I’ve never read a more intense political history book than Playing with Fire by Lawrence O’Donnell. The subtitle tells it all, and yet doesn’t touch the events’ complexity: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics. Considering it was the bizarre 2016 election cycle that started my journey into political writing, that probably isn’t saying much. But, let me be clear. Playing with Fire is intense because the events that happened in 1968 were intense. And O’Donnell takes all the cards and lays them out in the table in a clear, cogent manner.
This doesn’t mean Playing with Fire was an easy read. It wasn’t. I spent over three weeks with two different library books to get this book finished. I might have let it go after I couldn’t finish it in time for the first loan. But the events were too interesting, and too vital, to let me stop. So I tracked down another book and continued.
What happened in 1968 began with one man. That man was Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota, and he decided to run for President. He was a Democratic challenger to the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson. Incumbent Presidents don’t often have challengers, since they typically run for a second term. So this was a big deal.
As O’Donnell emphasizes, the reason McCarthy ran was a matter of life and death. Along with many other Americans, McCarthy was concerned about the war in Vietnam. The war was costing too many American lives (and to be fair, Vietnamese lives also). It seemed impossible to win, despite both diplomacy and the show of force. McCarthy and his supporters thought Johnson wasn’t moving towards peace quickly or strongly enough. That was reason enough for McCarthy to run. And the events of 1968 unfolded from that decision.
Summarizing much more of the book would take pages and pages. By then, you’d be better off just to read the book! But suffice it to say that O’Donnell details the quirks and foibles of each major and minor candidate—Johnson, McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon.
Then O’Donnell connects the candidates to the events of that year. 1968 was rife with protest, the war, and two assassinations. He adds in historical background, so you know how we reached certain conclusions. The people surrounding the candidates—their staff and supporters are fascinating also. Sometimes the power brokers are the most nefarious.
The other group of “characters” to watch was the American people themselves. In particular, the peace protesters. First, there was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Fannie Lou Hamer’s nonviolent approach. O’Donnell spends less time on some antiwar groups like the Yippies, but he explains the connections between some of the groups closer to the election process.
1968 was the last year Presidential elections were held quite that way. The election process changed based on these events. If you wish our election process was different, this is a book to read.
Every nook and cranny of this book’s 420+ pages is full of details and information. Somehow, with all these different angles to cover, Lawrence O’Donnell makes 1968 understandable and interesting. The writing and the story are layered and dense. I reread sentences and paragraphs many different times. But never once did I say, “this is too much” and consider putting the book down.
I especially appreciated how O’Donnell connects the events and people of 1968 to our current events. He throws in some analysis, but primarily uses a journalistic, fact-based approach. Because O’Donnell is even-handed, I think I have a balanced, truthful perspective of events. That’s important to me.
If you like history and politics, you must read this book. Although I absolutely recommend it, it isn’t for everyone. And that’s okay. I left Playing with Fire thinking about other nonfiction books that cover this time period. While I don’t remember much about the world of the 1960s beyond my family and neighborhood, O’Donnell has reminded me that it was a pivotal time in United States history. Drop me a recommendation in your comments, won’t you?