What if JFK Had Lived?
May 18, 2012 --
The suicide of Mary Richardson Kennedy, the estranged wife of Robert Kennedy Jr., adds another chapter to the tragic history of a family that has been in the American eye for around 80 years. She was 52 years old. Dubbed the "Kennedy curse," the large family has seen more than its fair share of misfortune over the years, with multiple members facing untimely deaths.
Each of the nine children raised by Rose Elizabeth and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr. stood out in their own way. But Rosemary Kennedy suffered from psychological illness and possibly even mental retardation. In 1941, her father received advice that a lobotomy might alleviate her symptoms. The procedure proved disastrous and left her permanently incapacitated. Rosemary would remain in private mental health institutions for the duration of her life, until 2005 when she died.
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Long before John F. Kennedy entered the political arena, Joseph Kennedy Sr., the patriarch of family, had been grooming his eldest son, Joseph Kennedy Jr., for a career in politics. That plan came to an abrupt end when, on Aug. 12, 1944, Joseph Jr.'s bomber plane exploded in flight over the English Channel, killing him at the age of 29. The explosion vaporized Joseph Jr. and his copilot, making it impossible to recover their remains.
A mere four years after the death of the eldest son of the family, Kathleen Kennedy, the fourth child in the Kennedy clan, died in a plane crash in France. She was only 28 years old.
Undoubtedly the most famous tragedy to befall the Kennedys and possibly the most devastating for the country was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On Nov. 22, 1963, the president was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald during a tour through Dallas, Texas as part of Kennedy's reelection campaign. The death of the 46-year-old president shocked the nation. Nearly 50 years after his assassination, many Americans still don't believe Oswald was actually responsible for the president's death, with different conspiracy theories laying the blame at the feet of everyone from the mafia to the KGB to the CIA and many more.
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Five years after the assassination of his older brother, Robert F. Kennedy, then a senator from New York, launched a late campaign for the Democratic party nomination for the presidency. Despite his late entry and going up against the then-incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson (until Johnson announced his plans to suspend his campaign and not seek another term as president), Kennedy quickly became the frontrunner. Shortly after winning the California Democratic primary and addressing a crowd of supporters in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, Kennedy exited the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel and attempted to take a shortcut out of the building through the kitchen. There, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, who cited Kennedy's support for Israel as a motive for his actions.
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In 1964, Edward "Ted" Kennedy nearly died in a plane crash, which claimed the lives of two other aboard including an aide and the pilot. The injuries he would sustain, including a broken ribs, a broken back and a punctured lung, would cause him pain for the rest of his life. However, it was another tragedy that would haunt the youngest of the Kennedy children for the rest of his life, the Chappaquiddick incident. After a night of partying on July 18, 1969, one year after the death of his brother, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick island. He abandoned the vehicle, leaving passenger Mary Jo Kopechne behind to drown. Her body was uncovered by divers the next day.
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In 1984, the "Kennedy curse" struck a new generation of Kennedys for the first time. David Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, reportedly never recovered after the death of his father. Shortly after the assassination, the younger Kennedy took to drugs to cope with the tragedy. In 1973, David was involved in a Jeep accident that left him with fractured vertebrae and sparked an addiction to painkillers. On April 25, 1984, David was found dead in a hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., the result of an overdose due to a combination painkillers, antipsychotic medication and cocaine.
On Dec. 31, 1997, Michael Kennedy, another son of Robert F. Kennedy, was on a family vacation in Aspen, Colo. While playing football on skis with other members of his family, the younger Kennedy crashed into a tree. The accident claimed his life. He was 39 years old when he died.
On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr., the only son of the former president, flew a small aircraft from Essex County Aircraft in New Jersey en route to Martha's Vineyard. His wife, Carolyn Jeanne Bessette, and sister-in-law were also aboard for the trip. While flying over the Atlantic Ocean at night in hazy conditions, Kennedy reportedly became disoriented and crashed the plane. No one abroad survived. Kennedy was 38 at the time of the crash.
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The "What If?" game of history is never more fun than when played using real-life moments in our history. What if Lincoln had turned down an invitation to Ford's Theater that night of April 14, 1865, and Gen. U.S. Grant had gone instead? What if the rain showers that had been sprinkling over Dallas had continued for a few more hours on Nov. 22, 1963?
In the case of President John F. Kennedy, historians and authors point to many moments where a slight change of events could have resulted in Kennedy making a successful campaign trip to Dallas without incident. But then what? How would the United States be different now if Kennedy had survived?
Journalist and television commentator Jeff Greenfield pondered this idea in his new book "If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy."
Greenfield's alternate history begins when Secret Service agents decide not to remove a protective clear plastic rain bubble on the president's limousine for the ride from Love Field to downtown Dallas. In Greenfield's version, Oswald's bullets strike the shell, but only manage to wound President Kennedy.
"Everyone assumed it would rain all weekend," Greenfield said. "The clearing of the skies has been a part of the speculation or talk about what happened for almost 50 years."
Greenfield carefully lays out a different path in which Vice President Lyndon Johnson finds himself under investigation for financial improprieties and is dropped from the Democratic ticket in 1964. Kennedy is re-elected over GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, but instead of escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Kennedy plays it more cautiously and pulls out during his second term.
As for Russia, Kennedy decides to make up for a disastrous first summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev by making an official visit to Moscow, hoping to reduce Cold War tensions.
Greenfield also sees Kennedy opening up relations with China years before President Nixon's visit in 1972. He believes Kennedy could have passed civil rights legislation using black military veterans as a political tool against opponents, mostly southern Democrats.
Another author (one of more than 100 out with JFK books this fall) believes President Kennedy would have been less successful than Johnson was when it comes to the "Great Society" social programs of the mid-1960s.
President Kennedy in March 1961.Corbis
"After the (1964) election, Kennedy would have gotten the civil rights bill passed," said Larry Sabato, pundit and political scientist at the University of Virginia and author of "The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy."
"I doubt it for the Voting Rights Act or the Open Housing Act in 1968. Kennedy had to be dragged to civil rights."
Kennedy's efforts in domestic policy and foreign affairs may have been sidetracked by his personal peccadilloes, namely his insatiable appetite for women.
Kennedy reportedly had affairs with prostitutes, a mobster's girlfriend, White House interns and Georgetown socialites while in office. The Secret Service was worried that Kennedy's behavior opened him up to spies or potential assassins. And could these affairs have come back to bite him as blackmail during the 1964 campaign?
Sabato thinks not. In those days, the Washington press corps was considered part of the White House team, and Kennedy knew how to play them.
"There were so many women of all types," Sabato said. "Sooner or later it would have come out. My bet is after the second term."
Jeff Greenfield notes that as a senator in the late 1950s, Kennedy's affair with a young Capitol Hill staffer was tape recorded by a couple in whose house the young woman lived. Despite the couple's best efforts, only a neo-Nazi propaganda magazine printed the allegations, Greenfield said.
"Today, they would have posted it to YouTube," he said.
Greenfield's book ends with a plot twist involving the president and his wife, Jacqueline. Still, he believes the turmoil that rocked American society in the late 1960s may have been muted had Kennedy remained alive and in office.
"It would have been a much less grim country," he said.