There was every reason to think that Jeff Greenfield’s alternative history of John F. Kennedy surviving Dallas would be one of the most compelling of the hundred or so commemoratives about the late president’s legacy during this 50th anniversary of his death. Greenfield’s last venture into political counter-factual, his 2011 Then Everything Changed (three novellas that sketch a Cuban Missile Crisis that turned into a short war, a Robert Kennedy victory in 1968 and a 1980 election that made Gary Hart President), is just a few shades away from brilliant and never ceases to be briskly entertaining. There is also a finely tuned precision in each scenario that captures just how much of history hinges on narrow moments, and how one altered tide rearranges careers and social structures alike.
Somehow, all of the gifts on display in Greenfield’s prior effort fail to strike gold a second time. His If Kennedy Lived seems oddly un-ambitious: the surprises are too unimaginative, the turns too predictable, and there is the unmistakable feel of a 2000 word magazine piece that was stretched into the more lucrative territory of a book. The earlier work seemed more inventive and poignant; the sequel appears burdened by the low expectation politics of the dismal three years since the original.
For example, Then Everything Changed is typically credited for its navigation between two points of historical determinism—one emphasizing the nuances of personalities and tactics, the other favoring elements like the country’s social and ideological mood. Therefore, war or peace in Cuba are linked to the finer points of Lyndon Johnson’s insecurities while two hundred pages later, a plausible path is sketched for how a certain kind of political tide could have carried a vessel as imperfect as Gary Hart to the presidency. There is cleverness in letting the reader see the extremes of both perspectives and inviting internal argument over which seems more predictive.
If Kennedy Lived seems to wage the same debate over historical causality but to lean much more heavily toward the version that regards even the most talented figures as relatively incidental characters. The result is eight years of Kennedy that mimic the imperfections of his less glamorous succesors. In Greenfield’s account, we get the following ambivalent outcomes: a secret bargain that trades a Civil Rights Act for southern congressional hawks blessing a negotiated end to the Vietnam War, the misuse of regulatory power to smash a newspaper that was digging into Kennedy’s dirty sexual laundry, and a profile of domestic achievement that is respectable but not breathtaking. There is a sustained but uneven economic prosperity; a vague, short on substance campaign for more civic responsibility; a Voting Rights Act but a tepid assault on poverty; no urban riots but a rising sense of cultural polarization.
The foreign policy resume of a second Kennedy term? An arms control agreement and a glossy summit in the Soviet Union matched against a pattern of reverses that to Kennedy’s critics look like a dangerous decline in American prestige. The aftermath of Kennedy’s foreign policy resembles the unsteadiness of American standing in the seventies détente era, no panacea from the left or right’s viewpoint.
This is also a story of a presidency that does not wear well(nor does its protagonist, who by book’s end, spends much of his time away from cameras in a wheelchair as a function of his much chronicled back pain, and whose First Lady appears to be envisioning a separate life post presidency). Rather than igniting a progressive realignment that might have rivaled Franklin Roosevelt’s, or even a Kennedy dynasty, this counterfactual presidency generates a Reagan nomination 12 years early and a climate that is drifting inexorably toward racial backlash.
The answer, then, to the question in Greenfield’s title is a close balance sheet that would not have unhinged history as dramatically or as magnificently as, say, Thurston Clarke suggests in his deeply admiring recent narrative of JFK’s Last Hundred Days. This more reserved judgment is certainly defensible and arguably better captures the complexity of the policy debate in the sixties, which seems decidedly simpler from the perspective of hindsight than it did in real time.
But it’s hard to escape the intuition that for a progressive of Greenfield’s stature to render such a jaded, smallish rendition of John Kennedy has something to do with a reality that any serious liberal analyst has to wrestle with: the fact that two other prodigiously gifted Democratic candidates, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, spent all but a few months of their presidencies on the defensive and proved far better campaigners than architects of public policy. Those lost opportunities become less perplexing if one recalls that an incomparable persona like Kennedy was often stymied too, and likely would have continued to be even after reelection (or as Greenfield posits, even after a surge of sympathy for escaping death).
Would a sixties uninterrupted by war and civic unrest, that lacked the hyper-partisanship of the last two decades, have given Kennedy the opening that his Democratic successors lacked? That’s a conundrum beyond the reach of a slim mini-novel (and it may be that Greenfield simply spun better stories when traveling less well trod ground). But there is something depressing and revealing in the fact that circa 2013, it is JFK who is being recast in the images of Clinton and Obama instead of the other way around.