If Kennedy Lived
The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History
From one of the country’s most brilliant political commentators, the bestselling author of Then Everything Changed, an extraordinary, thought-provoking look at Kennedy’s presidency—after November 22, 1963.
November 22, 1963: JFK does not die. What would happen to his life, his presidency, his country, his world?
In Then Everything Changed, Jeff Greenfield created an “utterly compelling” (Joe Klein), “riveting” (The New York Times), “eye-opening” (Peggy Noonan), “captivating” (Doris Kearns Goodwin) exploration of three modern alternate histories, “with the kind of political insight and imagination only he possesses” (David Gregory). Based on memoirs, histories, oral histories, fresh reporting, and his own knowledge of the players, the book looked at the tiny hinges of history—and the extraordinary changes that would have resulted if they had gone another way.
Now he presents his most compelling narrative of all about the historical event that has riveted us for fifty years. What if Kennedy were not killed that fateful day? What would the 1964 campaign have looked like? Would changes have been made to the ticket? How would Kennedy, in his second term, have approached Vietnam, civil rights, the Cold War? With Hoover as an enemy, would his indiscreet private life finally have become public? Would his health issues have become so severe as to literally cripple his presidency? And what small turns of fate in the days and years before Dallas might have kept him from ever reaching the White House in the first place?
As with Then Everything Changed, the answers Greenfield provides and the scenarios he develops are startlingly realistic, rich in detail, shocking in their projections, but always deeply, remarkably plausible. It is a tour de force of American political history.
Preface: the Lives and Deaths of John F. Kennedy
It was Thursday, July 14, 1960, in Room 9333 of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and Kenny O’Donnell was furious at the man he had just helped nominate for president of the United States.
Again and again, John Kennedy had assured the unions, the civil rights leaders, the liberals and intellectuals whose support he needed, that Texas senator Lyndon Johnson would not be his choice for vice president. For those constituencies, the majority leader of the Senate was too tied to the corporate interests of his home state, too willing to weaken or abandon strong civil rights legislation, too much the symbol of wheeler-dealer insider politics.
Yet now, little more than twelve hours after Kennedy had won a first ballot nomination with a razor-thin margin of five delegates, he had offered the second slot on the ticket to Johnson—and Johnson had accepted.
“I was so furious I could hardly talk,” O’Donnell remembered years later. “I thought of the promises we had made . . . the assurances we had given. I felt that we had been double-crossed.”
So O’Donnell demanded to confront Kennedy face-to-face, and the nominee complied, taking O’Donnell into the bathroom and assuring him that the job would actually diminish Johnson’s power by placing him in a powerless, impotent job.
“I’m forty-three years old,” Kennedy said, “and I’m the healthiest candidate for president in the United States. You’ve traveled with me enough to know that I’m not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn’t mean anything.”
The man who gave his disaffected aide this reassurance had already lost a brother and a sister in airplane crashes; had almost died when his ship was destroyed in the South Pacific during World War II; had been stricken with an illness so serious in 1947 that he had been given the last rites of his church; had undergone a life-threatening operation in 1954 to save him from invalidism—an operation so serious that he was away from his Senate seat for nine months; and had been living with a form of Addison’s disease—hidden from the press and public—that required a regular dose of powerful medicine and made him live virtually every day in pain.
For a man so often described as “fatalistic”—who on the day of his murder mused to his wife, and to that same Kenny O’Donnell about the ease with which “a man with a rifle” could kill him—Kennedy’s blithe assurance about his invulnerability to fate seems astonishing. If nothing else, his immersion in history must have taught him that seven presidents had died in office, three violently; that FDR had barely escaped assassination in 1933; and that Harry Truman had been the target of assassins in 1950. Kennedy himself would escape death at the hands of a suicide bomber less than five months after speaking those comforting words.
Maybe, though, Kennedy’s words are not so astonishing. They reflect an impulse deep within the human spirit: to push aside the power of random chance in favor of a more orderly, less chaotic universe. Even someone like John Kennedy, who had come close to death more than once, could casually dismiss the whole idea of considering that possibility when choosing the man to stand “a heartbeat away.”
Many historians take the same approach in dealing with the what-ifs that drive excursions into “alternate history.” For them, it is at best a parlor game, at worst a nuisance. “What did happen,” they argue, “is what matters. Playing the alternate history game is like asking, ‘What if Spartacus had had a jet?’”
I take a different view. Historian H. R. Trevor-Roper wrote:
“At any given moment in history, there are real alternatives . . .How can we ‘explain what happened and why’ if we only look at what happened and never consider the alternatives . . . ?”
The alternatives, however, are not boundless. Asking “What if JFK had become a born-again evangelical?” or “What if a Soviet scientist had invented the Internet in 1965?” might make for an entertaining piece of fiction, but it violates the single most critical element of alternative history: plausibility. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson (who prefers the term “virtual history”) says, “By narrowing down the historical alternatives we consider to those which are plausible . . . we solve the dilemma of choosing between a single deterministic past, and an unmanageably infinite number of possible pasts.”
If you’re going to argue that history would have been very different if someone else had occupied the White House in a time of crisis, you have to show why—what in this individual’s character, beliefs, impulses, and past actions would have made the difference. In Then Everything Changed, my previous excursion into alternate histories, the small twists of fate that would have seen John Kennedy killed before ever taking office, or that would have saved Robert Kennedy from assassination, or that would have seen Gerald Ford keep the presidency in 1976, were all rooted in hard facts. And the hugely consequential changes that would have flowed from those small twists of fate were based on the beliefs, impulses, and character traits of these men and their contemporaries, gathered from biographies, oral histories, interviews, and memoirs.
I’ve brought this same approach to a question that is as prominent in the what-if realm as any: What if John Kennedy had not died in Dallas? The very small alteration of meteorological history that would have saved his life is well-known already—indeed, many in Dallas were painfully aware of it within minutes of the shots—and it is completely, deeply plausible.
And after that tiny twist of fate saves the president? I’ve sought to keep that plausibility as my pole star. As I did in Then Everything Changed, I’ve consulted biographies, oral histories, and memoirs (my debt to them is explained specifically in the afterword). I’ve also conducted interviews, in person, on the telephone, and via e-mail with a variety of observers, including Dick and Doris Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Norm Ornstein, Walter Shapiro, Meryl Gordon, Tom Hayden, Fred Kaplan, David Talbot, and Todd Gitlin (though they bear no responsibility for the speculative history I offer). Most of the fictional events presented have their origins in reality: the “facts on the ground,” as they existed in November 1963. The opinions, the speeches, the conversations I recount from the days and months and years leading up to November 22 did in fact occur. More broadly, the political currents that shape the 1964 Kennedy reelection campaign, the decisions about Vietnam and the Cold War, the forces that reshape America’s culture, the threats to Kennedy’s political survival and reputation, all were in place before Kennedy went to Texas. The question I try to answer is: How might John Kennedy’s instincts, his understanding of history, his core impulses, have led him to deal with these forces? For instance, John Kennedy tended toward a dispassionate, detached, analytical approach to issues; he was in this sense the polar opposite of Lyndon Johnson, who saw political threats and opportunities through an intensely personal prism. A detached, dispassionate president might not have had the commitment to fight hard for a civil rights bill or commit the nation to “war on poverty.” But that same detached, dispassionate approach might have prevented a president from escalating a war out of a refusal to be “the first president to lose a war” (as LBJ once famously put it). This does not mean that my version of what happens is “right,” but it does mean that it starts from what is known.
Two final notes: first, I essentially put aside the question of whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought that the evidence of Oswald’s guilt is strong, but to plunge back into decades of speculation would simply overwhelm everything else. This book is about what happens after the assassination attempt fails.
Second, the story I tell here is neither hagiography nor pathography. Anyone seeking to imagine an eight-year Kennedy presidency has to come to grips with his strengths and weaknesses, his admirable and deplorable character traits. My intention here is to do just that, and to suggest how that mix of traits might have altered one of the most turbulent periods in our history.
Praise for If Kennedy Lived
“It can be an enlightening exercise to challenge the belief that what happened had to happen. Usually it didn’t. In his diverting If Kennedy Lived, Greenfield, the veteran political commentator, asks how things might have played out had John F. Kennedy survived in Dallas.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Greenfield grounds his fictional history in research and interviews with some of the era’s experts and, as in his previous excursion into alternative history, offers an ending that the reader will not see coming . . . Kennedy-era followers will enjoy this book.”—Library Journal
“Greenfield does good service in demythologizing JFK to suggest that, had he indeed lived, his second term might have been marked by scandal and controversy, a Camelot undone by the president’s own proclivities as much as by the events of the time. . . . Well researched and thought through—an interesting, plausible exercise in pop history.”—Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Jeff Greenfield
“Shrewdly written, often riveting, gripping…Thanks to Mr. Greenfield’s own familiarity with American politics and a lot of energetic research, he turns these twists of fate into accelerating historical snowballs that rumble through our recent history, altering the social landscape in ways both small and large.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Not only thoughtful and sophisticated, but marked by the author’s enthusiasm. Greenfield is having fun here, and you can feel it on every page. His scenarios are relentlessly grounded in plausibility. This is a book political junkies will adore.”—Bryan Burrough, The Washington Post
“Satisfying, entertaining, insightful. The key to Greenfield’s success is that he knows his politics and the strengths and weaknesses of leaders. Greenfield’s storytelling is compelling and his research superb.”—The Miami Herald
“Historians have long been tantalized by the what-ifs of history. In the hands of this tremendously gifted storyteller, Then Everything Changed will captivate the reader every step along the way.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin
“You expect intelligence and a devilish sense of humor and a profound knowledge of political history from Jeff Greenfield. But there is a deeper, haunting quality to this book as well. By adding a simple twist of fate, Greenfield brings fresh – and exhilarating – insights to the history of our times.”—Joe Klein, columnist, Time magazine
“Jeff Greenfield has taken the ‘what-if’ game and turned it into something else entirely – a trio of thought-provoking, interesting, and downright clever scenarios that remind us just how much individuals do matter.”—Bob Schieffer, moderator, Face the Nation
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