What if Kennedy lived?

Jeff Greenfield's new book, "If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History"

Jeff Greenfield's new book, "If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History" will be published Tuesday, October 22 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. This is an excerpt from the book's introduction.

It was Thursday, July 14, 1960, in Room 9333 of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and Kenny O’Donnell was furious at the man he had just helped nominate to be president of the United States.

Again and again, Sen. John F. Kennedy had assured the unions, the civil rights leaders, the liberals and intellectuals whose support he was seeking that Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson would not be his choice for vice president. Yet now, little more than 12 hours after the Massachusetts Democrat had won a first ballot nomination with a razor-thin margin of five delegates, he had offered the second slot on the ticket to Johnson — and Johnson had accepted.

“I was so furious I could hardly talk,” O’Donnell remembered years later. “I thought of the promises we had made … the assurances we had given. I felt that we had been double crossed.”

So O’Donnell demanded to confront Kennedy face to face and the nominee complied, taking O’Donnell into the bathroom, and assuring him that the job would actually diminish Johnson’s power by placing him in a powerless, impotent job.

“I’m 43 years old,” Kennedy said, “and I’m the healthiest candidate for president in the United States. You’ve traveled with me enough to know that I’m not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn’t mean anything.”

The man who gave his disaffected aide this reassurance had lost a brother and a sister in airplane crashes; had almost died when his ship was destroyed in the South Pacific during World War II; had been stricken with an illness so serious in 1947 that he had been given the last rites of his church; had undergone a life-threatening operation in 1954 to save him from invalidism, an operation so serious that he was away from his Senate seat for nine months; who was living with a form of Addison’s disease — hidden from the press and public — that required a regular dose of powerful medicine; and who lived virtually every day in pain.

For a man so often described as “fatalistic” — who on the day of his murder mused to his wife, and to that same Kenny O’Donnell, about the ease with which “a man with a rifle” could kill him — Kennedy’s blithe assurance about his invulnerability to fate seemed astonishing. (If nothing else, his immersion in history must have taught him that seven presidents had died in office.)

Maybe, though, Kennedy’s words were not so astonishing. They reflect an impulse deep within the human spirit: to push aside the power of random chance, in favor of a more orderly, less chaotic universe. What has happened, the argument goes, is what had to happen. Even for someone like John Kennedy, who had seen sudden, violent death take two of his siblings, and come close to taking him more than once, had dismissed the whole idea of considering that possibility when choosing the man to stand “a heartbeat away.”

For most historians, the idea of lingering over the roads that might have been taken, but for a small twist of fate, to project what might be different about our lives, or our country, or world, seems at best a parlor game, at worst a fool’s errand, like asking “What if Spartacus had a plane?” That is the view that most historians share, in dismissing “counter-factual” history, the “what-if?” questions.

It is, however, not a unanimous view. In his book “Virtual History,” Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson offers a different approach: to examine “plausible or probable alternatives … only those alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered.” It is an approach he calls “virtual” history, and it is anchored in the concept of “plausibility.”

This is the approach I’ve taken in “If Kennedy Lived,” a book that tries to answer in fictional terms a question that is very much alive today: What if John Kennedy had not died 50 years ago in Dallas? The small alteration of history that saves his life, in my account, is no high drama; it is, simply, a minor meteorological matter; had the rain not stopped in Dallas minutes before the president’s arrival, the bubble-top would have remained on the Presidential limousine, greatly improving the odds of Kennedy’s survival.

And after that tiny twist of fate saved the president? Any speculation about the alternative history has to put aside political ideology, or personal affection or distate for JFK, and turn to what we know about his beliefs, impulses and character. For me, for instance, his innate caution, his skepticism about Vietnam expressed long before he’d become president his distrust of his military advisors’ advice and his fear of miscalculation and misguided assumptions that shaped his behavior during the Cuban missile crisis all point to the likelihood that he would have disengaged.

But his political calculations, his fear of being tagged with a “Who Lost Vietnam” label, would have made him disengage by stealth, rather than by an open acknowledgement that victory was beyond our power. And a 1960s with no massive war in Vietnam would have meant a very different counterculture, one where “sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" still emerged, but where convulsive violence did not. In short, Woodstock, yes; Altamont, no.

Similarly, knowing JFK had little legislative skill and few ties to the congressional power brokers (as opposed to Lyndon Johnson) made it far less likely that he could have passed the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, or pushed a Great Society agenda through the Congress, even if he had wished to. (And his skepticism about ambitious government programs might have kept him from even proposing so grand or grandiose an idea).

Beyond questions of policy, there are more personal matters: Would his extramarital sex life have been threatened with exposure? In fact, it nearly became a public matter in the weeks before his assassination, and had such exposure been a threat after Dallas, history tells us the Kennedys would have worked to keep the story quiet by means fair and foul. (If you doubt this, look at what the administration did in 1962 to force steel companies to toll back their price hikes. “Abuse of power” is not too strong a term.)

All this is by way of saying that alternative history cannot be hagiography, nor “pathography.” Anyone seeking to imagine an eight-year Kennedy presidency has to come to grips with his strengths and weaknesses, his admirable and deplorable character traits, in trying to determine how a change in the weather in Dallas would have changed — and not changed — one of the most turbulent periods in our history.