Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan

by Jeff Greenfield

Published by Putnam

434 pages, 2011

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Butterfly Effects

Reviewed by Brendan M. Leonard

Reading through Then Everything Changed, television journalist Jeff Greenfield’s very entertaining collection of alternative American histories, I kept thinking of the last lines from Stephen King’s The Stand:

“Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.”

And so it goes in Greenfield’s three novellas, all centered around unique turning points in the history of the last half-century:

• In the first, President-elect John F. Kennedy is killed not by a lone gunman in November 1963, but by a mad bomber in December 1960. His assassination, based on an actual attempt on Kennedy’s life, occurs prior to the meeting of the Electoral College and his confirmation to the presidency. Through Lyndon B. Johnson’s wrangling of the Senate, the older Texan becomes the chief executive of a country that didn’t elect him.

• In the second novella, Greenfield turns to the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Only here, Kennedy’s murder is avoided, and Greenfield -- a former Kennedy speechwriter -- focuses on that year’s lengthy primary season and general election campaign. As the 37th U.S. president, RFK ends the Vietnam War before turning to a new, more Clintonian Democratic agenda almost 20 years ahead of schedule -- though the younger Kennedy’s administration is not without its Nixonian scandal.

• Finally, in my favorite of the three stories offered here, Gerald Ford recovers from a tactical error in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter to win a full presidential term, which makes Ronald Reagan’s 1980 run less inevitable than the California actor would like. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Ted Kennedy’s long-anticipated presidential campaign faces an unexpected challenge from a young, upstart senator.

You can see the connections -- though the stories in Then Everything Changed aren’t interlinked or part of one continuous narrative, Greenfield does associate them through a recurring theme: that no matter how history changes, things remain basically the same. Time exists in a Mobius strip in this book, infinite and constantly folding back on itself. It doesn’t matter that we get Sandra Day O’Connor as a vice-presidential candidate instead of Sarah Palin, or see Richard M. Nixon’s worst fears crop up in Bobby Kennedy. It’s all the same, Greenfield suggests, and what didn’t happen one way would probably have happened another way.

Still, Greenfield packs Then Everything Changed with some wonderfully fresh alternative realities. His gifts as a journalist and a student of American politics lend Then Everything Changed a real authenticity. Some of the scenes presented here, such as Robert Kennedy facing down protesters in Chicago’s Grant Park at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, are inspiring and memorable. Greenfield also peppers his tales with little winks and nudges. When writing about VP nominee O’Connor, for instance, the author has a Reagan aide remark, “It’s not as if she’s stuck for an answer when you ask her what she reads.” In another case, he has a young Newt Gingrich praising President Robert Kennedy’s domestic policies.

Some of the greatest joys this volume offers, however, come when Greenfield veers away from the political to examine the cultural ramifications of his counterfactual histories. One of my favorites (despite its disappointing outcome) occurs in this passage about what might have happened had RFK ended the Vietnam War in 1969:

In Hollywood, director Robert Altman had begun shooting a black comedy about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Uijeongbu, South Korea, clearly intended as an allegory to Vietnam. By the time the film was finished, 20th Century Fox found itself with a fine film that audiences shunned in droves. The movie grossed less than $4 million, and plans for a M*A*S*H television series were scrapped.

Much of Then Everything Changed functions in that parlor game-y kind of way, with large sections provoking their own “what if?” questions. For instance, I found myself pondering the passage above for a couple of days, eventually concluding that after another failed movie, Altman might have returned to television, where his improvisational style could have kick-started the Second Golden Age of TV (the 1980s through the early ’90s) a decade earlier.

But this book’s flaws also come from Greenfield taking his elaborate flights of fancy. He’s best when writing about U.S. domestic policy rather than foreign policy -- so somehow, Robert Kennedy creating a domestic Peace Corps seems more realistic than an Iranian revolution that just fizzles out. And while Lyndon Johnson’s reactions to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and later the Cuban Missile Crisis, are appropriately grim and terrifying, they remain a little loaded with unfortunate circumstance atop unfortunate circumstance ... and Greenfield can’t resist ending the first novella in Then Everything Changed with a winky punchline.

Despite its defects, Then Everything Changed is a fun read for history nuts and fiction fans alike. Much, perhaps too much, has been written already about the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, and how -- if one thing or another had changed -- our whole world would have been different. In this engaging, sometimes chilling, sometimes funny book, Jeff Greenfield follows the flapping wings of historical butterflies to conclusions that may make you roll your eyes, but will absolutely get you thinking about “what if.” | May 2011

Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City and is a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet. You can also follow him on Twitter or read his personal blog, Here’s the Thing ... with Brendan M. Leonard.