s politically and culturally divided as the United States is, we’ve seen worse. The Civil War pitted brother against brother and the 1960s upended our social and political orders. As we approach the 50th anniversary of that decade’s most tumultuous year, it is an apt time to revisit the era’s effect on contemporary politics. MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, does just that. O’Donnell doesn’t break new ground, but he effectively synthesizes a great deal of disparate information.
Divided over the Vietnam War abroad and civil rights at home, there was a sense in the United States that both parties’ Establishments had failed. O’Donnell was still in high school in 1968, and his youthful, boots-on-the-ground view eloquently describes how these factors shaped the Presidential race, including LBJ’s decision not to run and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s subsequent campaign:
The presidential election was the matter of life and death for real people we all knew. That meant that this time running for president didn’t have to be about ego. It meant that running for president couldn’t simply be a matter of political calculation. It meant that it wasn’t just about what was best for Bobby’s future in politics. It was about life and death.
That said, Kennedy, like almost all politicians, was not simply a selfless public servant. He campaigned on the ego-driven claim that he had the skills and temperament to bring an end to both the Vietnam War and domestic discord. His speeches resonated with both black and white audiences and were covered by an adoring press corps that was willing to extol his virtues and propagate the “Kennedy mystique” idea. Because of his June 6, 1968, assassination, one is forced to speculate about how well he might have fared had he been the Democratic nominee.
As a part of JFK’s Cabinet, RFK had been ruthless, distant, and a strong supporter of escalating the war: those factors could well have backfired. An angry, fed up public usually vents it on the president’s party, even though the 1968 Republican nominee was the anything-but-charismatic former Eisenhower administration vice president, Richard Nixon. But Nixon reinvented himself as a more appealing candidate, in part through a media strategy masterminded by Roger Ailes, a then-unknown television producer. The Democrats’ eventual nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, felt torn between loyalty to LBJ and a need to be independent that eventually undermined his campaign.
O’Donnell expresses great admiration for that year’s other antiwar candidate, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, but his heart is clearly with Kennedy. In an attempt to be evenhanded, the author shows grudging admiration for some of the liberal GOP candidates, especially Michigan Governor George Romney and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
O’Donnell, a former top aide to legendary Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is a great captain on this cruise through choppy historical political waters. He loves the political game and relishes the chance to take readers inside the rooms where key decisions were made. His political acumen is evidenced by his discussion of the lead-up to 1968. While the history might first seem tangential, it is crucial to understanding the decade in context. His description of LBJ’s masterful dominance of the Senate during the 1950s is both informative and entertaining:
Lyndon Johnson’s Senate was a far simpler legislative body than it became in the last decades of the twentieth century…. In LBJ’s Senate no one asked, “How much does it cost?” And if that question somehow came up, Johnson could just make up a number. No one really knew.
Johnson’s Congressional modus operandi laid the groundwork for both the great accomplishments and the disasters of his subsequent presidency, from 1963 to 1969. His mastery of the Senate enabled him to persuade lawmakers to pass a dizzying array of civil rights and social welfare reform legislation that improved many Americans’ lives. It also created tremendous backlash, which fueled Nixon’s support, and, among those who felt Nixon was too moderate, Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s. LBJ’s stubbornness and low tolerance for disagreement hurt his presidency and cost the lives of thousands during the Vietnam War. He escalated the US involvement started by his predecessors, in large part out of fear of the potential “domino effect’’ of communist victory in Vietnam. Despite advisers’ concerns over a possible stalemate, LBJ thought he knew better and dug in. He even pored over maps and picked out bombing targets:
As images of civilian victims of bombings and Napalm filled the news media, favoring a halt in the bombing had become the middle-of-the road political position on the war. By stepping up the bombing, Johnson was at risk of losing the political ground. LBJ could never understand why it wasn’t obvious to everyone that peace required not less bombing but more bombing.
Domestic divisions over the war fueled major political disruptions. The Democrats’ brutal factional battle resulted in a leftward shift that continues today. Republicans in general supported the war, but took issue with LBJ’s execution of it, while liberal Republicans who were skeptical about Vietnam and the party’s increasingly conservative tilt on domestic policy were ostracized.
The war also divided the country along class lines. Many college students, including future Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, received draft deferments. And American colleges became focal points of the antiwar movement.
Despite doubts about the war, most draft-age men not in college had little choice but to serve. Many of those who survived their service came back injured or suffered diseases from Agent Orange and other chemicals’ residual effects. Often, soldiers were welcomed home with hostility by those who blamed them for their participation.
The Vietnam War caused widespread public mistrust in government and other institutions that continues to this day. 2016's election results are yet another reminder of that.
Those who want to learn more about the war and its domestic effect would do well to read David Halbertsam’s ironically titled The Best and the Brightest; Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night; and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics is a wonderful addition to this canon and will give readers a better understanding of the events that helped lay much of the groundwork for our contemporary political culture.