Saturday, September 03, 2011

Book Review: "Then Everything Changed"

Even though I don't write about it too much here, I'm something of a politics junkie by nature, and I also happen to love some well-informed speculative writing, so when I learned that Jeff Greenfield had written Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011) the book went right on the "must read" list.

Putting his many years of political reporting and experience to good use, Greenfield has taken three "turning points" and spun out the longterm scenarios of what might have happened had things gone differently. As he writes in the preface, "what would have happened if small twists of fate had given us different leaders, with different beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses? I've tried here to answer that question by exploring, in dramatic narrative form, complete with characters, thoughts, and dialogue, a trio of contemporary alternate American histories, all flowing from events that came a mere hairsbreadth away from actually happening" (p. xii).

What if a suicide bomber had killed JFK outside his house in December, 1960, before the electors had cast their ballots? What if RFK hadn't been shot in June, 1968, just after winning the California primary? What if Gerald Ford had recovered from a crucial gaffe during a 1976 debate, and won reelection? Greenfield outlines what the next years and decades might have looked like under those circumstances. While some of the conclusions may seem implausible, far-fetched, or even silly, I'm hard pressed to say that any of Greenfield's flights of fancy are any less likely than some of the actual things we've seen in our politics over the last few decades.

From what he writes in the Acknowledgments, it would appear that Greenfield had been contracted to write a novel (he'd done an earlier one for Putnam). I'm glad that he ended up writing this book instead, and I certainly hope he had as much fun writing it as I had reading it. I absolutely loved the arcana he delved into, from the complicated mechanics of Democratic primary delegate math to the vice-presidential calculations of the 1980 candidates. If you get as excited about these things as I do, go out and buy this book, and read it closely.

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