By GWEN OREL
If you think things are bad now in America, Lawrence O’Donnell says, they were worse in 1968.
“And everything that was worse about it was changed by the resistance of that time,” O’Donnell said.
There’s a hopeful lesson in his new book, “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics.” Wins and losses don’t always take place within the window of elections, he said.
Eugene McCarthy ran for president to win the war. He didn’t succeed by winning the presidency, but by enlarging the antiwar movement.
The host of the nightly show “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” will appear in the Montclair Public Library and Foundation’s Open Book/Open Mind series at the Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave. on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 4 p.m., to discuss his new book.
The event is free with purchase of the book. For information call 973-744-0500 ext. 2222 or visit montclairlibrary.org.
Montclair’s Tom Johnson will moderate. (Interestingly, another MSNBC host, Chris Matthews, of “Hardball,” published a book about Bobby Kennedy this year, “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.”)
Before becoming a political analyst for MSNBC in 1996, O’Donnell served as senior adviser to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and writer for the NBC series “The West Wing.”
Writing for that hit political drama gave O’Donnell a love for dramatic storytelling, “and I wanted to have that feeling again as a writer.
“The 1968 election is the most dramatic political story that I know.”
He knew some of it from living through it when he was in high school, he said, but “that meant that I knew way less than half of it. I knew only the part that was shown on TV news.
“So there was an awful lot more to learn.”
He researched the book for a few years, then put himself on an intense writing schedule, writing usually nine hours a day on weekdays and 12 on weekends.
AN INSIDE KNOWLEDGE
O’Donnell brings his own experience into the book, in the prologue, describing the nuns weeping when JFK was shot, and how the city of Boston was affected. Boston, he said, had a very emotional connection to presidential politics beginning in 1960, then again in 1968. Boston, he said, “is a great place to be from.” And the Kennedys made “presidential politics a local story in my childhood.”
O’Donnell worked hard to “talk American” and drop his own Dorchester accent, “and I’m constantly, every second, suppressing the Boston accent,” he said. He decided to study speaking without it while on a driving trip across America before college because a New Jersey gas station attendant couldn’t understand him. “Bath” is one of the hardest words for Bostonians to say in “American.”
Like two of the nonfiction book’s main characters, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, O’Donnell was brought up Irish Catholic, and in the book explores how faith affected their speech and actions.
Irish Catholic culture in the 1960s, he said, “was itself a very thick culture with all sorts of elements to it that can really only be understood from the inside. And so it had elements to it that I could see very clearly and connect to very clearly.”
Learning about how Eugene McCarthy saw himself within Irish Catholicism was revealing for O’Donnell: for example, the Democratic senator at one point attended seminary.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, AND CONTEMPORARY
It may be 50 years ago, but 1968 is an important year when considering the present, O’Donnell says.
By 1968 much of America had come far from where it was in 1960: “There is no one who believed the same thing about everything in 1970 as he believed in 1960. There’s virtually no one who had the same hairstyle in 1970 that he had in 1960.”
In the book, O’Donnell writes that young people didn’t speak of a long-term future, or career choice, but just of how to avoid the draft and death.
“All the dynamics of modern politics were born in 1968,” he said.
“Before 1968, if I said I was a liberal, you would not know if I was a Democrat or a Republican.” But that all changed, and today, he said, there is “no such thing as a liberal Republican. They’re gone. Forever.”
But it was a year that changed everything, O’Donnell said. America fought over war, something that had never caused division before. “And that antiwar force remains to this day,” he said. “It came up against a traditional reflexive conservative pro-war impulse. That was the birth of what we now call culture wars. And because it was a war of two different cultures this wasn’t just politics. It is two completely different ways of looking at the world: what war was for and what war meant. And the question of whether the price of war was worth it.”
And 1968 was also when the Republican Party began to be the party that pushed against the Civil Rights advances of 1964 and 1965, “and they have done so very consistently ever since.”
Some of the things Bobby does in the book, such as wire-tapping the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are not admirable. But “if all you know about someone is admirable, that just means you don’t know everything about that person,” O’Donnell said, pointing out that things that are illegal today, including campaign finance and the way the FBI used surveillance power, were legal then.
In 1968, segregationist George Wallace was a presidential candidate, and his campaign manager says in the book “that when he was watching Donald Trump campaign for president he was watching George Wallace, that the Trump moves were all lifted from the Wallace campaign of 1968.
“He spoke exactly the same way to his audiences, used the same values to speak to his audiences. So these dynamics were born then, which is an important thing to know about what we’re living with now.”
But there’s hope in knowing how long resistance can take, he said.
“Losing an election,” he said, “does not mean the resistance is lost.”
I was in high school in 1968 and I never heard my brothers and their college-age friends talk about career planning. They only talked about how to deal with the draft and Vietnam. There was no long-term planning, no career hopes and dreams. Life was a short-term game for many young men in 1968. It was as if they were prisoners who would only begin to think about life on the outside when they got outside. Their prison was in their pocket, the draft registration card that controlled their lives and blocked their hopes and dreams.
The presidential election could end all that. The presidential election was a 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.