The Reading Room, wherein we take a look at newly released books, is a semi-regular feature of this blog and More Politically Alert which airs on manchestertv23 live Wednesday at 9 p.m., Thursday at 9 p.m., Sunday at noon, and Tuesday at 11 p.m. (always available at vimeo.com/channels/mpa).
Other than messing up about the Manchester Civic Center and the fact that the NH primary is not "open", Jeff Greenfield does a pretty good job fictionalizing history in "Then Everything Changed".
Does the name Richard Pavlick ring a bell?
Even with two hints--Belmont, New Hampshire and 1960--I suspect the answer for 99 percent of you reading this is no.
Until I red Jeff Greenfield's new book Then Everything Changed, I had either not encountered the name in my ramblings through history or I had completely forgotten it.
According to Greenfield, whose book contains three chapters of how history might have been had certain "small" things not happened, Richard Pavlick traveled to Florida in December, 1960, with the goal of killing President-elect John F. Kennedy. He was ready to drive into Kennedy's vehicle with explosives, but at the last minute, he noticed that Jackie and one of the children was accompanying JFK, so he decided not to go through with his plan.
Greenfield imagines what would have happened had Jackie stayed back in the apartment, had Pavlick killed JFK that day (rather than Oswald in Dallas three years later). That sets in motion the first scenario of the book. Of course, there would have been somewhat of a Constitutional crisis since electors had not yet met and would not have been able to vote for LBJ. Well, Greenfield solves that little problem (anything can be solved in fictionalized history) and goes on to relate what foreign and domestic policy under President Lyndon Johnson would have been like. Suffice it to say that things work out well on the home front but not so well with the Cuban missile crisis. (Also, there's no Berlin Wall).
Scenario number two has Robert Kennedy's brother in law Steve Smith (yes, the father of the young man acquitted of rape later in Florida) walking in front of the candidate and stopping Sirhan Sirhan from killing Bobby that night in June, 1968 in a Los Angeles hotel restaurant. Bobby goes on to defeat Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination and faces Richard Nixon (whom LBJ secretly wants to win--such is the animosity between RFK and LBJ) in the fall.
Scenario number three pits Gary Hart against Ronald Reagan for the Presidency in 1980. (Ford had been re-elected in 1976 and could not run again; Hart had stunned Ted Kennedy in the Democratic race).
You don't need to know what happens. In fact, that would be like giving away an ending. Suffice it to say that, for the most part, this book is a joy to read. Greenfield attempts to maintain historical accuracy by using quotes from actual events. His greatest accomplishment is in fleshing out real people, even in fictional form. The focus on RFJ and LBJ is particularly revealing.
I do have a few quibbles. While Greenfield's outcomes seem reasonable--he gets the big picture right--he tries to be too cute by half in the smaller details, especially social and cultural ones which are really not necessary to tell the greater story. For example, in haggling over how long a presidential debate should be, the media savvy Don Hewitt (who in fact was involved with the Nixon-JFK debates in 1960) says, "60 Minutes would be ideal."
Yes, we get it; we get it; Hewitt later went on to produce 60 Minutes for CBS--too cute by half.
I suppose I will give away the ending of the book by noting another too cute by half ending. The Deputy Chief of Staff walks in on newly elected President Gary Hart having sex in the White House. Notice, like Greenfield, I'm saving the name to build up suspense. The Deputy Chief of Staff immediately phones her estranged husband down in Arkansas to give him the news. Remember this is 1981.
"Bill, you're never going to believe what just happened," yelled Deputy Chief of Staff Hillary Rodham.
"Try me," said Governor Bill Clinton.
End of book, a piss poor ending for what would have been a much more worthy entry had Greenfield, a smart and savvy guy--too smart and too savvy by more than half--and recently fired by CBS, managed to resist the temptation to go for the quick laugh throughout.
I also encountered two historical errors on the same page (351) in reference to New Hampshire. He refers to a thronging crowd for Kennedy at the Manchester Civic Center which, of course, didn't exist in 1980. That's a mere quibble, but Greenfield also suggests that the New Hampshire primary was/is open and any Democrat could vote in the Republican primary and vise versa. Of course, we know that's not right. Undeclared voters can take a ballot for either party in the primary, but Democrats and Republicans cannot cross over. Greenfield should know that, and if he claims it's part of his fiction, it kind of breaks the implicit promise that such details would in fact be historically accurate.
Still, the 400 page book is a quick and fun read.
Especially savory are recaps of two fictional debates, when Gary Hart throws Robert Kennedy's words back at Teddy and when Gary Hart uses Reagan's own words to throw him off pace.
Assuming the quotes are accurate, I'm especially fond of this one from JFK during the 1960 campaign, fond of it because I agree with it and it's as important today as it was then. In Seattle toward the end of the real 1960 election, JFK stated, "We must face the fact that the United States is neither omniscient nor omnipotent, that we cannot impose our will on 94 percent of mankind, that there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."
For harking us back to such words, Greenfield's book (despite its faults) merits a thumbs up.