Last week, I wrote about my Facebook series, “What If? History that Could Have Been”, which highlights how history might be changed if certain important historical events had ended differently. Primarily the show is meant to help people think critically about the past, present, and future.
I mentioned my friend Jim Rogan’s new alternative history novel about how history might have been had Senator Robert F. Kennedy survived being shot by Sirḥān Sirḥān. The novel, On To Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968, was released on Tuesday, and Jim graciously joined me for my most recent episode of “What If?” to talk about it in more detail.
As background, Jim has a remarkable personal story. When he was young, he was the son of a convicted felon single mom on welfare and food stamps. He ran with a gang of kids who did everything from drugs to crime. Jim ended up expelled from high school and worked at dead-end jobs that included bartending in Hollywood strip clubs and working as a bouncer at a pornographic theater. Eventually he straightened up, started focusing on learning, and became interested in history and politics. He finished college and law school, became a lawyer, served in Congress, and is now a judge with the Superior Court of California. He has spent his career working for the good of America and Americans.
When he joined me for “What If?”, Jim once again expanded my knowledge of the RFK assassination and the presidential campaign of 1968. For instance, I was reminded that several other people were also shot in the attack and survived because the attacker used a small caliber gun. In fact, RFK’s neurosurgeon later said it was “a lucky shot” for Sirḥān because had the bullet been one centimeter off its mark, Kennedy would have also survived.
However, Jim made another comment on the show that struck me as important – and illustrative of why studying history and current events is important. Jim remarked that the 2016 presidential election inspired him to write this book about RFK because he realized how dramatically politics and elections had changed.
He pointed out that in 1968, the roster of people running for president were “nine absolute political titans who had dominated the political stage for twenty years or more.” On the Democrats’ side, this included Lyndon B. Johnson (although he withdrew early), Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy. The Republicans were Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney (the father of Mitt Romney). And the “wild card” independent was George Wallace, who had become the infamous pro-segregation Governor of Alabama.
Compare this to the 2016 election, when aside from Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump (who was well-known outside politics), more than a dozen other candidates – at the beginning at least – were not well-known nationally.
Jim’s mind cued to 1968, because studying that election years ago is what initially fueled his interest in politics (and likely set Jim on his remarkable career path). As a result, he was inspired to write an incredibly well-researched, interesting, deep-dive into a critical point in our history. (Despite being fiction, Jim has more than 350 pages of endnotes and sources for the book.) Jim’s book will doubtlessly get more Americans interested in history and politics – perhaps inspiring them to do amazing things, too.
Watching and listening to Jim talk about writing his book redoubled my passion for the “What If?” project because Jim’s new “What If?”-style book is a perfect example of the life-long virtuous cycle that gets started when young people get interested in learning about history.
We need to know our past successes and mistakes to prepare for the future – but we also need to constantly grow and develop new generations of intelligent, thoughtful patriots like Jim Rogan, who will keep the virtuous cycle of learning going strong in America.
Newt Gingrich is a former Speaker of the House. He is also a contributor to Fox News and the author of several books.