Date Published: November 7, 2017
Source: Base Library
Date Read: March 24-28, 2019
Nixon Reading List
Long before Lawrence O'Donnell was the anchor of his own political talk show, he was the Harvard Law-trained political aide to Senator Patrick Moynihan, one of postwar America's wisest political minds. The 1968 election was O'Donnell's own political coming of age, and Playing With Fire represents his master class in American electioneering, as well as an extraordinary human drama that captures a system, and a country, coming apart at the seams in real time.
Nothing went to script. LBJ was confident he'd dispatch with Nixon, the GOP frontrunner; Johnson's greatest fear and real nemesis was RFK. But Kennedy and his team, despite their loathing of the president, weren't prepared to challenge their own party's incumbent. Then, out of nowhere, Eugene McCarthy shocked everyone with his disloyalty and threw his hat in the ring. A revolution seemed to be taking place, and LBJ, humiliated and bitter, began to look mortal. Then RFK leapt in, and all hell broke loose. Two assassinations and a week of bloody riots in Chicago around the Democratic Convention later, and the old Democratic Party was a smoldering ruin, and, in the last triumph of old machine politics, Hubert Humphrey stood alone in the wreckage.
Suddenly Nixon was the frontrunner, having masterfully maintained a smooth facade behind which he feverishly held his party's right and left wings in the fold through a succession of ruthless maneuvers to see off George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and the great outside threat to his new Southern Strategy, the arch-segregationist George Wallace. But then, amazingly, Humphrey began to close, and so, in late October, Nixon pulled off one of the greatest dirty tricks in American political history, an act that may well meet the statutory definition of treason. The tone was set for Watergate and all else that was to follow, all the way through to today.
History buffs and political junkies are going to love this book. It is incredibly thorough and yet the narrative story telling makes it a page turner. O'Donnell does add his own life into the mix in the prologue and in the epilologue; other than that it is just JFK, LBJ, Gene McCarthy, Dr. King Jr, Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Nixon, Regan, Rockfeller and the machinations, maneuvers, and outright deception that turns off so many people from politics. O'Donnell ensures minor characters are given page space as well (such as General Electric's role in the rise of Regan and the anti-war groups fronted by Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and John Kerry). O'Donnell digs deep, going back sometimes to 1948 to provide context on why and how the major players got to 1968 believing, saying, and doing what they did.
This is an honest, and at times frank, look at the politicians and politicking of the 1960s - nobody looks good (yes, even sainted Bobby Kennedy) except for Dr. King coming out of this book. So much of the crap we deal with today in US politics comes from this election and the fall out. Roger Ailes meets Nixon and careers are made (unfortunately). The Democrats failed to learn any lesson from this election, which shows in the results of the 1968 and 1972 election. Republicans were spinning their wheels likewise until Nixon decided to mount a comeback and worked with old and new operatives in a completely unethical game plan that won him the presidency.
Problem is that is so thorough, so nuts and bolts and deep dive, I don't think casual readers will like or finish the book. When I say O'Donnell gets into the weeds for background context, he goes down to the root of those weeds. No stone is overturned; you just have to read and understand your way through it back to the "exciting" parts. And while O'Donnell does write deeply about Vietnam (Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the Tet Offensive), a reader should have a little background knowledge of how the US got into the war in the first place before diving into this book.
Overall, I loved every minute reading this book.
If you want to learn more about Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and the other protestors put on trial for what happened at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, listen to Season 6 of Wondery's Legal Wars (hosted by actor and Harvard Law graduate Hill Harper) podcast.