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The other history: Festival of Ideas speaker to take alternate view of JFK

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Over the years, Jeff Greenfield has developed a fascination with how single events can change history.

Take his new book, for instance. The long-time television reporter and author recently published "If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History."

Greenfield will speak about his new book on Wednesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Clay Center in Charleston during the West Virginia University David C. Hardesty, Jr. Festival of Ideas. Admission is free.

The program is co-sponsored by the Charleston Gazette and West Virginia University.

Greenfield is the host of "Need to Know," a Public Broadcasting System news show, and a columnist for "Yahoo News." He has also been a reporter for CBS News, ABC News and CNN, and has written 12 books.

"From the time I got interested in politics and history, I was intrigued how little twists of fate have had enormous consequences," Greenfield said during an interview with the Gazette-Mail. "Over and over again, the smallest turns of fate lead to enormous consequences.

"Just take a look at American political history. In 1933, President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was on vacation in Miami. A guy named Giuseppe Zangara shows up and was standing on a chair.

"He shot at Roosevelt and missed. If he had shot and killed him, there would not have been a New Deal."

Discussing his upcoming presentation in Charleston, Greenfield said, "This is a thought exercise. It is not just about repeating what is in my book, but trying to show some lessons about how you approach history."

Greenfield praised Kennedy's thought processes.

"For all of his personal weaknesses, and there were many, you do want a president who is not too sure of himself, someone who will explore every possible way to get information. 

"That is one of the reasons we did not go to war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think we may have gotten into it had [Lyndon Baines] Johnson been president.

"Kennedy thought we had to give [Soviet Leader Nikita] Khrushchev the chance to think. There wasn't always a president with that kind of ability to be able to depersonalize decisions," Greenfield said.

For 13 days in October 1962, many people thought the world was on the brink of nuclear war. A peaceful resolution was reached when Soviet leaders agreed to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba and the United States removed its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

"What would it have meant if John Kennedy had survived Dallas and brought his perspectives about Vietnam to the national debate? I do a lot of research. I try to think as much as I can."

Greenfield believes we "probably would have avoided a major war in Vietnam. But there would have had a much less aggressive Civil Rights movement. Kennedy wasn't as effective [as Johnson] in that area.

"What kind of a temperament do you want in a president? I have seen how different people would approach the same issue with different assumptions. You can learn about what happened and look at what might have happened.

"Two days after Kennedy died [on Nov. 22, 1963], Johnson said, 'I am not going to be the first president to lose a war.' He felt it was an attack on his masculinity. Kennedy was much less personal."

Greenfield said his new book focuses on a lot of details about Vietnam.

"Most of the quotes come from reality. The assertions that Kennedy makes in 1964 and 1965 in my book were things he actually said in 1962 and 1963.

"You go back into the past and you find all these fascinating things," Greenfield said. "After John Kennedy went to Southeast Asia in 1951, he became very skeptical of the ability of France to hold on to their property there. He also saw the power of nationalism."

Greenfield believes Kennedy's policies on Vietnam would have changed if he had been re-elected.

"If he cut loose from Vietnam during his first term, it would have been like the McCarthy Era. If he had been elected again, he could have been more assertive.

"Given his impulses, and what we know, it was likely that he would have tried to find a way, carefully and prudentially, to disengage."

Greenfield compared the impact of Kennedy's assassination to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

"At the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, I asked young kids, 'Do you think you will ever forget 9/11?'

"Kennedy was the first president to come to power after television became so dominant. For the next four days, people sat in front of their televisions. I don't think anything happened with that kind of power until 9/11," Greenfield said.

In 2012, Greenfield published "43*: When Gore Beat Bush -- A Political Fable," a book about the 2000 presidential election going the other way.

Democrat Al Gore won more popular votes than Republican George W. Bush that year, but Bush received more Electoral College votes.

If Gore had been president, would the 9/11 attacks have been any different? Would Osama bin Laden have become such a major world figure?

Would the United States have invaded Iraq? Would our nation's economy have dropped into a recession or would we have experienced economic growth?

Greenfield enjoys creating fictional scenarios to provoke people into thinking.

Early in his career, Greenfield wrote speeches for Robert F. Kennedy, a senator from New York running for president when he was assassinated in June 1968.

A five-time Emmy winner, Greenfield has also covered events in countries from South Africa to the Far East to Europe.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5154.


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