Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics

Image of Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics
Release Date: 
November 7, 2017
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics is an important and informative book that becomes more and more amazing as it progresses. The book begins as a vivid recreation of the mythic 1960s:

“The 1960s . . . . was a decade like no other—a high-speed kaleidoscope of the civil rights movement, assassinations, Bob Dylan, the Vietnam War, hippies, America’s first real antiwar movement, organic food, the Beatles, massive riots in several cities, the first riots on college campuses, Black Power . . . .

“By the end of the decade, parents worried about their kids getting arrested for possessing marijuana or dying from a heroin overdose or being killed in Vietnam for a theory: the “domino theory” . . . . No one was left unchanged by the chaos of the 1960s . . .”

O’Donnell’s writing—clear, concise, conversational—truly brings the 1960s to life for readers. Those who were alive and aware back then might say, “Yeah, that’s what it was like.” Readers learning the details second-hand will feel transported back to that iconic era.

In addition to describing the era’s cultural and political climate so strikingly, O’Donnell crafts equally stunning character sketches and narratives—some emotional and gut-wrenching—of the major players, such as the charismatic Bobby Kennedy, the stubborn and dishonest Lyndon B. Johnson, the phlegmatic Eugene McCarthy, and the scheming Richard Nixon. These stories show how individual personalities of larger-than-life characters fit into the wider arcs of history. For example, of Bobby Kennedy, O’Donnell writes:

“. . . Bobby had a movie star’s smile, but when he smiled, his audiences believed they were seeing a grieving man who was somehow strong enough to smile through his pain . . . For them, justice demanded that RFK take JFK’s seat behind the desk in the Oval Office. History demanded it. No other politician in our history ever had such an advantage. Or such a burden.”

But just as the reader might protest that history is more than the sum of innumerable personalities, O’Donnell takes a wider view and provides concrete lessons into the workings of politics as played out in the 1968 presidential primary campaigns.

O’Donnell describes Bobby Kennedy’s torturous indecision about running as an antiwar candidate against President Johnson in the primaries, and how Eugene McCarthy instead took up the antiwar mantle with surprising success.

In fact, a good portion of the book revolves around McCarthy, about whom O’Donnell concludes, “no one did more to stop the killing in Vietnam.” O’Donnell goes on to describe the dilemmas of all the antiwar political operatives during the primaries, many unsure of whom to support. He tells of President Johnson’s shocking decision to drop out of the race in the face of such opposition, and the emergence of Vice President Hubert Humphrey as a flawed and unsatisfactory candidate, a formerly powerful liberal, now unable to extract himself from the broad shadow of an unpopular president.

Meanwhile, a familiar figure watched happily from the wings—Richard Nixon. Reviving his political career after losing the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California governor’s race, Nixon became, as O’Donnell explains, the “New Nixon,” more moderate, more acceptable. He created a fresh persona, somehow palatable to both liberal and conservative Republicans (yes, there were liberal Republicans in those days) as well as to Southern segregationists, and publicly supporting the President’s Vietnam policies, yet undermining them whenever possible.

Then in April and June of 1968, two horrendous events occurred and, after each, America was never the same. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. In June, Bobby Kennedy fell to an assassin’s bullet. O’Donnell manages to convey these two unthinkable events with the gravity and emotion they deserve, while also fitting them into the narrative of the political events of 1968.

O’Donnell next takes readers to the Republican National Convention in early August of 1968, where the “New Nixon” and his people strategically fended off challenges from the party’s liberals, led by Nelson Rockefeller, and conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan, while still mollifying the segregationists under South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond.

But O’Donnell’s gripping play-by-play narrative of the Republican convention can’t match his description of events at the much more spectacular Democratic National Convention in Chicago later that August.

“A broad countercultural New Left . . . announced its plan to bring hundreds of thousands of protesters into the city, disrupt the convention, and turn Chicago into a mixture of war protest and love-in. Nothing like that had ever happened before, and coming out of the shocks of the McCarthy insurgency, . . . the president’s withdrawal, the King and Kennedy assassinations, and the burning cities, the American public was steeling itself for one more unprecedented event . . .”

O’Donnell describes, for example, the scene in Chicago’s Lincoln Park on the protest’s second day:

“The police began removing their nameplates. More rocks flew. The police pulled down their face shields. More rocks. The police charged the crowd. For the next few hours, Chicago police rained down violence on protesters beginning in the darkness of Lincoln Park and continuing into the surrounding streets. Reporters also fell victim to the Chicago Police Department’s first effort at convention crowd control. ‘Get the bastard with the camera,’ said one police officer as they went after a news photographer. Police used tear gas when the crowd moved into the streets. Protesters chanted ‘The streets belong to the people.’”

In another vivid scene, O’Donnell describes the Chicago police pushing protesters and bystanders through the shattering glass window of a restaurant just outside the convention hotel and then beating people inside the restaurant indiscriminately.

All the while, bitter political infighting was going on at the Democratic convention a few miles south of the hotel, exemplified by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley yelling an anti-Semitic epithet at a convention speaker who favored antiwar senator George McGovern.  

After describing the “inside game” at both conventions that brought the election down to a contest between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, O’Donnell arrives at that monumental election itself; and this is the point where the book will really take the reader’s breath away with newly released information that Richard Nixon likely engaged in criminal and treasonous behavior to win that closely contested election; and remember, this was years before Watergate. Nixon’s behavior remains a crime that was never prosecuted or widely publicized, even though Lyndon Johnson and others knew about it.

What was Nixon’s horrendous crime—a crime that cost many thousands of lives? Some book reviews provide spoilers and give away major details of a book. And in interviews, O’Donnell himself often reveals Nixon’s crime. But this review will leave that discovery to the reader. Rest assured, it will be an amazing revelation.

More important to the book than Nixon’s crime is the larger narrative of the Vietnam War. That is truly what this book is about. Everything revolved around the war: it made America a different country, it brought the title’s “transformation of American politics,” and its effects persist to the present day.

Yet many Americans today at times seem extremely uninformed, even ignorant, about that war. For example, Donald Trump has given Vietnam-era draft dodgers other than himself a bad name. Just a cursory skimming of Twitter will show that many very smart anti-Trump voices blithely generalize about Vietnam-era draft dodgers, calling them, cowards, traitors, and much worse.

Yet many, perhaps most, draft dodgers were resisters, ranging from being completely against the war to simply refusing to risk their lives and kill others in an unpopular and arguably unjust war. They were part of a wider resistance movement, one that can provide a model for today’s resistance against Trump and his policies.

O’Donnell thus educates readers as he explains Vietnam, a war wholly unlike World War II, for example, in which patriotic fighting forces protected our freedoms and way of life. Vietnam, O’Donnell explains, was an undeclared war based on untruths and questionable geopolitical theories, a war foisted on the American people by a domineering president with scant Congressional oversight. It was a war that brought life-or-death anxieties to every young man or anyone with a loved one of draft age.

O’Donnell powerfully describes the lives of his older brothers and their friends—young men who’s lives were on hold, who might any day be drafted and killed or forced to kill in a war waged by a stubborn president. And, O’Donnell continues, that president gained Congressional approval for the war by falsifying the account of an attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam’s shore, and was largely concerned with his own legacy and with not being the first American president to lose a war, even as the daily death tolls rose.

O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire offers readers a lot—much more than the average book. It can be an escape into an earlier time, and away from the political craziness of the Trump era.

Conversely, it can be a model of how to form a resistance to a president who ruthlessly wields power and is fast and loose with objective truth. It can provide the lesson that our nation emerged from the midst of insanity before the Trump era, yet only with the work of many committed individuals willing to get involved, from making hard decisions to run for office and buck conventional politics, to simply working at the level of grass-roots organizing. It’s a lesson that hard work pays off and that the unexpected can happen.

And the book provides a broader lesson in American government and politics. What exactly was transformed, as the book’s title suggests? Many things changed: the nation’s first antiwar movement had great success, urban police forces became militarized to face rioting, liberal Republicanism died a decisive death, conservative media guru Roger Ailes began his ascendance, presidential conventions saw the partial end of the “inside game” of winning delegates for the establishment candidate.

On his TV show, O’Donnell has said that 1968 was the year that the Republican Party finally coalesced around an acceptable conservative candidate. Fifty years later, he continued, those same conservative Republicans brought us Donald Trump.

This book is not perfect. At times, the author offers the innermost thinking of a major figure; but a glance at the notes in the back might not always show a source. At other points, especially in the narrative of the primaries, the chronology might seem disjointed, partly because O’Donnell has chosen not to use past perfect tense. And some of the character sketches go beyond the level of detail a typical reader might need, such as the long tale of George Romney, who is not too well remembered today.

But these are small matters. Playing with Fire offers readers a vast tapestry of ideas, personalities, events, and stories—a fullness that can enrich and educate readers in numerous ways.