I was sixteen in 1968, and I remember being a Gene McCarthy supporter in spite of my inability to vote. I was anti-war, as were most of my friends, I was pro civil rights, and was discovering my conscience slowly but surely. I also lived in Chicago and have vivid memories of the bloody protests and the subsequent trial of the “Chicago 7.” Remembering these things has given me more of a perspective on current events than a younger person might have. I understand protest and confrontation. I understand the need to be involved. I lived through Watergate and I understand the nature of political corruption.
Or I thought I did until I immersed myself in O’Donnell’s account of the events which made Richard Nixon President of the United States, a complex, difficult, often painful process of backroom deals, back-stabbing, and cynical maneuvering by virtually every actor on that stage. I learned a great deal about history that I thought I knew well, and learned that a great many of the people involved in this drama were far less admirable than I had imagined. Or maybe I should just say they were more human than they appeared to be at the time.
I would urge you to read this book if you’re at all interested in the people and politics of that era and especially that campaign. I was fascinated by the portraits of the major players from Johnson, who crippled himself by adhering to a losing strategy in Vietnam to the detriment of his legacy in other areas such as civil rights, Nixon who was a brilliant politician, but who put all that intellect to work in self-serving ways, Bobby Kennedy who was opaque and manipulative, and Eugene McCarthy who was a decent human being but utterly unfit to be president. They, and the more minor players in this drama, are wonderfully drawn by O’Donnell in this rich narrative.
One thing about this book which both amused and bemused me was O’Donnell’s jabs at Donald Trump, a thread that ran through the book for reasons not immediately clear to me. O’Donnell isn’t a cheap-shot kind of guy. He’s thoughtful, well-informed, and pretty even-handed, so the connections to Trump should have been provoked by practical reasons, right?
Well it took me long enough to suss them out. This book isn’t just about 1968 and Nixon, and Vietnam, it’s about the here and now. The comments about Trump aren’t just jabs, they’re sharp and incisive parallels to the worst of the world in 1968, the things we really should have left behind us, but can’t seem to shake off. 1968 was, after all, the end of the liberal wing of the Republican party. It was the year when the Dixie-crats drew the line in the sand on integration (They were not having it!) the war in Vietnam (Yes, please.) and the role of authoritarianism in government. (They were Law and Order guys right down the line.) It was the year when southern Democrats stopped being democratic and turned into the moderate wing of the Republican party.
The parallels that O’Donnell draws become quite clear when he discusses Richard Nixon’s greatest crime, which had nothing to do with Watergate. He colluded with Nguyễn Văn Thiệu to keep South Vietnam out of peace talks until after the election which he expected to win (and did.) For Nixon, American lives were far less important than his political future. What he did was technically treason, and the only reason he wasn’t called out on it was that Johnson and his advisers felt that win or lose, charging Nixon with treason would do more harm to the country than good. That collusion has clear parallels to the Trump campaign and Russia, though the extent of Trump’s involvement isn’t actually known as of this writing. And the law that made Nixon’s actions treasonous probably don’t apply to the Russia scandal, though again, that’s not wholly clear at this time.
By the end, understanding those parallels between then and now, the deep divisions in this country, the fears and concerns, the push-pull of civil rights, it was heartening to listen to O’Donnell’s epilogue in which he reminds us of the most important thing of all: Our participation in this process is what made a difference. The anti-war movement saved lives.
Political participation is life and death.
I really recommend this book to anyone who wants to read it as history, as a cautionary tale, as biographical material, or just as a surprisingly exciting story about the ins and outs of politics. I would cheerfully read anything O’Donnell has written, and would happily listen to his narration of any political history because he was just that good.