Contemplating 'What If'

What if the person who videotaped Mitt Romney dissing the 47 percent of Americans who get government benefits had walked out of that fancy Florida fundraiser for a stroll on the beach? What if his cell phone had fallen out of his pocket and was ruined in the surf, losing the video that seems to have solidified impressions of Mitt Romney as a rich guy, too out of touch to be president? Would this be a closer race? Would Romney win?

Who knows? We humans like to think that history has logic to it. We tell ourselves that things happen for a reason. That Obama will win because things aren't so bad after all, or that Romney will win because they are. But, in fact, as the veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield reminds us, history unfolds thanks mostly to a healthy dose of chance.

We like to think that things happen for a reason. But a new book reminds us that history unfolds thanks mostly to a healthy dose of chance.

The latest title in the “what if” genre is Greenfield’s newly released e-book called “43* When Gore Beat Bush – A Political Fable." In it, the smallest twist of fate reverses the direction of the closest election in the 20th century and, with it, the direction of the rest of the world.

So how does Gore beat Bush?

Elian Gonzalez’s mother lives.

If your memory needs some dusting off, here’s a refresher of the real story.

Elian Gonzalez was the 6-year-old Cuban boy who, in March 2000, with his mother, attempted to come to Miami from Cuba. After rough seas capsized their rickety boat, a human tragedy morphed into a political maelstrom. Elian lived, but his mother died and the boy ended up in the custody of relatives in Miami who refused to let him go back to Cuba to be with his father. The Cuban-American community went to court to keep Elian in the U.S., arguing that America was clearly a better place to raise a child. For many people, 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez became the symbol of the need for a free Cuba.

The Clinton-Gore Administration was inevitably drawn into the custody case as it became one more skirmish in the long battle between the U.S. and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Elian was eventually returned to Cuba where he lives to this day with his father.

Months later, on Election Day, lingering resentment against the federal government’s role in returning Elian to Cuba depressed Gore’s vote in Little Havana and Florida became the state that cost Gore the presidency.

But in the fictional history played out in “43,” Elian’s mother lives and the two go quietly back to Cuba. It’s a one day story, there is no international custody fight, and there is no mobilization of the Cuban Americans in Havana against the Clinton-Gore Administration. Gore wins Florida neatly, without the drama of hanging chads and court cases, and he goes on to be President. Of course, it goes without saying that in race as close as the 2000 election was in Florida, any number of small twists of fate could have changed the outcome.


Starting with a change in the saga of a 6-year-old boy, Greenfield plays out an entire alternate history.

I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say that though President Gore manages to kill Osama bin Laden in his first few months in office, 9/11 happens anyway. Also, the attacks themselves play out differently for reasons having to do with Gore’s experience in making the federal government more efficient. And – the last thing I’ll reveal – is that while a would-be President Gore opposes the invasion of Iraq (as the actual historical record shows he did), that opposition costs him in ways that are plausible and dramatic.

As we move into the final stage of the 2012 campaign, the big opportunities to change the dynamics of the race rest in the three presidential debates. Debates almost always provide opportunities for the unexpected and they are therefore the source of much “what if” fodder.

What if in 1976 President Ford had quickly corrected the impression that he thought Poland was not a Communist country (it was at the time)? What if in 1980 Ronald Reagan never got the chance to ask the country, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” What if in 1992 President Bush had not looked at his watch instead of at the woman who was pouring out her heart to him?

As Jeff Greenfield reminds us, sometimes history has a curious way of turning on the smallest twists of fate. Now in the endgame, it’s good to remember how quickly things can change.

This program aired on October 1, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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