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Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell, Penguin Press, US $28.00, Pp 484, November 2017, ISBN 978-0399563140


The 1960s was a decade of change for the United States – politics, culture. The sixties saw what was unthinkable before – the civil rights movement, assassinations, the Vietnam War, hippies, America’s first real antiwar movement, organic food, vegetarian restaurants, massive riots in several cities, the first riots on college campuses, Broadway’s first naked musical (about hippies), birth control pills and free love, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, young rock stars dying of drug overdoses. In Playing with Fire, Lawrence O’Donnell says that, when the 1960s began, parents were worried about their kids may be drinking too much at the senior prom. By the end of the decade, parents worried about their kids getting arrested for possessing marijuana or dying from a heroin overdose or being killed in Vietnam and fifty thousand young Americans fleeing to Canada and Sweden to avoid the draft in the US military. O’Donnell is the host of The Last Word on MSNBC. Formerly an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and writer for “The West Wing,” O’Donnell also served as senior advisor to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), chief of staff to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works and the Senate Finance Committee. He is the author of Deadly Force.

No one was left unchanged by the chaos of the 1960s among politicians, perhaps no one was changed more than Bobby Kennedy. In September 1963, two months before JFK assassination, Robert Kennedy went to Bismark, North Dakota, to speak in his official capacity as attorney general to the National Congress of American Indians. The attorney general was under no political pressure to make the speech. Nothing was more ignored in American politics than the concerns of Native American tribes. JFK had no political debts to pay there. And there wasn’t one sentence of Bobby’s speech that would flip a Nixon voter in North Dakota. His opening line was “It is a tragic irony that the American Indian has for so long been denied a full share of freedom – full citizenship in the greatest free country in the world.” Lawrence O’Donnell says that, by the sixties standards, this was radical stuff. By extending the language of the civil rights movement to the rights of the tribes, Bobby had added the concerns of the tribes to the liberal list of just causes, years before most liberals had given them a thought. Bobby was becoming a liberal inspirational speaker years before most people noticed. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon feared Bobby running for

All college-age boys were concerned about how to avoid the draft and how to deal with the draft and Vietnam. Lawrence O’Donnell says that there were 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 could only begin to think about life on the outside when they get outside. Their prison was in their pockets, the draft registration card that controlled their lives and blocked their hopes and dreams. The presidential election could end all that. This is the reason, Lawrence O’Donnell says, why the presidential election was a matter of life and death for real people. The death Bobby thought about was his own. He worried that announcing his candidacy might tempt an assassin. He was the only potential candidate who had to worry about a copycat assassin going for another Kennedy. Bobby’s thinking about running was muddled and slow. Lawrence O’Donnell writes, “Bobby held history in his hands for so long that someone who could see what the election was going to be about decided he couldn’t wait any longer and grabbed history out of Bobby’s hands, someone no one expected to seize the moment. Until he did.”

The sixties was one of the most interesting decades in the history of the United States and Playing with Fire is perhaps the most interesting book about the radical and chaotic decade. Both politics and culture underwent a monumental change in the 1960s and Lawrence O’Donnell has a deep understanding of the change that determined the politics and culture in the future decades. O’Donnell powerfully shows why the 1968 election was a life-and-death matter for an entire generation. This brilliantly-written book brings the sixties and the characters that dominated the decade to life. As you read it, you feel as if you are traveling back in time and witnessing the events.

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