How small twists of fate could have changed popular culture

Then Everything Changed book cover over JFK and Gerald Ford

When I set out to write a book of "alternate histories," I had my eye on the enormous consequences that could flow from the smallest turns of fate.

Read an excerpt from the book: "Then Everything Changed"

As is almost completely forgotten, President-Elect John F. Kennedy was seconds away from being killed by a suicide bomber in Palm Beach, Florida, in December of 1960. Only Jacqueline Kennedy's appearance at the door that Sunday morning stayed his hand. My thoughts -- and plot -- centered on what a President Lyndon Johnson might have done during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But it turns out that an alternate history would likely change other things as well.

For instance: the James Bond phenomenon was triggered by an interview President Kennedy gave Life Magazine in 1961 where he named one of Ian Fleming's books as one of his favorites. If JFK had died the previous December, he would (obviously) never have given that interview; and Lyndon Johnson's tastes were markedly different. So our movie-going, and the careers of Sean Connery and the later Bonds would have been very different.

Or consider what would have happened had Robert Kennedy survived Sirhan Sirhan's assassination attempt and gone on to become president (that's another scenario I explore). We can imagine very different policies about poverty, race and the Vietnam War. But think abut this: if the Vietnam War had ended quickly, would the American move-going public really have embraced Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" when it opened in 1970? Or would the public have been heartily sick of all things war, (as it was in this decade when the films about Iraq all failed to well).

Similarly, I explore what might have happened if Gerald ford in 1976 had quickly corrected his statement in a debate that "there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe." It would only have taken a handful of votes in Ohio and Mississippi to re-elect him. Would he have let the Shah fall? (His national security sdviser told me flatly "no").

(At left, Jeff Greenfield discusses the book on "The Early Show")

So if there was no Ayatollah in power when the hostages were seized in 1979, that crisis would have ended in days... which means there would have been no "America Held Hostage" on ABC, and no "Nightline" -- a terrible fate for me, since I worked there for 14 years.

The point? Small twists of fate can change everything -- big and small.

Jeff Greenfield is CBS News' senior political correspondent. His new book -- "Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan" - comes out tomorrow (published by Putnam).