For those of us who were around then, it’s hard to believe a half-century has passed since the turbulent year of 1968.
I was in high school but have vivid memories of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the night President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not be running for a second term in November, 1968.
The Democratic Convention in Chicago that summer was also memorable, with rioting in the streets and that unforgettable confrontation between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in their roles as ABC commentators on the night of the worst rioting (their volatile TV pairing was the subject of an excellent documentary “Best of Enemies” that can be found on some of the streaming services).
We live in a compulsive, anniversary-celebrating media culture, but many of the events of 1968 are too unpleasant to live through again (some of next year’s 50th anniversary milestones will be happier to recall – Woodstock and the first moon landing among them).
A new paperback edition of Lawrence O’Donnell’s 2017 book “Playing with Fire” will be published on Nov. 6 by Penguin, and it is a tight and compulsively readable account of the political events of 1968. The smooth way the book summons up a long-vanished era reminded me of the Frederick Lewis Allen classic “Only Yesterday” about the revolutionary changes in society and popular culture during the 1920s. Both books are popular history at its best.
O’Donnell digs deeply into the shocking return of Richard Nixon as a viable presidential candidate after losing to JFK in 1960 and then failing in his 1962 bid to become governor of California. Nixon was believed to be a dead issue after the California defeat – even he thought so, telling the press that they wouldn’t have him to “kick around” again – but the absence of viable Republican candidates pushed him back to the top.
The Republican candidate Barry Goldwater had suffered a devastating defeat to LBJ in 1964 and in the aftermath of that loss potential candidates like Michigan governor George Romney and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller were knocked out by “scandals” that are tame by today’s standards. Romney made the mistake of using the word “brainwashed” after his visit to Vietnam and Rockefeller went through a divorce and remarriage that was then considered a huge handicap (by 1980, no one even mentioned the fact that Nancy was Ronald Reagan’s second wife).
The Democratic race for president was incredibly turbulent. LBJ had won by a landslide four years earlier, but his escalation of the war in Vietnam, and Eugene McCarthy’s surprising showing in the New Hampshire primary led to Johnson dropping out of the race.
LBJ’s vice president Hubert Humphrey would be nominated and lose in a close race with Nixon, but no before the terrible events surrounding Bobby Kennedy’s decision to run for the Democratic nomination after McCarthy’s surprising primary showing (which enraged many of McCarthy’s fervent young supporters).
Knowing what RFK faced on that June night in 1968 fills the first half of “Playing with Fire” with dread.
O’Donnell includes a scene from 1968 that was new to me:
“The second Kennedy presidential campaign was launched. A few days later, Jackie Kennedy took Arthur Schlesinger aside at a dinner party in New York. ‘Do you know what I think will happen to Bobby?,’ she asked. Schlesinger waited for her to answer her own question.
‘The same thing that happened to Jack,’ she said.”