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'Playing with Fire' chronicles 1968 in America, eschewing easy answers to complex questions

The aftermath of 1968 – seven more years of war, continued social unrest, Watergate, Nixon's resignation, Gerald Ford's pardon – combined to alter forever the trajectory of American public life.

Playing with Fire By Lawrence O'Donnell Penguin Publishing Group 496 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

Americans entering their second year of the Trump presidency – a year of crazed tweets, historically low approval ratings, many attempts at punitive legislation, and deepening criminal investigations – could be forgiven, in their exhaustion and despair, for thinking that they are living through the most savage and chaotic time in the country's history. Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, the new book by Lawrence O'Donnell, will serve as an eye-opening reminder that things could be much, much worse.

Readers familiar with O'Donnell from his hosting role on MSNBC's "The Last Word" will know something of what to expect from "Playing with Fire"; this is a keen political observer of a type that almost seems to belong to an earlier era (perhaps a generation ago, when Theodore White's "The Making of the President 1968" appeared in bookstores). O'Donnell isn't interested in pat, received narratives or easy answers to complex questions. 

This makes him an ideal narrator for the events of 1968, which run together to form a kind of nightmare scenario for the American psyche. The Vietnam War was raging, with body counts keeping the stateside draft in aggressive motion. The year's presidential election was thrown into chaos by President Lyndon Johnson's surprise announcement that he wouldn't seek re-election (“Johnson dropping out exploded everything the party establishment thought they knew about nominating a presidential candidate,” O'Donnell writes. “They did not know what to do”). The year would see the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, nationwide riots, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the return to national prominence of candidate Richard Nixon, now trying to reinvent himself as a calm winner: “This Nixon was to be no firebrand,” O'Donnell writes. “The New Nixon had a confident, relaxed, statesmanlike maturity … The New Nixon was never going to seem to be trying too hard.” 

With Johnson out of the race and while Bobby Kennedy was still in it, all the old givens of national campaigning seemed up for grabs; O'Donnell draws moving portraits of all the major figures, from RFK, who shared with Jackie Kennedy the belief that John Kennedy's presidency had been America's great chance for “a national redemption,” to watery, hapless candidate Hubert Humphrey, to the figure who emerges as the book's hero, Minnesota Congressman Eugene McCarthy, whose doomed campaign brought the anti-war movement to the forefront. 

And there's the dark (five o'clock?) shadow looming over all the other characters in the book. O'Donnell respects his readers' intelligence enough to refrain from making cheap 2016 parallels; his Richard Nixon is not yet an object lesson – he's a nimble professional whose political acumen has not one single scruple attached to it. Through "Playing with Fire"'s always effective dramatic momentum, we see Nixon lying to his aides, his followers, and his president without ever taking his eyes off the end goal of winning the White House.

The path he chose was one even Johnson described as treason. Shortly before the election, in order to prevent Paris peace talks that might have brought an abrupt end to the bombing in Vietnam and possibly thrown the election to Humphrey, Nixon got secret word to South Vietnam President Thieu that he should avoid the peace talks and “hang on” until after the election. “The only way for either side to 'hang on' was to agree to nothing in Paris and keep the war going,” O'Donnell writes. “Of course, that would mean the continued loss of life of American soldiers. That is exactly what Richard Nixon decided was necessary for him to win the presidency.”

The subtitle of O'Donnell's book mentions the “transformation” of American politics, and it's impossible when contemplating such a volatile year to avoid the hypotheticals that come swarming. In his closing pages, O'Donnell raises just a few: “What if Bobby Kennedy had left the stage on the other side of the room that last night of his life in Los Angeles?” he asks. “What if presidential candidates had received Secret Service protection before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated? What if Martin Luther King Jr. had not stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel?”

Such questions are unanswerable, of course; in reality, the aftermath of 1968 – seven more years of war, continued social unrest, Watergate, Nixon's resignation, Gerald Ford's pardon – combined to alter forever the trajectory of American public life. In "Playing with Fire," O'Donnell shines a sharp light on the year that may well have been the key fracture point, the moment when the path diverged. Even if our present political world didn't feel so apocalyptic, the book would still be essential reading.

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