This was a terrific little book. Written by an well-known ABC commentator who worked for RFK, it posits an alternative history if Dallas had had the same drizzle that Fort Worth did when Kennedy got off Air Force One at Love Field, thus requiring keeping the bubble top on his convertible limousine.
With the bubble top in place, Greenfield begins with a Reagan in 1981 scenario where Kennedy is injured by Lee Harvey Oswald, but not killed. In fact the most important event of November 22, 1963 in the book is the factually true meetings that went on that day exposing his vice president LBJ’s corruption while in Congress, which in the real world were both adjourned – and put on the back burner – solely because of Kennedy’s death. Had they continued, Greenfield assumes, and most historians agree, that Johnson would have been jettisoned from the ticket in 1964, and might well have and forced to resign in a matter of weeks.
Instead, JFK continues his first term, and while losing most of the South in 1964 due to his support for civil rights – support which unlike LBJ he would never be able to translate into effective legislation – he was able to add support in the West and defeat Barry Goldwater, although in a much tighter race. Greenfield has Kennedy extricating the US from Vietnam, and successfully deploying RFK to head off exposure of his personal indiscretions. Greenfield sees that exposure as being a tool that supporters of US involvement in Vietnam would have used to try to force the administration to continue to support South Vietnam militarily. His belief that Kennedy could have had both – getting out of Vietnam and remaining personally unsullied – is one of the conclusions that would probably be the most heavily debated. Those two variables remain the great unknowns of a Kennedy second term.
That and his health. Kennedy is increasingly confined to a wheelchair in his second term as his back deteriorates, so the public image of a vigorous, youthful president would certainly have changed as he became more obviously seriously handicapped. Although undoubtedly he would have managed his image, he would have rarely been seen walking any distance.
Greenfield posits that California Gov. Ronald Reagan would have become a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1968 a few crucial weeks earlier than he was, and would have been able to defeat both Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, which is a quite plausible scenario. Oddly, he has RFK essentially fading into the woodwork politically as his brother’s terms end – lending credence to the argument that it was JFK’s assassination that turned RFK into a political figure in his own right. As someone who knew and worked for RFK, this is an interesting observation. He has JFK endorsing Hubert Humphrey, who obtains the nomination and battles Reagan down to the wire for the presidency in 1968. It is a terrific ending to the book that Greenfield doesn’t tell the reader who he thought would have won – his intention is to explain what would have happened in Kennedy’s terms, not after. But it’s a useful reminder that Ronald Reagan was in play as a fresh face on the national political scene 12 years before he finally won the White House in 1980. (Yes, he spoke at the Republican convention to rave reviews in 1964, but he wasn’t a politician yet, and not a potential presidential contender until 1968 after a successful first two years as California governor).
Greenfield has Jackie telling Jack shortly before they leave the White House that she will not be going back to Massachusetts with him, but instead will be moving to New York to start a new life working for a book publisher, making clear that she has known all along of his serial infidelities. But they will still have a home together as far as the public is concerned, and she doesn’t even hint at a divorce.
One of the nice touches of the book is Greenfield’s frequent salting in of events that actually did happen, converted into plausible alternatives in his alternate reality. He has Sen. George H.W. Bush from Texas (with no LBJ on the ticket in Texas 1964 he defeats Democrat Ralph Yarborough, who would lose six years later to Lloyd Bentsen, who would go on to beat Bush again in the fall of 1970) explaining to a reporter that Americans don’t believe in political dynasties, for example. And takes the well-known quote from Georgia Sen. Richard Russell to the effect that they could have beat Jack Kennedy on civil rights but they couldn’t beat Lyndon Johnson. In this telling, Russell isn’t expressing a regret, but a boast. “We couldn’t have beat Lyndon Johnson on civil rights,” he tells a colleague. “But we could be Jack Kennedy.” Which is the alternate history, they do.
Just a great, great book. Not even so much for Greenfield’s opinions on what would have happened as for his explaining what the issues Kennedy would have grappled with in 1964-1968 would have been. Which were real enough, even if he wasn’t the president that would be dealing with them.