off what is arguably the best political fiction in the last generation: it will and should endure for its skill and its contribution to our imagination. The book is built on three novellas: the premise of each is that a particular historical fact happened a fraction of an inch differently, and that the political world was realigned accordingly. The first supposes that a would be assassin lurking outside John Kennedy’s Florida getaway in December 1960 carried out his plot to steer a car loaded with explosives into the President elect’s path; and that the tragedy thrusts Lyndon Johnson into power three years early, and makes LBJ the leader who faces Soviet aggression in Berlin and Cuba. If the actual fact that JFK was stalked by an potential assassin during his transition is so obscure today that some of Kennedy’s own biographers don’t know it, the second “what if” has been fodder for speculation for two generations: Greenfield’s version is that Sirhan Sirhan‘s hastily improvised shooting of RFK is thwarted and that Kennedy lives to face off against Hubert Humphrey in a thrilling Democratic convention and Richard Nixon in a close run fall campaign. His prize is a country with outsized expectations of a second Camelot, which he must navigate as he tries to pursue a tough-minded liberalism that stirs up dust from the left and right.
The final premise is not built around life and death, but around the power of words never
spoken. It imagines that Gerald Ford managed to averted a still inexplicable gaffe on foreign policy in a presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, and ended up passing Carter to win a narrow electoral college victory. (It is largely forgotten now that Carter’s win would have been reversed by a shift of less than 15,000 votes in Ohio and Mississippi). It is Ford who governs during the stagflation and drift of the late seventies, and when Ronald Reagan emerges as the nominee four years later, he bears the burden of a decade of failed Republican rule. His opponent, a charismatic one term Colorado Senator named Gary Hart, whose New Democrat aura is the right antidote to more conventional candidacies by Edward Kennedy and Reagan. Anyone engaged (or addled) enough by politics to be reading this blog could spin a nice set of counter- factuals around presidential elections. Where Greenfield surpasses the guessing game is his exceedingly deft injection of real life variables into his fiction. Greenfield’s LBJ remains determined to surpass Kennedy’s martyred luster by a prioritization of voting rights in the South; at the same time, his well documented insecurities make a catastrophic mix with Kruschev’s adventurism in the early sixties. Similarly, the same Bobby Kennedy who bravely exposed himself to a grieving black crowd in Indianapolis the night of Martin Luther King’s death is instantly familiar in the fictional account of RFK facing down a mob of student demonstrators in Chicago at a critical moment at the convention. Greenfield just as credibly suggests that a presidential campaign by Ted Kennedy would have floundered in any timeline under the weight of innuendo and doubts about his character, and that Ronald Reagan’s penchant for tactical boldness (think: the real life near selection of Ford as a running mate in 1980) might have led to a historic choice of a running mate in the fictional version of 1980. Some attempts at alternative history struggle to separate themselves from revisionist fantasy. Mitchell Freedman’s “A Disturbance of Fate” comes to mind: its overly long, minutely detailed account of a Robert Kennedy presidency ascribes near mythical leadership possibilities to the man (my favorite example: the collapse of both the Soviet Union and apartheid by the mid seventies).
Greenfield’s biases are not invisible but he leaves them aside to make his alternative history ambivalent enough to ring true: his RFK presidency is almost undone by a covert political intelligence operation by a underling named Paul Corbin. Corbin did exist in the real world, and reflected a darker, more calculating corner of Kennedy’s political brain that wiretapped King and countenanced covert warfare in Cuba. Had Kennedy survived Sirhan, this part of him would have lived on too and Greenfield is sage enough to admit it. Some of Greenfield’s conclusions are stronger, and some are weaker than others. The idea of Lyndon Johnson collapsing under the unfathomable pressures of a prospective nuclear exchange has a sadly authoritative feel to anyone who has read Richard Goodwin’s account of LBJ becoming unhinged by the slower fuse of Vietnam. I can also buy that the ruthless side of Robert Kennedy would have found a way to neutralize the hilariously vulnerable J. Edgar Hoover.
It takes a richer imagination to suggest that Gary Hart could have staved off self-destruction for an entire campaign cycle. As a matter of craft, this book deserves the New York Times’ characterization of its writing as “riveting”. The description of the Edward Kennedy v. Hart nomination battle is taut enough that one wishes it had happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis account brilliantly recaptures the twists and near misses of the real thing. Only in the last few pages does the pace falter into the silly side, with a snapshot of a Hart presidential sex scandal that ends, shall we say, with Hart in an interesting position.
The book gives us one other gift. It is found in the passages that describe RFK accepting the Democratic nomination in 1968 with a verbatim version of the best speech he ever gave, his extended commentary that our Gross National product “measures everything about America but [that which] makes us proud to be Americans”. There is a realism in technique–nominating speeches often reprise the best words of the primary campaign–and there is a realism in personality. Bobby Kennedy might well have accepted his moment in history with these words because they were at the core of his own imagining of what America might yet be. That he never got to speak these words in Chicago in 1968, that he never lived to devote a Presidency to the promise contained within them, is a lingering pain that this book nobly revives. It is also our reminder of what politics can still mean and how much it can still make us care.