Monday, 21 July 2014 16:16

Jeff Greenfield, If Kennedy Lived

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The once progressive co-author of A Populist Manifesto with this book has written the worst kind of alternative history, one seriously colored by the view from the present, and more specifically, of those who won and those who lost, with a decided bias in favor of those who won, writes Jim DiEugenio.


Many years ago, in an America that seems very remote from the country we inhabit today, Jeff Greenfield co-wrote an interesting and valuable book. That book was co-written with journalist Jack Newfield. Both men had worked for Senator Robert Kennedy. In 1972, they published a book entitled A Populist Manifesto. It was subtitled, "The Making of a New Majority". The book's title echoed off of the Marx/Engels volume, A Communist Manifesto. It wasn't quite as extreme as that volume, since the American populist movement was never communist in nature. But there is no doubt it had a leftist agenda. For instance, it decried the failures of the tax code to properly collect tax receipts from corporate giants like General Electric. The overall aim was to forge a new majority: a "coalition of self-interest" among the young urban middle class, poor racial minorities, and the Democratic labor movement. There was no denying the egalitarian theme of the book. The aim was to redistribute wealth and power through things like medical insurance for all, reorganization of the legal system, the splitting up of giant corporations, nationalization of large major public utilities, reducing national defense expenditures, and, ironically, in light of Greenfield's position today, diversification of the broadcast media.

As I said, I read the book as a young man. At the time I was working in the George McGovern campaign. I recall wrestling with several of its large, radical ideas. Many of which seemed attractive and almost common sensical to me. And back in the political environment of 1972, neither the title, nor the ideas, seemed out of place. But, of course, in a huge landslide, Richard Nixon crushed George McGovern later that year. And if one follows the career of Mr. Greenfield, it appears that the Yale Law School graduate got the message. Greenfield was 25 when his boss Senator Robert Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles. He was 29 when he co-wrote A Populist Manifesto. Socially and culturally, Woodstock signaled the end of the sixties: the anger and frustration of the betrayal and murders of the sixties would now transmute into an ethos of rock music and drugs. But in historical terms, the McGovern campaign was really the last stand for the sixties liberalism Bobby Kennedy represented in 1968. In fact, at the 1968 Democratic convention, McGovern was nominated as a kind of stand-in for Robert Kennedy's constituency. And Frank Mankiewicz, who announced the death of RFK in Los Angeles, was one of the top managers of McGovern's campaign. The Democratic Party has never really been the same since. Neither has the nation.

As noted above, after his boss was killed and McGovern was swamped, Greenfield got the message. Books like A Populist Manifesto were not the way to get your ticket punched in a polity headed by RFK's antithesis, Richard Nixon. Greenfield then went to work for several years in the office of political consultant David Garth. Garth was one of the most successful consultants in the history of New York City. He was a key figure-perhaps the key figure-- in helping to elect Mayors John Lindsay, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Garth was a master of the use of television and what came to be called, "the sound bite". Garth kept a low profile for himself. He shunned publicity and operated under the radar as he molded the city's fate. Therefore, he was something of a political chameleon who worked for both Democrats and Republicans. Whatever his own political beliefs were, they remained a mystery. But its safe to say this: If Greenfield was now working for a man who's main goal was winning, and if some of his winners included the likes of Giuliani, then its pretty clear that the law school graduate was now moderating the ideas he once advocated in A Populist Manifesto.

After his work for Garth, Greenfield was now ready to start on a third career. With the lessons learned in Garth's office, he repackaged himself as a "political analyst". And he now sold himself as such to the media. He started at ABC News in the eighties, working primarily on Nightline. He then went to CNN for about a decade. In 2007, he was hired as a "political correspondent" at CBS. Today, he does things like conduct public discussions in New York with people like Fox's Charles Krauthammer and Time's Joe Klein. In other words, after starting his career as being concerned with challenging the establishment, Greenfield has now become a part of that establishment. To see this in bold letters, one has to go no further than his book on the 2000 election heist in Florida, Oh Waiter: One Order of Crow. That tome just might be one of the very worst published on that disastrous election: superficial, breezy, lazy, and worst of all, accepting of almost everything the MSM broadcast about the episode. If one wants to see just how bad Greenfield's book really is, just read Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, or Jews for Buchanon by John Nichols. The first actually shows how the conspiracy to steal that election worked; the second is a good catalogue on all the irregularities which occurred during the entire months long drama. Which, of course, concluded with one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in recent memory. In 2005, Lance Dehaven-Smith wrote The Battle for Florida, a very good retrospective on all the failures of local and federal government that allowed a crime like this to occur. All of these works, and many more, make Greenfield's book look like a grade school reader. And let us not forget, it was the heist of this election from Al Gore that directly caused the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Which was a completely manufactured and unnecessary war. That war's repercussions are still being felt today. In both Iraq and the USA. Greenfield's book does not even begin to fill in the outlines of that crime or its epic tragic results.

All of the above is appropriate background to Greenfield's attempt at an alternative history of the Kennedy presidency. Before we address the work itself, the reviewer should note a bit about the genre. Alternative history tries to imagine what the world would have been like if some crucial event had not occurred. There are two ways to approach the subject. One is in a fact based, scholarly manner in which alternative information is argued and debated for value. A good example of this would be James Blight's excellent book about whether or not President Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, Virtual JFK. A looser, more narrative type of alternative history would be exemplified by Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. In that book, a fine novelist reimagines America if isolationist and closet anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940. According to Roth, Lindbergh then negotiated a non-aggression understanding with Hitler and embarked on his own Jewish pogroms. The second method allows for more fictional devices and looser interpretations.

Greenfield's is much more in the second category than in the first. In fact, he wrote a previous book of alternative history called Then Everything Changed in 2011. I did not read that book, and after reading this one I am glad I did not. First, Greenfield does not have the literary gifts to do this kind of thing well. As noted above, Philip Roth was a fine novelist. To put it kindly, Jeff Greenfield is not. There is very little in this book to mark the gifts of fine narrative construction. Some traits a good novelist should have are the ability to draw characters, to depict credible and memorable dialogue, to make a narrative flow, to construct a believable backdrop to his story, and to build drama (and perhaps suspense). For me Greenfield's book is written at the level of The Novel 101 in all of those categories. And even at that level, it is the work of only an average student. Therefore, intrinsically, the book has very little gripping power.

Which leaves us with the choices Greenfield made in his version of a Kennedy presidency that lasted two terms. First of all, Greenfield has Kennedy surviving the assassination attempt because the Secret Service put the plexiglass bubble top on the limousine. Kennedy then goes on to Parkland Hospital where his life is saved by the doctors there. In his version, Oswald is then shot at the Texas Theater. Robert Kennedy then ponders if anyone else was involved in the murder attempt. But according to Greenfield, he is the only man of consequence who does so. In fact, one of the more bizarre things about the book is this: it's President Kennedy who tries to discourage Bobby from investigating the case. In other words, Greenfield has JFK offering up the Warren Commission's case against Oswald.

This takes us up to about the end of Chapter 2. And even at this early point in the book, any responsible reviewer has to note some odd choices Greenfield made. In the author's introduction to the book, remembering who Greenfield is and was, he says two predictable things about what will follow. First, he finds the case against Oswald to be compelling. Remember, this is a Yale Law School graduate saying this. Secondly, he is not going to be writing a hagiography about the Kennedys. These two qualifications clearly mark the book throughout. And the first one seriously discolors the opening two chapters.

For instance, although Greenfield's version of Oswald, like the real Oswald, never had a trial, its pretty clear where Mr. MSM stands on that issue. In his discussion of the Women's Center or the Trade Mart as Kennedy's ultimate speaking destination that day, he writes that if the former had been chosen, there would have been no sixth floor sniper. The author has Oswald also killing Officer Tippit. At the Texas Theater, Greenfield has Oswald pulling a gun before he is killed by Officer McDonald. As more than one commentator has demonstrated, including Gil DeJesus, this whole scenario, with Oswald trying to take a shot at a policeman, was very likely manufactured by the Dallas Police to make Oswald appear like a belligerent defendant who was capable of killing someone. (See here for the case.)

But along the way in these opening two chapters, Greenfield shows us even further how questionable and weakly scaffolded his alternative history really is. In depicting the assassination, he says that Roy Kellerman's first reaction was to throw himself over President Kennedy. One wonders how many times the author has seen the Zapruder film. Because there is no evidence on that film for Kellerman ever contemplating any such act. And further, he would have had to throw himself over Governor John Connally to get to Kennedy.

And Greenfield has no qualms about walking over the dead body of his former boss. In his discussion of who Robert Kennedy may have thought killed his brother, he writes that the Attorney General knew about the CIA plots to kill Castro. As many, many others have written the problem with this is that is clashes with the best evidence we have on the matter. That is the CIA's own Inspector General report, which says such was not the case. (The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, pgs. 327-28) And also, there is J. Edgar Hoover's memorandum of his meeting with Robert Kennedy. Hoover had stumbled upon the plots 2 years later and alerted RFK to his knowledge of Sam Giancana's participation in them. This occurred when the Bureau found out about Robert Maheu's illegal attempts to help Gianacana with a personal problem. When the FBI found out about their past association with the CIA plots to kill Castro, Hoover briefed RFK about the matter. Kennedy revealed nothing but surprise and anger. (ibid, p. 327) When he called in the CIA for further briefing, the same reaction was exhibited. As the briefer wrote, "If you have seen Mr. Kennedy's eyes get steely and his jaw set and his voice get low and precise you get a definite feeling of unhappiness." (ibid) The CIA had to brief him because he didn't know about the plots.

As this reviewer noted in his essay, "The Posthumous Assassination of John F. Kennedy", since about 1975 and the Church Committee hearings, there has been an orchestrated, never-ending campaign to reverse both the CIA's and the Committee's finding in this regard. Which was that the CIA planned and executed these plots independently. Greenfield goes along with this campaign against his former boss.

In Chapter 3, Greenfield has Vice-President Lyndon Johnson resigning office over scandals involving his former assistant Bobby Baker and insurance salesman Don Reynolds. In Greenfield's scenario, Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford go to Johnson and tell him that Bobby Kennedy is bringing pressure on Life Magazine to go ahead and publicize these charges against Johnson. Therefore, Johnson resigns in January of 1964. Its clear that Greenfield got most of his material for this episode from Robert Caro's book, The Passage of Power.

In Chapter 4, Greenfield has President Kennedy, now healed, returning to Washington and addressing congress. But he also returns to the idea of Robert Kennedy wrestling with the possibility that Oswald may not have been working by himself. But they way the author presents this is classic MSM cliché:

It was unimaginable to him that a single insignificant twerp of a man like Lee Harvey Oswald could have struck the most powerful figure in the world. But the more he and his team of investigators looked, the harder it was to fit any of the likely suspects with the facts.

Note first, Greenfield uses the whole banal adage of the psychological difficulty of accepting a loser like Oswald as the assassin of a great man like Kennedy as his starting point. In other words, it's not the evidence that is the problem, it's the paradigm. Well, a writer can do that if he recites the whole warmed over Warren Commission creed as gospel.

Which is what Greenfield does next. He presents the whole Commission case to the reader. Just as someone like Arlen Specter, or more in line with Greenfield's profession, Tom Brokaw, would. He says CE 399, the Magic Bullet, was traced to the rifle found on the sixth floor. He then adds that the rifle was traced to Oswald who ordered it under an assumed name. He then goes even further and writes that it was this rifle which Oswald used to fire on retired General Edwin Walker. Then, apparently using Howard Brennan, Greenfield writes that witnesses saw a man fitting the Oswald description on the sixth floor moments before the assassination. He then tops it all off with a crescendo that would have had David Belin beaming. He writes that it was an undeniable fact that Oswald shot and killed Officer Tippit, and had tried to kill the officer who arrested him at the Texas Theater.

Now to go through this whole litany of half-truths and outright deceptions would take much more length and depth than this book deserves. I have already linked to a source which discredits the last claim. But briefly, to say that the Tippit case leaves no room for doubt is a bit daffy. For instance, the bullets used in that shooting could never be matched to the alleged revolver used by Oswald. (James DiEugenio, Reclaiming Parkland, p. 101) And further, there is no evidence that Oswald ever picked up that handgun from Railroad Express Agency, as the Commission says he did. (ibid, p. 104) And perhaps Greenfield does not know it, but someone dropped Oswald's wallet with an Alek Hidell alias in it at the Tippit scene. Because according to the Warren Commission, the Dallas Police took Oswald's wallet in the car driving away from the Texas Theater. (ibid, pgs. 101-102) And to say that Oswald shot at Walker ignores the fact that Oswald was never accused of doing that until eight months afterwards. And the only way you can accuse him of that is by changing the bullet that was recovered from the scene of Walker's house. (ibid, pgs. 79-80) Further, the best witness to the Walker shooting, young Kirk Coleman, said he saw two men escaping from the scene after the shooting. Both drove separate cars and neither resembled Oswald. Further, according to the Commission, Oswald did not drive.

To further cut off any possibility of a conspiracy, Greenfield writes that Oswald's only link to anti-Castro Cubans was a clumsy attempt to infiltrate them. This, of course, refers to Oswald's confrontation with Carlos Bringuier on Canal Street. An incident which drew a lot of publicity for Oswald, even though it was quite innocuous. But this can only be categorized as the "only link" if one disregards a rather important piece of evidence. Namely the Corliss Lamont pamphlet which was stamped with the address "544 Camp Street". This was found among Oswald's belongings upon his arrest for the altercation with Bringuier. As anyone who has studied this case knows, that stamped address was a ticking bomb. Because it happened to be one of the addresses to Guy Banister's office. And that office housed many Cuban exiles. Further, there were numerous credible witnesses who placed Oswald at that address and/or with Banister. And since Banister was involved with both the Bay of Pigs invasion and Operation Mongoose, Oswald had many opportunities to intersect with Cubans working for the CIA, for example Sergio Arcacha Smith. (See Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, by James DiEugenio, pgs. 109-16)

As noted above, one of the most repugnant parts of the book is that the author actually has President Kennedy trying to talk the Attorney General out of investigating further. So in addition to smearing RFK with the Castro plots, he tries to put the seal of approval on the preposterous Warren Report with John F. Kennedy speaking from the grave.

From here, Greenfield now covers all the MSM tracks. Like Philip Shenon, he writes that the FBI and CIA were careless in their surveillance of Oswald. And this is what allowed him to kill President Kennedy. He specifically says the CIA lost track of Oswald when he returned to Dallas. In the sentence before this, Greenfield writes something artfully inaccurate. He says that Oswald had visited the Cuban and Russian embassies in Mexico City "just a few months before the shooting of the president." (p. 60 of the e-book edition.) Oswald was in Mexico City seven weeks before the assassination. Not a few months. But that "error" makes it easier to say the CIA lost track of him in the meantime. When, according to the Commission, Oswald returned to Dallas right after leaving Mexico City. This allows Greenfield to avoid the whole can of worms that Mexico City opens up for defenders of the official story.

Greenfield then notes the whole James Hosty incident with the destroyed note allegedly left at FBI HQ in Dallas by Oswald before the assassination. Hosty was ordered to deep-six the note about three days after the assassination. Greenfield writes that if this information about Oswald leaving a threatening note at FBI HQ had been given to the Secret Service, they may have been interested in knowing Oswald's whereabouts during the motorcade. Well, maybe, maybe not. After all, what happened with the Secret Service in the wake of the thwarting of the plot to kill Kennedy in Chicago? Answer: Nothing. (Jim Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 266) Greenfield avoids that problem by not mentioning a word about the Chicago attempt.

The above summarizes the lengths Greenfield goes to in camouflaging the true circumstances of Kennedy's murder. Let us now review what the author does with his version of Kennedy's two terms in the presidency. Make no mistake, for the most part, Greenfield continues the agenda he showed on the assassination as he deals with Kennedy's presidency. For instance, the author provides a brief and sketchy annotation section at the end in which he lists some of the sources he used in the book. Two of his main sources for Kennedy's presidency are Richard Reeves' President Kennedy: Profile of Power, and Nick Bryant's The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality. Again, if one wanted to present a Fox version of President Kennedy, one could hardly do better than this choice. First for his overall presidency, second for his civil rights campaign.

Dealing with the latter, in my review of Larry Sabato's book, The Kennedy Half Century, I demonstrated just how much Kennedy did for the civil rights struggle in less than three years. And how this was previewed by what he did in the senate. I also named three good books on this subject. All of them are ignored by Greenfield. I then presented the evidence that Kennedy had done more for civil rights in less than one term in office than the previous 18 presidents had done in a century. A combination of the regressive right and the loopy left (Bryant was the foreign correspondent for the The Guardian), wants to disguise that historical fact. They cannot. (Click here for that review and scroll to section 3.)

As for Reeves, his book was so bad I couldn't finish it. It seemed to me to largely be a response by an establishment journalist to the depiction of Kennedy as shown in Oliver Stone's film JFK. And when Tom Brokaw presented his 2-hour special on Kennedy's assassination last year, Reeves was trotted out to neutralize the effect of NSAM 263 on the Vietnam War. Reeves said that if only concerned things like cooks and kitchen help. Which is nothing but fiction. But these are the kinds of people who Greenfield uses as sources in his book.

So its little surprise that the image presented of Kennedy here is that of a moderate conservative. For instance, because he does not want to be perceived as being too "out there" on civil rights, Greenfield's Kennedy proposes a welfare-to-work program. This way he can negate any white backlash by saying the program is not targeted or black Americans. At his 1964 acceptance speech, Kennedy names a new theme for his second term. He dumps the title New Frontier for the New Patriotism. Greenfield actually then has Kennedy using a line from Ronald Reagan: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

But that is not enough for Greenfield. He actually has Kennedy proclaiming, "This is a conservative country at heart...Why can't these damn conservatives understand a tax cut will give us so much growth, we'll actually have more revenue. Its so obvious." If Kennedy ever said anything like this, I have never come across it. The story behind Kennedy's tax cut was not at all similar to what the Reagan tax cut was. Walter Heller, a Keynesian economist, designed Kennedy's tax cut. Heller would have never gotten within ten miles of Reagan's White House. Why? Because he used to poke fun at Milton Friedman. Kennedy's tax cut was designed to speed up both growth and productivity. It was not weighted towards the upper classes. In fact it slightly favored the working class and middle class. After discussing the issue with Heller, Kennedy thought this was the best way to get the economy moving immediately, with a demand-side stimulus program. (In fact, Kennedy first thought of a New Deal type government-spending program.) And if Kennedy ever thought the program would pay for itself, I have never seen that quote either. In fact, it did not. (See Timothy Noah, The New Republic, 10/12/2012) As for promoting his tax cut, this speech is about as far as he went rhetorically in catering to the business class. (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9057)

Greenfield's take on Vietnam is a decidedly mixed bag. He does have Kennedy withdrawing from Southeast Asia and flying to Moscow to cement a deal about this. But this is only after he writes "As president, he had pressed the military for a more assertive strategy in Vietnam." Since the Pentagon wanted to insert combat troops, and Kennedy refused to do so, then this "assertive strategy" did not amount to much. In fact, it was fairly marginal. He then adds, "In his inclination to take the offensive, Kennedy was reflecting a long-standing national consensus that the loss of any territory to a communist insurgency was a threat to every other nation in the region." In other words, Kennedy was a believer in the Domino Theory. As no less than McGeorge Bundy concluded after much study of the declassified records, this is simply not true. (See Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster, a good book that, predictably, Greenfield ignores.) In fact, Greenfield actually implies that the reason Kennedy did do a deal in Vietnam was so the government of South Vietnam could not do one first.

According to Greenfield, Kennedy could not get his civil rights bill through congress. (An idea that is neutralized by Thurston Clarke who used interviews with congressional leaders of the time for his information.) So LBJ calls Kennedy and recommends going with a crew of black Americans who were war heroes to shame congress into acting. As the reader can see, Greenfield is now stage-managing JFK like Dick Morris did Bill Clinton.

Greenfield does mention that Kennedy was going to try an opening to Red China. (p. 174) And this, plus the Vietnam deal, ignites a plot to get rid of Kennedy. Headed by James Angleton, it threatens to expose his dalliance with Mary Meyer to the press. And, of course, Greenfield buys the Timothy Leary drug angle to this story also. One which Leary himself forgot about for almost two decades. The plotters decide to use reporter Clark Mollenhoff to expose the story. But Bobby Kennedy hears about it first. He then brings pressure on the newspaper not to print the tale. This kills the story.

But because people in the press heard about what RFK had done, they give the Kennedys a bad press until 1968. Therefore, RFK does not run in 1968. The two men who do run are Hubert Humphrey and a man who Greenfield apparently very much admires, Ronald Reagan. We don't learn who won. At the very end, Jackie Kennedy decides to leave her husband.

This is the worst kind of alternative history. Because it's an alternative that is seriously colored by the view from the present. More specifically, those who won and those who lost. With a decided bias in favor of those who won. Therefore it tells us more about today than about the past. What makes it offensive is that the author got his start in politics by working for one of those who lost. And today, that seems to mean little to him.

Here, Jeff Greenfield shows us just how bad the MSM can be. Even with the freedom to write an imaginary history, he still can't come close to telling the truth.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 22:26
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and Reclaiming Parkland (2013/2016), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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