By June 6, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had declared he wouldn’t seek reelection and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been murdered. The election was still five months away, but the 1968 presidential campaign was already one of the most pivotal in U.S. history.
The daily rush of news can obscure the events of an election 50 years ago, but author Lawrence O’Donnell, an MSNBC host, does not exaggerate in Playing With Fire (Penguin Press, 484 pp., ★★★½ out of four), his briskly paced history of the race, when he writes that it transformed American politics.
By the time Republican Richard Nixon was elected in a three-way race over Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey and former Alabama governor George Wallace, a Democrat running as an independent, the campaign had reshaped how candidates use television, gave political conventions their last chance to actually pick a nominee and witnessed a candidate interfere in peace negotiations to assure his election.
Nixon may not have reached the general election if not for the help of a young television producer named Roger Ailes, who met the former vice president and 1960 Republican nominee in the makeup room of The Mike Douglas Show, a daytime talk show. Ailes told Nixon his television ads and his overall TV presence were killing his chances, and Nixon challenged Ailes to make it better. Ailes (who would one day run Fox News) took him up on the offer.
“We have reason to wonder who would be president today if Richard Nixon had not provoked Roger Ailes in The Mike Douglas Show makeup room,” O’Donnell writes. “Such are the seeds that were planted in American politics in the 1968 presidential campaign.”
Others have made this observation before; Joe McGinniss wrote a whole book about it in The Selling of the President 1968. But O'Donnell, a former aide to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, understands politics and its impact. He writes with an assurance and steady sense of pace that makes much of this seem new.
He is especially strong on Nixon's interference in the 1968 Paris peace talks, an episode long rumored but which is now finally understood as fact. Nixon knew Johnson was going to stop the bombing of North Vietnam in a final attempt at progress at the talks.
Nixon, who had narrowly lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy, did not want to lose another close election. He used Anna Chennault, a Chinese-American activist close to the South Vietnamese government, to tell Saigon they should skip the talks, because Nixon would give them a better deal.
"Richard Nixon knew he had committed the worst crime in American political history — a crime that arguably cost more than twenty thousand American soldiers their lives by extending the war," O'Donnell writes.
The one quibble with Playing with Fire is that you know you're reading a book by a liberal TV icon; O'Donnell makes no effort to hide his devotion to Robert Kennedy, whom he calls Bobby throughout the book. Such coziness is unseemly and slightly dims the luster of an otherwise illuminating work.
Ray Locker, an editor in USA TODAY's Washington bureau, is author of Nixon's Gamble: How a President’s Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration.