It certainly says something about how much our nation has cratered over the last election cycle that we are flipping back to 1968 in search of parallels, direction, perhaps even some contorted sense of comfort. We are in a different place as a people, for certain.
But the chaos, the resistance to the White House and its lack of “leadership,” even the high-stakes dread we feel collectively, hold echoes of those turbulent days.
Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s The Last Word program, has written a riveting new history of the 1968 presidential election and its long-lasting reverberations. “Playing with Fire— The 1968 Election and The Transformation of American Politics” is a smart and well-researched review of the events of that remarkable, heart-wrenching year.
O’Donnell is a terrific writer and analyst who has contributed mightily to our understanding of our present day predicament. His first book, “Deadly Force” (1983), brought much-need attention to police corruption in Boston and is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in our city’s troubled history of race and policing.
His new work is far more than a refresher. O’Donnell traces a direct line from to the tumult and innovations of 1968 to our present national crisis—embodied by every element of the Trump presidency, including the budding evidence of treasonous activity— aka collusion with a foreign power— in both elections.
O’Donnell — who grew up in Dorchester as the son of a Boston cop — was a “high school eyewitness” to the events of 1968. But, like many men of that generation, his own fate was tied up in the national drama in a visceral way. He was due to be drafted — and was in fact home awaiting induction in January 1973 – when President Nixon halted the draft. He credits the men and women who sought to “dump LBJ”— led by the flawed, but pivotal candidacy of Eugene McCarthy— for hastening the war’s end.
As O’Donnell told his MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow in an interview on her program earlier this month:
“We’ve been in a worse place. As difficult as this is for people who didn’t want to see a Trump presidency … and this movement that we call the resistance, we had a resistance this big before in 1968 and it was against both the Johnson presidency and then against the Nixon presidency. It was an anti-war resistance and it was literally about life and death.”
The stakes are different now, perhaps, but no less fraught with peril and purpose. O’Donnell’s book is a welcome companion for those seeking to navigate our present storm.