Ten days from today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Books on the assassination are many, but as I was leaving the library last Friday, I ran across a different kind of history book, one which I highly recommend and one which is the source of this week's trivia question.
Jeff Greenfield, who earlier entertained us with an alternative history "Then Everything Changed", a what-if series if you will, is at it again.
Suppose it was raining that terrible day in Dallas. Suppose the bubble for JFK's limo was up and he was merely injured and not killed by those bullets (note I don't say single bullet and I don't say it was fired by Oswald because after reading "JFK and the Unspeakable" by James Douglass, I'm more than skeptical on that point).
"If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy, An Alternative History" is Greenfield's book. It's a quick read (only 250 pages) and I was particularly interested because of the foreign policy aspects of the Unspeakable book and also because I've been reading much about Khrushchev and Russian history lately.
Greenfield's alternative history is based on plausibility, and I concur with his thoughts on what foreign policy would have been like with a second JFK term (I'm not so sure I agree with some of the speculation on JFK's personal story, but that's another story). LBJ's role is also quite delicious.
Rather than go into details of the book here, the trivia question deals with how history could have been changed not in 1963 had JFK survived but with December 11, 1960 when JFK narrowly avoided being killed but 73-year old retired postal worker Richard Pavlick from Belmont, New Hampshire. Pavlick, according to Greenfield (and this is historical fact rather than post 1963 speculation) was ready to kill the just elected JFL in Palm Beach, Florida. In fact, driven by hatred of the Catholic Church, he been stalking Kennedy across the country. His 1950 Buick was wired with seven sticks of dynamite and parked just down the street from the Kennedy home on Ocean Avenue.
I was going to ask what New Hampshire town Pavlick was from; in fact, he was arrested four days later when a postmaster from Belmont alerted Florida authorities of threats Pavlick had been mailing back to Belmont, so now we know where he was from.
But an even more fascinating question, and one Greenfield goes into in detail, involves why Pavlick failed to kill JFK that day. Either you know the answer or you don't...but wait...how about five options.
Why did Pavlick not kill JFK (he wasn't even President-elect since the inaugural college had not yet met) that day as JFK stepped out of the house enroute to St. Edward Church?
A) The ten year old Buick failed to start, thus preventing Pavlick from driving to where Kennedy was standing.
B) The Buick started and Pavlick was on his way but the dynamite failed to detonate.
C) Pavlick had run a red light prior to arriving at the Kennedy home and police stopped him just as JFK left his home.
D) A rather religious man, Pavlick later explained that God appeared to him and insisted he not kill Kennedy.
E) At the last minute, Jacqueline Kennedy, with three year old daughter Caroline, came to the door to see JFK off. Pavlick decided that while JKF deserved to die, killing his innocent wife and daughter would be unacceptable.
Those are the five options; hey if you can think of a more plausible one, add it in. One of them is true. In fact, it's E. Before Greenfield conjures up the fiction of how Kennedy avoided being killed in Dallas, he relates how Kennedy, thanks to Jackie at the doorstep, avoided being killed by Pavlick.
Ain't history (even reconstucted history) fun?
It's a great story, and the book is great fun and chock full of real history, like how LBJ was in trouble that November 22 (Bobby Baker and all) and might not have survived politically had he not become president when he did. Greenfield also pokes fun at Nixon more than once.
My only quibble with the book is geographic.
Greenfield goes into a fictional race for President in 1968 (he has Reagan vs. Humphrey, certainly plausible), but he also has young Humphrey volunteers playing a major role in the New Hampshire primary, including the "increasingly suburban southern towns of Nashua and Brattleboro" (page 219). Perhaps by the second printing of the book, someone will have told the author that not only is Nashua a city not a town, but even worse, Brattleboro is and was in 1668, albeit close to New Hampshire, in fact very much in Vermont. I was going to say the People's Republic of Vermont, but back in 1968 (my senior year in a Vermont high school by the way) Vermont was in its last stages of being solidly Republican.
Despite that, "If Kennedy Lived" is well worth a read.
And the four hour PBS special (in two segments) is airing this week and is excellent. I was most struck, after reading the Greenfield book, at just how sickly the young JFK looked in the many photos.
Now, I'm waiting for the Jesse Ventura book which will most likely exonerate Oswald. (Greenfield doesn't much get into the conspiracy aspect of things, but his "fiction" assumes Oswald's guilt). And there's another new historical fiction, Ben Franklin's Bastard, which promises to be entertaining and illuminating. There can be no doubt that Tory William Franklin was Ben's bastard.
November 22, 1963: JFK does not die. What would happen to his life, his presidency, his country, his world?