Lawrence O’Donnell, host of The Last
Word on MSNBC, has some advice for
booksellers who have been in stress
over the 2016 election results: chill
out. Americans have had to contend
with far worse than having “a crazily
attention getting and wild man” like
Donald Trump elected president.
For O’Donnell, author of Playing
with Fire: The 1968 Election and the
Transformation of American Politics
(Penguin, Nov.), the 1968 election was
a matter of “life and death—nothing
less,” especially for younger voters.
The U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War, and young men were being
drafted into the army. Half a million Americans were sent to Vietnam, and
about 58,000 of them were killed. “It’s hard to imagine today,” O’Donnell
says of the draft. “But back then, something coming in the mail could send
you out to die. Everyone in America felt this election intensely. War and
peace were on the ballot.”
From the beginning, the 1968 presidential campaign was the stuff of high
drama, O’Donnell says. For the first time in U.S. history, an incumbent presi-
dent, Lyndon Johnson, was challenged from within his own political party for
the nomination and decided not to run for re-election. The Republican nomi-
nee, Richard Nixon, had been defeated when he ran against John F. Kennedy
in 1960. His candidacy was “the greatest comeback” in American politics.
President Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated
the night he won the California primary, which in itself “is as Shakespearean
a tragedy as we’ve ever had in American politics.” And then there was the
1968 Democratic Convention, with its fistfights inside the Chicago convention hall and riots outside.
O’Donnell points out that the chain of events leading to Nixon winning the
presidency began when “a poet ran for president.” If Eugene McCarthy had
not decided to challenge Johnson for the nomination, he says, “Bobby would
not have run and would not have been assassinated. And Johnson would have
run again and been re-elected. Everything came out of this one decision.”
Throughout, there were many moments with implications for the future,
and for minor players who subsequently became major ones. Bill Clinton was
a junior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ronald Reagan
ran for the Republican nomination. And Nixon met Roger Ailes in the makeup
room before going on The Mike Douglas Show. Nixon was so impressed with
Ailes that he asked him to join his campaign. If that chance meeting hadn’t
happened, O’Donnell says, Ailes probably would not have founded Fox News
almost 30 years later.
O’Donnell acknowledges that while 1968 was the “most chaotic presidential
campaign ever,” 2016 might be second, largely because Trump is “a chaotic
person.” Otherwise, he notes, the 2016 campaign was “quite normal.” He
also provides some comfort to those who have marched to protest the Trump
administration’s policies. Although Nixon won the election and Vietnam
dragged on for seven more years, the peace movement ultimately prevailed.
The war would have gone on much longer without all the protests. “It shows
how long you have to fight when you are protesting the government,”
O’Donnell says. —Claire Kirch
Today, 2:15–3: 15 p.m. Lawrence O’Donnell will appear on a panel on
“Politics Present and Past” on the Downtown Stage.
Today, 3:30–4:30 p.m. O’Donnell will sign at the Penguin Random House
booth (1921, 2021).
Life and Death, and the 1968 Election
To order call 1-800-877-2665
To order in Canada call David C. Cook 1-800-263-2664
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