Q: Where did the idea for this book originate?
A: I've always been fascinated by the critical moments in history—especially American political history, which is my beat—where the most random of events produce enormous results (or as it's better known, "the butterfly effect"). Think about John Kennedy's decision to call the family of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 when King was jailed, which may well have swung enough black votes to change the outcome of the election; or the endless twists and turns of the 2000 election. My novel, The People's Choice (1995), about a President-elect dying just after the election, was triggered by a false report on Election Night 1980 that Ronald Reagan had suffered a stroke.
In the case of THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED, I was on a panel at New York's Paley Center for Media in early 2009, looking at a film about Robert Kennedy's famous Indianapolis speech the night MLK was killed. During the Q&A session, someone asked me—as has happened dozens if not hundreds of times over the decades—"If RFK had lived, would he have won?" I've always answered, "Who knows?" But having just read The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke, about that '68 campaign, I said something like: "You know, if Chicago Mayor Daley had backed Bobby, then there would have been a lot less upheaval in Chicago, what with the mayor backing an antiwar candidate. And that would have meant whoever the nominee was would likely have been in much better shape…"
Q: What happened next?
A: I went home that night and literally could not sleep. I started thinking about an aspect of that whole situation that I'd never thought of before: that had RFK survived an assassination attempt, all of the calculations about delegate strength and Hubert Humphrey's support among the regulars might have been overshadowed by the shock and relief everyone would have been feeling (think about the surge of goodwill Ronald Reagan won after surviving John Hinckley). Those thoughts, in turn, triggered other memories I'd tucked away years earlier: the all-but-forgotten true story of how John F. Kennedy was almost killed by a suicide bomber in Palm Beach just after his victory in 1960; and about how close Jerry Ford came to beating Carter in '76. And I was off and running.
Q: As you note, there are whole collections of "what-if?" books about history. What makes THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED different?
A: I really like those books, but almost all the essays are just that: essays. I wanted to write narrative, with scenes, dialogue, and plot. At the same time, I chose three events that came within a whisker of actually happening. I didn't want to deal with, say, Hitler's scientists inventing the computer, or a terrorist attack in 1976. JFK really was "seconds away" (as a Secret Service chief wrote) of dying at the hands of a suicide bomber in December 1960; RFK's tragic path into that hotel kitchen in June 1968 was a matter of a last-minute decision to spare him another speech; Gerald Ford's loss in '76 was a matter of a handful of votes in two states.
Perhaps most important, I wanted the radical shifts in history to be absolutely plausible, based on the character of the figures and the reality of the times I wrote about. That's why I scoured oral histories, memoirs, and interviewed people who were close to the principals. Trying to imagine Lyndon Johnson during the Cuban Missile crisis meant trying to understand how he viewed the world, how he understood, or misunderstood, the nations beyond America's borders, and the fears, compulsions, and impulses that shaped his life. Imagining Robert Kennedy dealing with his brother's murder not in November, 1963, but in December, 1960, means imagining him without any of the experiences that so changed his black-and-white view of the world. So in the chapter on JFK's 1960 death, Robert Kennedy is an unevolved, hard-line, "let's go get the bastards," Cold Warrior Senator, who has taken his brother's Massachusetts seat. The chapter about his survival and 1968 campaign shows a fundamentally different person—as many believe he was.
Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
A: The real-life event that shocks everyone is the incident I use to launch the book's first alternate history: the aborted attempt on the life of President-Elect Kennedy by a suicide bomber outside his Palm Beach, Florida home in December, 1960. Few people today know that story. The only thing that kept the bomber from flicking the switch connected to seven sticks of dynamite—enough to level a small mountain—was that he didn't want to kill Kennedy in front of his wife and child, who had come to the door to see him off to church. (The bomber, 73-year-old Richard Pavlick, was arrested four days later in Florida by authorities after he sent threatening notes to the postmaster back home in Belmont, New Hampshire). As I wrote in the foreword, if Jacqueline Kennedy had slept in that Sunday morning, or was at breakfast, or was tending to Caroline or her infant son John Jr., Kennedy would have been killed before ever becoming President. It's a perfect example of how the tiniest twist of fate can have enormous consequences.
Q: How long did it take you to put this together? And where there any surprises for you along the way?
A: I'd say it was fifteen months from start to finish—from initial concept to turning in the last chapter. The most amazing thing for me, as I started doing the book, was the extent to which my speculations were so deeply rooted in real-life events. I hope readers will see how much real history is embedded in these stories. That's why I insisted on showing, in the Afterword, exactly where my speculations came from.
Q: You describe the attempted Pavlick bombing as one of the forgotten moments of history. Were there other forgotten moments that you've now brought back into view?
A: I loved learning more about LBJ's plan in 1968 to go to Moscow and cut a deal with the Soviets so he could then fly directly to the Democratic National Convention and announce the agreement he had just made. He actually prepared a speech that he hoped would prompt delegates to view Hubert Humphrey as a loser and make them realize they needed to choose him instead because he was much tougher. I never realized the extent to which he had hoped to capture the nomination he had foresworn months earlier.
Q: Which of the three narratives in THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED is your favorite?
A: You're probably thinking it's the section on RFK— and as one who worked as a speechwriter in his Senate office and on his 1968 Presidential campaign staff, the work of imagining a Presidential campaign, and a Robert Kennedy White House, was a fascinating and sometimes poignant exercise. But, even though it's not the most dramatic of the three, my favorite is the last one because it's not built around a life-and-death situation (i.e. the death of JFK in the first narrative; the survival of RFK in the second.) It serves as a great example of how our history is often determined by things that aren't obvious — in this case the rules of the Democratic Party's nominating process — and the degree to which random chance figures in so many of these things. Once a President wins the Oval Office, we tend to think of that outcome as the result of a great historical sweep of events. What we tend to forget is that it's often just a roll of the dice—the most bizarre, seemingly insignificant twist of fate — that gets you to that finish line.
Q: What other techniques did you use to make the book more real?
A: As much as possible, the words of the principals come from them; for instance, most of RFK's speeches are speeches he gave during his Senate career and Presidential campaign; many of the ads I describe actually ran during the Indiana and Nebraska primaries (most of the country never saw them). The same is true of the words and thoughts of LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, and Ronald Reagan, as well as important figures like Clark Clifford. The observations of players like Ford National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former LBJ Aide Harry McPherson are from interviews. Moreover, some of the twists and turns in the plots are drawn from real life. Robert Kennedy's campaign was taking a hard look at the Democratic Party convention rules in an effort to open up the pro-Humphrey delegations. As I mentioned, President Johnson really DID have a plan to try to seize the 1968 nomination by going to the convention in a dramatic-last-minute strike. The Byzantine rules of delegate-selection that Gary Hart uses to bedevil Ted Kennedy in 1980 are the rules that were in place.
Q: But you have a lot of surprising changes in the media and popular culture that clearly have to be invented.
A: Sure. This was the "playful" part of the exercise. For instance, the James Bond craze was triggered by an interview in Life Magazine in 196l where JFK said Ian Fleming was one of his favorite authors. Without JFK in the White House, that interview (obviously!) would not have happened; and the James Bond craze quite possibly never would have happened. If Bobby Kennedy had settled the Vietnam War quickly, there may well have been no appetite for the powerful antiwar sentiments in "M*A*S*H*." If a Ford Administration in 1979 had kept the Ayatollah Khomeini from coming to power in Iran, there's no hostage crisis—which means there would have been no "Nightline" (this would have been a personal disaster, since I worked on that show for 14 years!).
Q: What do you say to those who would argue history would have turned out very different from your projections?
A: I say "come on in, the water's fine!" If you know the sci-fi concept of an infinite number of universes, then it's not a leap to say that, for instance, LBJ would have dealt with Cuba in a wholly different way, or that RFK's battles with Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon would not have ended the way I paint them. Indeed, someone else could write a whole series of alternative histories, where Nixon beats JFK, or where Gerald Ford has a successful second term. All I ask is that if you want to paint a different history, use the record; start with reality, and go from there. And don't assume just because you admire a historical figure, that figure would lead us to the promised land. Robert Kennedy remains for me the most impressive public figure of my lifetime, but his path in my book is not exactly strewn with roses.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
A: I want them to see that history doesn't turn on a dime; it turns on a plugged nickel. I hope they'll come away from this book with a deep appreciation for the role chance plays in how history unfolds. If they understand that they'll have a better understanding of how the world really works.