Those who think the 2016 presidential election was unprecedented in U.S. politics may be surprised by “Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics,” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s thoughtful account of the 1968 race for the presidency. As the subtitle suggests, 1968 had a profound influence on the way elections are conducted in the United States.
Stark differences distinguished the two contests. In Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. had an unpopular president leading an unpopular war. Assassinations had become a sad staple of the political landscape. And major-party candidates were still chosen largely by establishment insiders rather than through primaries.
But as O’Donnell points out, the two contests were strikingly similar. One similarity was unexpected: After a weak showing in the New Hampshire primary — he won, but barely — Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation by announcing he would neither seek nor accept a second full term. The reason Johnson fared poorly was a strong, unexpected challenge from the left, much as Hillary Clinton experienced from Bernie Sanders’ campaign last year.
In Johnson’s case, the challenge came from Minnesota Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the figure who emerges as the hero of this book. McCarthy, who “owed much of his career in the Senate to Johnson’s patronage” when LBJ was Senate majority leader, had since grown furious over Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam. “If I have to run for president” to stop the war, McCarthy said, “I’m going to do it.”
From that decision, O’Donnell masterfully documents the election’s subsequent events, such as Bobby Kennedy’s belated decision to run, his assassination after the California primary, the violence that marred the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Vice President and former Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s last-minute entry as the Democrats’ establishment candidate.
Then there was George Wallace, the Alabama governor and segregationist who ran as a third-party candidate. In prose that will sound familiar, O’Donnell writes that Wallace “never got into complex domestic or foreign policy issues,” “campaigned on an outspokenly racist platform” and “gleefully watched his followers attack protesters.”
Some of the book’s harshest criticism is directed at Richard Nixon, whose successful bid featured not only the early tabloid journalism of 26-year-old Roger Ailes — his use of television, including the production of advertisements intended to “humanize” candidates, has been a fixture of subsequent elections — but also marked the end of the liberal wing of the Republican Party with his primary defeat of Nelson Rockefeller, a development that would eventually lead to the rise of the Tea Party and the polarization that continues today.
Political junkies may already know much of the material here. But “Playing With Fire” is nonetheless a beautifully written account of an election that established strategies that, for better and worse, are still in use today.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and BookPage.
Playing With Fire
By: Lawrence O'Donnell.
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 484 pages, $28.