In the annals of modern American history, there are few years more consequential than 1968. It is, in its way, the dividing line between the post-World War II years and the modern day, pregnant with a whole litany of “what if” scenarios that would make anyone who believes in the Butterfly Effect dizzy. In Playing With Fire, the MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell digs into that tumultuous year with vigor and insight. A few missteps aside, for anyone who wants a neat and tidy survey of the political landscape as our country teetered on the edge of political civil war, this is the book for you.
1968’s importance is axiomatic. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are psychic wounds that the country still grapples with. The Vietnam War was “lost” in the late-January Tet Offensive that crippled President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to seek a second full term as President that was already weakened by the insurgent candidacy of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. On the Republican side, Richard Nixon staged an improbable political comeback, fought off challenges from governors like George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and the up-and-coming Ronald Reagan, while the country was tearing itself apart over the war and civil rights.
It’s a lot and O’Donnell juggles these meta narratives capably and fairly. O’Donnell’s portraits of these political titans is even-handed and he avoids falling into the romanticism of a say, Chris Matthews, who waxes rhapsodic about RFK’s quixotic run, opting instead for a mostly clear-eyed assessment of each man’s strengthens and weaknesses. To wit, RFK is, of course, a magnetic personality who immediately attracted the support of legions upon his entering the race, but O’Donnell is unafraid to point out the opportunism in his move and the uncertainty Kennedy had, almost until the minute he announced, about running. LBJ is a petty and domineering personality, humiliating his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, at every turn while currying favor and offering tips to Nixon, an idea that is unthinkable today. Nixon is ruthless and calculating, but O’Donnell also gives the man his due for seeing opportunity and seizing it, moving ruthlessly toward his ultimate goal of winning the Presidency.
O’Donnell is at his best in set piece discussions around major events of the year. He ably navigates the Democrats’ convention in Chicago (which, candidly, feels like it deserves its own book) and the waning days of the general election, when it became clear to LBJ that the Nixon team had established a back channel to South Vietnam, discouraging the Thieu government from working with Johnson and promising a better deal when the Republican took the White House. O’Donnell also has a touch feel for the inside game of politics, the crafting of speeches, the leaking of information for political gain, and general skullduggery that goes on in the heat of a race.
O’Donnell’s own history as a Senate staffer influences the lesser known stories he tells. O’Donnell puts you in the room when Teddy Kennedy flies into Green Bay for a secret meeting with McCarthy just before his older brother is about to enter the race and in the Humphrey hotel room as the sitting Vice President prepares to address a convention that has descended into chaos. But more than that, O’Donnell provides the necessary framing, helping the reader understand political motivations, decision making, and behavior that can only come from having sat in those rooms and watched as those calculations are made.
While O’Donnell draws a few clear (and obvious) lines between 1968 and the modern day, be it in Roger Ailes’s meteoric rise and the beginning of the now-fifty-year “Southern Strategy” Republicans have deployed to play on white fears in the service of electoral gain, the professionalization of campaigning, the use of town halls formats and advertising, the end of party broker selected nominees in favor of primaries, oddly, he does not draw the clear analogy between McCarthy’s insurgency, and subsequent refusal to try and elect Humphrey, with the same actions of Bernie Sanders in 2016. And while it is fair to point out that unlike McCarthy, Sanders did endorse his primary challenger, like McCarthy, who, less than two weeks before election day endorse Humphrey, Sanders showed a similar dispassion toward the task. When A. Phillip Randolph took out a full-page ad pleading with McCarthy to endorse Humphrey, echoes of those making a similar argument - you may not like Clinton, but do you really want Trump - could not have been clearer. While the Vietnam rift was greater than anything the Democrats dealt with in ’16, the idea of a party less than unified in support of its nominee accruing to the benefit of their opponent is true nonetheless.
O’Donnell also places more importance on the “Chenault Affair” than I think reasonable. O’Donnell makes it sound like LBJ’s confirmation of the back channel between Nixon’s team and the South Vietnamese government could have been a game changer that swayed the election; however, the late discovery (less than a week before the election) suggests that had Johnson done as he threatened to do - leak the information to the press - it could have just as easily been dismissed by the Republicans as a desperation tactic as a treasonous act to help elect a Republican President. Here too, the echoes of 2016 come into play, with information about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia being kept under wraps, but again, O’Donnell does not draw the obvious parallel.
I also quibbled with O’Donnell’s coda. Although it is true that Nixon scrapped out a less-than-one-percent popular vote victory, O’Donnell implies Illinois’s electoral votes were dispositive when in fact they were not. Had Humphrey won Illinois, Nixon would have still won 275 electoral votes, a bare majority, but not enough to change the result. Of course, the narrowness of Nixon’s win was in large part due to Wallace’s presence as a third-party candidate preaching a more virulent form of white supremacy than Nixon could dare espouse. Four years later, Nixon easily carried all the states Wallace won in 1968 along with 61 percent of the popular vote, a total matched in the 20th century by only FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964.
1968 will always be an important time in our nation’s history; a year when something as simple as a candidate exiting a campaign rally in one direction instead of another or a storm blowing through Memphis a few hours later than it did might have altered the course of history. But we only have the history that happened, and Playing with Fire documents it nicely.
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