Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: 43* by Jeff Greenfield

Guest post by Andrew Schneider.
Few historical events have presented themselves so quickly as fodder for the game of “What If?” as the 2000 U.S. presidential election.  The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore is often oversimplified as having come down to a single vote. Had one Supreme Court justice switched his or her ruling and allowed the vote counting in Florida to continue, the argument goes, Gore would have ultimately carried the state and won the White House.

In his introduction to 43*, political commentator Jeff Greenfield (author of the Sidewise Award nominated Then Everything Changed) observes a Gore win in the Supreme Court wouldn’t have ended the matter. Florida’s Republican-run legislature was prepared to award the state’s votes to Bush in any event.  Instead, Greenfield gives Gore the win by using an earlier point of divergence. He imagines a different outcome to the case of Elián González, the six-year-old Cuban boy rescued from drowning off the coast of Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving 1999.

In our world, Elián was the sole survivor of an escape from Cuba involving his mother and her lover.  A prolonged struggle ensued over whether Elián would be returned to his father in Cuba. It ended only in June 2000, when federal agents seized Elián from the home of his Miami relatives. If Florida’s historically Republican-leaning Cuban-American community needed a reason to vote against the Democratic Vice President, they had one now, and they came out in force on Election Day.

Greenfield posits that if Elián’s mother had lived, and her lover had drowned, the last thing she would have wanted would have been to stay in Little Havana with the family of her estranged ex-husband. Had mother and son returned to Cuba of their own accord, he suggests, enough Cuban-Americans would have sat out the 2000 election to give Gore a clean win.

What happens next in this world, though, is anything but the dream scenario that many Gore partisans held to during the eight years George W. Bush occupied the White House. Like Bill Clinton throughout his last six years in office, President Gore is faced with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.  Gore, lacking his predecessor’s charm or flexibility, finds much of his domestic agenda stymied -- particularly his environmental and clean energy policies.

The crux of 43* is how President Gore would have faced the threat of al Qaeda.  The Clinton Administration took years to come to grips with how serious a danger Osama bin Laden represented. But by the time Bill Clinton left office, his national security team classed bin Laden as the single greatest threat to the security of the United States. Those individuals went to great lengths to try to convince the incoming George W. Bush Administration that this was the case and were ignored.

A President Gore, Greenfield argues, would have taken the threat of bin Laden much more seriously. But Gore’s national security bureaucracy would have been hampered by the same lack of interagency communication that Bush’s did.  The result in 43* is that the 9/11 hijackers still make it into the U.S. undetected. And by having Gore take steps to make air travel more efficient -- steps that George W. Bush ended up taking towards the end of his own time in office – 9/11 turns into an even bigger catastrophe than it was in our own history.

One of the great strengths of 43* is that the author interviewed many individuals who worked closely with Gore and likely would have been part of his transition team, if not his actual administration. Greenfield says in his epilogue that these conversations gave him insight into how Gore would have behaved in office. The results are convincing to anyone who followed Gore as vice president and as a presidential candidate.

What is less than convincing is the degree of influence Greenfield attributes to the neoconservatives over not just the Republican opposition but American public opinion.  In 43*, as in our world, the neoconservatives blame Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks. Soon, the public is clamoring for an invasion of Iraq. President Gore’s determination to keep the focus of US military efforts on Afghanistan and rooting out al Qaeda wind up costing him dearly.

Numerous accounts of the Bush Administration, notably Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, have debunked the notion that the neocons drove U.S. foreign and security policy going into the Iraq War. The views of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and others gained prominence not because of the neocons themselves but because those views happened to coincide with those of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was these two, with their influence over the Bush White House, that led the U.S. to all but abandon the Afghan War and build the dubious case for war with Iraq. Subtract Cheney and Rumsfeld, replace George W. Bush with Al Gore, and the neocons would have had as little influence shaping US policy as they had either under Clinton or under the first President Bush.

It’s tempting to imagine that much of the pain of the past dozen years might have been avoided with a simple change of leadership.  Greenfield’s account reminds us that history is rarely that simple. But it’s possible to overdo things. Trying to argue that the Iraq War was as unavoidable for a President Gore as deeper involvement in the Vietnam War was for, say, a President Kennedy who survived assassination in 1963, is perhaps a step too far. Greenfield’s reluctance to stray too far from the script of our own history is perhaps the greatest weakness of 43*.

Had Al Gore actually won the presidency in 2000, he would now have been out of power for only four to eight years. A more plausible account of a Gore presidency will require some greater distance on events for reflection.

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Andrew Schneider is the business news reporter for KUHF Houston Public Radio


  1. William Peter GrassoNovember 2, 2012 at 1:14 PM

    Isn't it risky to assume that despite al Qaeda being considered the number 1 threat by Clintonites, they the same level of dismissal the Bush administration displayed to that threat would still have been shown by a Gore administration, with precisely the same outcome? It would have taken painfully little attention to detail to disrupt the 9/11 plot long before airport security checkpoints were involved. I think there's a far more compelling case for a mirror-image scenario.

  2. You lost me at " in our world, the neoconservatives blame Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks". Ugh. won't be reading this one. I was expecting Alternate History, not revisionist history. This is a meme that the Left pushes all the time, but has never cited any supposed 'neocon' as actually saying this. You want to argue about alleged WMDs in Iraq as the pretense to war, fine, but stop the lying please.


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