Monday, April 30, 2018

Book Review - Playing With Fire

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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Sunday, April 22, 2018

It Was Not Dusty's Fault

In recent years, no baseball team has won more preseason World Series titles than the Washington Nationals. Like clockwork, experts and prognosticators gush over the team’s talent and promise that this is the year they will get over the hump and bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title in almost 100 years. The expectations are understandable. Since 2012, the Nats have won four NL East titles and more regular season games than any other team except the Dodgers. Their pitching staff is anchored by Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner and their number two, Stephen Strasburg, is becoming a threat to pick up his first. The everyday lineup stars Bryce Harper, the 2015 league MVP and other young stars like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. 

Of course, the team’s futility in the playoffs is well-documented. For all their regular season success, the Nats have been ushered out in what feels like successively more excruciating ways each October. The most recent failure cost the team’s manager, Dusty Baker, his job, even though he had piloted the team to division titles in both his years at the helm and 95 and 97 wins, respectively. Exit Dusty, enter Dave Martinez, the Cubs former bench coach who was expected to bring some of that Joe Maddon magic from the Windy City.

But in another year of World Series hopes, the Nats are sinking, and sinking fast. The team got off to a strong start by sweeping a three-game series in Cincinnati, but that has turned out to be fool’s gold. Not only are the Reds by far the worst team in the league, but since then, the Nats are 7-11. They are in fourth place in the division, four-and-a-half games behind the Mets. And here’s the thing, commentators can talk about slow starts and unusually cold weather, but for the Nats to get to 90 wins this year, they will need to go 80-61 (.567), to get to 95 wins, their mark in 2016, they will need to go 85-56 (.602) and to get to 97 wins, they will need to win 87 of their last 141 games, a .617 clip. In other words, a team playing .500 ball will have to play better baseball than division winning teams did over the entire season. 

Granted, the Mets and Phillies, the early division leaders, will come back to the pack. The Mets are relying on pitching that has not held up in recent years and the Phillies are a (mostly) young team that as recently as last year, was the league’s worst. But the Nats cannot count on other teams’ failures and the squad this year does not inspire much hope. Ryan Zimmerman, last year’s comeback player of the year, is back to his pre-2017 production, which is to say, very little. Adam Eaton, who the Nats gave up their three top pitching prospects for, missed most of last season with a knee injury, and after playing a handful of games this year, is again injured. While Harper is playing well, he’s getting little help from the rest of the squad, and the one bat the team desperately needs, Daniel Murphy, is still two weeks from returning. The pitching has been mediocre, the bullpen shaky (shocker), and yet, Martinez seems to be avoiding blame while offering precious little in terms of solutions. 

This state of affairs is depressing for a Nats fan. Everyone understands this may be Harper’s last year with the team and management was handed a surprise gift when last off season’s free agent class lingered far longer and many players signed for far less than expected. The Lerners are the richest owners in the sport and can be profligate spenders when they want to be, but they could not pony up $75 million over three years for Jake Arrietta? They did not think that a better back-up plan at first base than Matt Adams made sense? 

With Harper and Murphy a year away from free agency and Rendon a year behind then, why the Lerners did not go all in, especially when so many free agents were in the bargain bin, is beyond me. And what message does it send to Harper, Murphy, and Rendon that you are not willing to spend when the championship window is open? I know there is “a lot of baseball” left to be played, but we have also seen this movie before. In both 2013 and 2015, coming off dominating regular seasons that ended in playoff heartbreak, the team fell flat, missing the playoffs and finishing just above .500. It may be too early to say that will happen again, but the early returns do not look promising. 

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