For as long as I can remember, people have speculated about what would have happened had JFK survived the attack at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on 11/22/63.
After spending a lifetime wondering about this, this year, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of those tragic events in 1963, I’ve written a novel that lays out my answer as to what the aftermath might have been.
“Surrounded by Enemies: What if Kennedy Survived Dallas?” provides a controversial answer because it’s not a look through rose-colored glasses about all the great things JFK might have done, nor is it a time-travel adventure about rifts in the space-time continuum. My premise is political, pragmatic and grounded in a basic truth. Namely, that if an assassin or assassins had shot and missed on November 22nd, then President Kennedy would have woken up in the White House on November 23rd, knowing that the day before somebody had tried to execute him in broad daylight on a public street before a global television audience.
I have some good company in thinking and writing on this subject of John F. Kennedy's survival. Last year, the 800-pound gorilla of fiction, Stephen King, laid out his own vision in his novel, “11/22/63.” This year the political commentator Jeff Greenfield will release his own book, “If Kennedy Lived.” While there have been other treatments in the past, their two books and mine are the 2013 leaders of the "what if" alternate history of the JFK years and the Kennedy Administration. Some thoughts...
Surrounded by Enemies: What if Kennedy Survived Dallas?
Life would not have pinged back to normal -- not for the Kennedy administration, and certainly not for the forces that tried to murder him. There would still have been investigations into the shooting but they would not have been colored by respect and grieving for a martyred President. Instead, the questions would have been asked during a national presidential election. John Kennedy would have found himself in a political fight for survival, even after the actual physical threat of Dallas had passed.
Indeed, I argue that President Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy might very well have found themselves playing the roles of the nation’s first conspiracy theorists. They would have know far better than most just how many people might have wished JFK could be eliminated.
My novel is presented as a commemorative 50th anniversary retrospective assembled by contemporaneous journalists on the staff of a fictitious newsmagazine, Top Story. Its narrative incorporates professionally designed faux-magazine covers depicting JFK with luminaries he actually meets in my parallel universe, including the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The iconic cast of 1960s characters also features Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Cassius Clay, Marilyn Monroe, F. Lee Bailey, Lenny Bruce and, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Stephen King’s book, "11/22/63," came out in 2012 in plenty of time to ride the wave of interest in the 50th anniversary commemorations. King’s book couldn’t be more different than “Surrounded by Enemies.” The master of horror has gone for a straight-down-the-line time-travel extravaganza that weighs in at multiple pounds and over 900 pages. All of those pages deal with his protagonist going back in time with the exception of maybe three at the end that deal with what a new lease on life might have done for Kennedy and the world.
King is interested in telling a classic story that asks two key questions: If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?
While my main characters are the Kennedy brothers themselves, King tells the story of a thirtysomething Jake Epping, a high-school teacher who gets a chance to go back in time to 1958. He decides to stay there so he can prevent the assassination of President Kennedy five years later.
Honestly, the go-back-in-time-to-save-JFK angle has been played before -- in a 1985 Twilight Zone reboot episode, in a couple of (really) low-budget films and several books. I’ve created an Amazon “Listmania” list that lays it all out if you’re interested.
So King’s approach, seen from 35,000 feet, may not be wholly original but his execution is. It’s an excellent novel. Those few pages that he spends on the aftermath of saving John Kennedy’s life don't seem to be meant to be realistic in any way, so it may be unsatisfying if that’s why you read the book. Also, Stephen King has come to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and has written his book from that point-of-view. I don’t buy it (the conclusion) but, as I say, the man is a brilliant writer with a momentous imagination and a command of the craft of writing like few others.
If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History
What is known about Jeff Greenfield's new book (besides the fact that it has one of the longest titles out there in the market today) is minimal. "If Kennedy Lived..." doesn’t come out until October, literally just before the countdown to the 50th anniversary.
We do know that it, too, will be a big deal, given Greenfield’s reputation as a political prognosticator and his recent success in the world of alternate history with his other book, “Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan.” Another book with a title, sub-title, and sub-sub-title. I think his publisher must be thinking keywords!
Greenfield, like myself, has worked at CNN but, unlike myself who was just a kid waiting to shake RFK’s hand in the 1968 Oregon primary, Greenfield was writing speeches for him back then.
We can anticipate that Greenfield’s closeness to the Kennedy family, and his mainstream political credentials, will probably make his book a well-informed but, possibly, less adventurous exploration than, say, Stephen King’s and certainly my own. I saw that Greenfield said his book would be “agnostic” on the angle of an assassination conspiracy. I just don’t see how that is possible in a “what if” on the topic, although I’m sure he will show us all when his book comes out.
Not Killing Kennedy
As a dramatist and as a Kennedy passionista (my NBC series Dark Skies began in the Kennedy Administration), I think all three of these selections are a cut above. King, Greenfield and myself all probably hold John Kennedy in relatively similar high esteem. My fellow travelers here seem to come at it from an atheistic (King) or agnostic (Greenfield) POV on the subject of conspiracy. The big difference then is that I think a conspiracy is a fact and have constructed my narrative to tell the “what if” in a way that I think is unique insofar as this sub-genre of Kennedy books has gone.
Here's a video that is a news talk show straight from the alternative universe where John Kennedy survived, on their 50th anniversary, talking about his legacy.