Academics use a wonderful term: “counterfactuals” to describe “what-if” situations, useful exercises in thinking about strategy and developing credible responses to possible military and political scenarios. Your tax dollars fund hundreds of such exercises every year at the Pentagon. Indeed, there is a branch of long-term planning that is called “scenario analysis” which is predicated on developing whole chains of argument and point/counterpoint analysis and response to conditions which could have plausibly occurred but didn’t or might plausibly occur in the future — and we better be ready for them by having given them some forethought.
If this is too abstract, consider a few examples cited by Jeff Greenfield in his masterful 43-When Gore Beat Bush, A Political Fable, published recently as a Kindle Single by Amazon. Greenfield, who is familiar to television viewers as a commentator and calming and intelligent voice on network news shows, calls his work a chapter in “the house of Alternate History,” and he takes us into a few rooms in that house:
“Jacqueline Kennedy does not come to the door on a December Sunday in 1960,” Greenfield writes, “to see her husband off to church, so the suicide bomber parked outside the Kennedy home triggers his dynamite and John Kennedy is killed before ever assuming office; and Lyndon Johnson, with his very different understanding of foreign policy and power diplomacy, is in command during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Here’s another gem that Greenfield cooked up: “Robert Kennedy’s brother-in-law enters the ballroom of a Los Angeles hotel on primary night in 1968 a few minutes early, and so is between Kennedy and Sirhan Sirhan in that kitchen pantry; and Kennedy and his presidential campaign survive-and triumph.”
One last one: “In a key debate moment in 1976, President Gerald Ford realizes that he misspoke about the Soviet Union’s domination of Poland and spares his campaign a crucial week of pain, thus changing the outcome of the Carter-Ford election.”
There is a long tradition in fiction, Greenfield reminds us, stretching back centuries, of this sort of “what if” thinking. It is a classic tool of the novelist to create plots that deeply engage readers. Consider Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which the aviator and national hero Charles Lindbergh runs for and wins the presidency, with disastrous results stemming from his seduction by Nazi engineering magnates. And another pair of novels written with somewhat similar basic plot frameworks, though not of the same literary quality as Roth’s — Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, both fictional accounts of Nazi victories in World War II, victories in which the whole world is absorbed into a nightmarish Third Reich.
We are all prepared to believe that history is not deterministic. The world would surely have been different if Oswald had missed. The world surely would have been different if John Wilkes Booth had missed. And now Jeff Greenfield asks us, how would the world have been different if Gore had beat Bush back in 2000?
Well, you bet it would have been a different place and a different story, and it was a damn close thing at that. I personally remember that battle and I was deeply intrigued by Greenfield’s premise. Soon, I was glued to my Kindle reading his book. Here’s just a little sample from the Kindle site, to whet your appetite without giving away anything that will spoil the tale:
“At 5:00 p.m. on September 11, 2001, an ashen-faced but composed President Al Gore stepped into the East Room of the White House to deliver a televised address to the nation. With him were former presidents Clinton and Bush, as well as Texas governor George W. Bush-flown to Washington from Dallas on a military jet, his first visit back to the capital after the close race that lost him the presidency just months before.
That’s not how you remember it?
Imagine if the 2000 presidential election had turned out differently and Al Gore had defeated George W. Bush to become the 43rd president of the United States. How might events have played out? Would Osama bin Laden have loomed as large? Would the 9/11 attacks have been even worse? Would we have invaded Iraq? Would the economy have plunged into recession?”
Some readers may recall, in that ancient era before electronic books, that Jeff Greenfield wrote a masterful book Then Everything Changed, Stunning Alternate Histories Of American Politics, published by Putnam in 2011 using “dead-tree technology” (that is, it was a paper book where you had to turn the pages, remember those?). “Speculation isn’t history, but it’s catnip to pundit like Jeff Greenfield,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly of that effort, a book that created a new sideline for the gifted Greenfield to add to day job of real-time news analysis on live TV.
It is Greenfield’s work as a journalist of 30 years, in fact, that gives plausibility to his complex alternative histories. I imagine that in this genre, if that sense of plausibility is not sensed immediately by readers, all is lost — but it is precisely the genius of Greenfield’s plotting that he creates scenarios that ring true and I often found myself, when reading Greenfield’s current winner, 43-When Gore Beat Bush, A Political Fable, that the version of history Greenfield was presenting actually seemed more plausible to me than the history I remembered personally from having been alert and alive and watching television 13 years ago.
It would be unfair both to Greenfield and to potential readers of this little gem to say much more about the story line. Just remember, Jeff Greenfield has been covering Beltline politics since the 1980s, and he is a very cool, calm, collected, analytical sort of guy. He does not have to ask you to “suspend your disbelief,” to borrow John Gardner’s term for that act required when stepping voluntarily into someone else’s fictional world. Greenfield just grabs you, and you’re a believer. Indeed, his fictive version of history seems all too real.
43-When Gore Beat Bush, A Political Fable is available on the Amazon website. This is a short book, not a full-length novel, maybe about 100 pages of “dead-tree” material, for me that amounts to a one-night very long read where I burn the midnight oil, or a two-night read if I behave myself and turn off the lights at a reasonable hour.
One of America’s most respected political analysts, Jeff Greenfield has spent more than thirty years in network television, including as a commentator on CNN, ABC News, and CBS and currently as an anchor on PBS’s Need to Know. A five-time Emmy Award winner, he is a political columnist for Yahoo News and the author of more than a dozen books. He divides his time between New York and Santa Barbara.