Book Review: If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield

Some estimate books about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy number in the thousands. And with the 50th anniversary of the assassination coming next month, there’s been a growing stream of them this year about the assassination and Kennedy’s presidency and its legacy. Amidst the avalanche, political commentator Jeff Greenfield contemplates where we would be if Kennedy had not been killed. He does so through the alternative history trope in If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History.

kennedyThis isn’t Greenfield’s first venture into this genre. Last year, he released a Kindle single on Al Gore beating George Bush in the 2000 presidential election and Two years ago he took a broader scope in Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan.

As Greenfield points out in both the preface and afterword to If Kennedy Lived, he believes alternative history needs to be founded on plausibility. Thus, everything prior to November 22, 1963, that plays a role in the book actually happened and Greenfield’s conjectures are predicated on historical documents of the times and thoughts of the actual people. Greenfield seeks to explore only what realistically might have happened, not with inventions like the time traveler who tries to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in Stephen King’s bestselling 11/22/63. Yet while a degree of plausibility is essential to believable alternative history, If Kennedy Lived also reveals the limitations of strict adherence to this approach.

Greenfield explores a number of key issues that might have been affected by Kennedy’s death, such as whether he would have kept U.S. forces in Vietnam or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He even considers the possibility and ramifications of Kennedy’s philandering becoming public. Yet even the latter has a wonkish feel. The book tends to examine what might have happened more through policy debates than in terms of social ramifications. This doesn’t mean Greenfield totally ignores social impact. For example, he contemplates how different decisions about Vietnam might have affected the nature and focus of the protest movements of the 1960s. It’s just that there seems to be more discussion about policy and political implications of that change.

Greenfield both displays and uses a bit of irony when it comes to actual history. He points out that although Kennedy was pushing for tax cuts in 1963, the Republicans strenuously opposed the idea (although Congress approved cuts in 1964). The irony extends to noted individuals. For example, when the treasurer of a company founded by Jerry Rubin embezzles the money, Greenfield has Rubin saying, “I never should have trusted an accountant under thirty.” And in this timeline Richard Nixon does not tell David Frost in 1977 that “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Instead, this Nixon complains about the Kennedy Administration’s use of the IRS, saying, “Just because a president does it does not mean it’s legal.”

Certainly, given what those individuals actually said, it is plausible they might have said what Greenfield suggests. And perhaps it is because of this insistence on plausibility that the book concludes on the eve of the 1968 election, the end of the second term Kennedy wins in it. Thus, Greenfield does not extrapolate from the alternative scenarios he posits to look look at even longer term consequences.

Although unquestionably well researched and written, If Kennedy Lived has a bit too much of an “inside politics” feel.

John and Robert Kennedy lived by one philosophy: when it came to their political fortunes, the ends justified the means … any means.

Jeff Greenfield, If Kennedy Lived

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