If you are a political junkie, like I am, then “Playing with Fire” by Lawrence O’Donnell is for you. If the 1960s were current events for you, before they became history, then the O’Donnell book is certainly for you. Subtitled “The Election of 1968 and the Transformation of American Politics” the book explains in great detail just how Richard M. Nixon became President of the United States. The dust jacket picture alone shows you the entire thesis of O’Donnell’s book: How Nixon Won!
Hopefully, 50 or so years in the future, America will finally understand just how and why Donald J. Trump became our nation’s president. My own feeling is that the United States got the president we so richly deserved.
O’Donnell, MSNBC’s host of The Last Word, has written a comprehensive history of the ‘68 election that will stand for decades as the definitive history of that election. With 430 pages of text, almost 425 footnotes and a 10 page bibliography of single spaced entries, O’Donnell has certainly done his homework. You will be surprised to learn that the author has kept any comparisons or criticisms of President Trump to a minimum. Even the arch conservatives among you will enjoy reading O’Donnell’s book.
Starting with a meeting between Nixon and future Fox News’ Roger Ailes, the book goes into great detail about Nixon’s hiring of Ailes to be on his media team, and the changes that resulted. O’Donnell goes on to explain his own interest in the election of 1968. He grew up as a descendent of the Roman Catholic Irish who lived in Boston. In 1968, as a teenager, O’Donnell was fascinated with John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and especially with Eugene McCarthy. JFK, RFK and Gene McCarthy were all of Irish decent as well as staunch Roman Catholics.
If you will remember, the President at that time was Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ believed he could beat the likely GOP nominee Richard Nixon. However, LBJ faced several problems within his own Democratic Party before he could claim their nomination. LBJ’s greatest fear was that Robert Kennedy, brother of his predecessor JFK, would challenge him for the nomination. When out of nowhere Gene McCarthy entered the primary process opposing LBJ, that created even more uncertainty. The problem for LBJ was his conduct of the Vietnam War! Americans were finally waking up to the fact that we might just lose the war. The daily television news brought to the forefront the high numbers of casualties in that war. If LBJ won the election then the war, as it was presently conducted, would continue.
McCarthy, long an LBJ supported, finally had enough and he joined the anti-war crowd and sought to unseat the president. Another factor in the election was the Civil Rights Movement headed by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King was finally faced with the knowledge that his movement should become a part of the larger anti-war protests. After all, a disproportionate number of casualties were black young men.
The path to the GOP nomination wasn’t a sure thing for Nixon either. He faced potential rivals Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney (the father of Mitt). Having their own bases as governors of California, New York and Michigan, these three couldn’t be dismissed. If these governors weren’t enough, the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, decided to run on a third- party ticket.
Full of detail concerning LBJ’s eventual withdrawal from running, the assassinations of both MLK and RJK, and the Democratic Convention in Chicago that violently saw Hubert H. Humphrey emerge as his party’s nominee, “Playing with Fire” is a great read. If you like politics, especially presidential politics, if you like history and civics then the O’Donnell book is right up your alley.