As 2018 speeds to a close, we’re concluding a year defined by dysfunction, with deadlock on Capitol Hill, continuing controversy at the White House and — closer to home in Louisiana — deeply divided politics at the State Capitol.
But 2018 was also a year to remember the 50th anniversary of various events in 1968, a period that seemed a broken time in America, too. Or so we’re reminded in “Playing with Fire,” Lawrence O’Donnell’s recent book about the 1968 presidential election and its continuing influence on national life.
Among the fans of “Playing with Fire” is Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane and a nationally acclaimed author of books about Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. O’Donnell’s book, says Isaacson, “is filled with memorable anecdotes and colorful characters, from Roger Ailes and Richard Nixon to Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But beneath the rollicking tale is a truly profound historical truth: how the Sixties still reverberates in our nation’s soul.”
Isaacson calls the book a “delightful combination of vivid storytelling and sharp political insight,” though it might be hard to see how any book about 1968 can be delightful.
It was, after all, a year memorable for its tragedies, which included the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as the bloodshed of a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam.
Even so, there are stories in “Playing With Fire” that make one smile, such as an amusing anecdote about a 1968 encounter between Nixon, a presidential candidate that year, and 26-year-old Roger Ailes, then the executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show.”
Nixon had lost the 1960 presidential election after looking awkward in a debate with John Kennedy that Americans had seen through the relatively new medium of television. He was enduring an appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” when he met Ailes, complaining to the young TV executive that it seemed silly for a presidential contender to appear on an afternoon talk show that was really focused more on the celebrity world than serious issues.
Ailes proceeded to give Nixon a crash course in the realities of modern politics and a list of Nixon’s tactical mistakes in previous TV appearances.
Ailes went to work for Nixon, helped him perform better on TV, and he gained the presidency. Ailes would go on to found Fox News. A half-century after that fateful meeting, the blending of celebrity culture and political culture is evident in the ascendance of Donald Trump.
It’s but one example of the way that 1968 will continue to resonate in 2019.