“The political world that we’re living in now had its seeds planted in 1968,” Lawrence O’Donnell, a journalist and cable TV host, says. He illustrates his point from the very first page of Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics. O’Donnell describes then–TV producer Roger Ailes coaching presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Nixon ended up hiring Ailes as a political consultant, and Ailes would later consult on campaigns for Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush, before becoming the founding CEO of Fox News in 1996.
“Roger Ailes’s effect on politics was much longer-lasting than Richard Nixon’s, even though Nixon was elected president twice,” O’Donnell says, referring to Fox News’ and the late CEO’s influence on conservative movements. O’Donnell himself is a beneficiary of the cable-news environment that Ailes fostered. Since 2010, he has hosted the news and political commentary show The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell on the liberal-leaning network MSNBC. The inspiration for the book arrived a few years ago, during a regular segment in which the host looks back at moments in history. O’Donnell revisited two “unthinkable” events from the 1968 election: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
“The shape of the drama became clear to me instantly,” O’Donnell says, tapping his years of experience turning Oval Office politics into compelling drama as an executive producer and writer on The West Wing. The book also chronicles other transformative flashpoints from the 1968 election: then-president Lyndon B. Johnson’s shocking decision not to seek reelection, the antiwar campaign of presidential campaign Eugene McCarthy, the bloody riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, and Richard Nixon’s ruthless victory in the general election.
O’Donnell was a high school student during this tumultuous year. He has vivid memories of watching campaign moments unfold on TV, such as Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley angrily shouting down a speaker at the Democratic convention. “It’s one of those things that never leaves you. You can never forget what you saw,” O’Donnell says.
O’Donnell’s book concludes with a revelation about Nixon’s behind-the-scenes efforts to delay a Vietnam War peace agreement during the 1968 campaign—a discovery that didn’t completely surface until a 2017 report by the New York Times. “The darkest secret of the 1968 campaign was not fully revealed until 2017,” O’Donnell says, thinking about his own legacy. “Whatever I’m talking about tonight in investigative journalism is just a seed. We may not know what’s there for another 50 years. Basically, it teaches us humility about what we think we know about current events.”