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Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics
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Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics

4.39  ·  Rating details ·  1,416 ratings  ·  297 reviews
From the celebrated host of MSNBC's The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, an important and enthralling new account of the presidential election that changed everything, and created American politics as we know it today.
Long before Lawrence O'Donnell was the anchor of his own political talk show, he was the Harvard Law-trained political aide to Senator Patrick Moynihan, o
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published November 7th 2017 by Penguin Press
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Timothy M. Gorman I agree the author went a little too far into the weeds.I modulated my attention to detail. I didn't need to know the name of Eugene McCarthy's…moreI agree the author went a little too far into the weeds.I modulated my attention to detail. I didn't need to know the name of Eugene McCarthy's brother-in-law or that he had been the former comptroller of Minnesota, but I did pay attention to the Tet Offensive's back story. If you sum this book up with "So the radicals got Nixon elected", you would probably sum up War and Peace as a book about Russia.(less)
Matt Fitz I don't know if I'd make it a stepping stone. I think there are other more objective books on political processes and electoral history. This is…moreI don't know if I'd make it a stepping stone. I think there are other more objective books on political processes and electoral history. This is depper due to confluence of "violence in our streets" while we fought someone else's war in a foreign country. There is an incredible dynamic there that isn't really about politics, but our national room temperature and the optics of the domestic and international conflict.(less)

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Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Until 2016 the most wild and complex modern election was the 1968 election. If a screenwriter had written the '68 election no one would have believed it. Assassinations, riots, treason, war, and literal fist fights on the floor of the Democratic convention. 1968 was the year that modern campaigning was truly invented and it laid the groundwork for the 2016 election of 45.

Lawrence O'Donnell is one of my favorite tv hosts. He's smart, funny, and blunt. I was afraid to read this book, I stared at
Nov 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have been staring at this computer screen for half an hour, trying to find the words to explain how I feel. I think I am so unable to find the words because I am struggling with my 18-year-old self.

Lawrence O'Donnell has captured so many of the feelings from that incredible year. This book is not just a recounting of the events that happened in 1968. It also reminds me viscerally of how I felt the year I graduated from high school. As O'Donnell describes each of those monumental occurrences: t
Steven Z.
Nov 16, 2017 rated it liked it
The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history. According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people. O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal repu ...more
I'd like to begin this review with a question. How do you follow up reading and reviewing the most highly-anticipated book of the year? In my case it was simple to go from one presidential campaign to another. Although the campaign that I chose was not just any campaign it was the granddaddy of all presidential campaigns: the campaign of 1968.

Of course, I was not alive in 1968 but having studied the 1960s at length I can readily assure you that I am quite familiar with the causes and the outcome
Penn Jillette
Nov 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
LOD is one of my best friends. I love his writing and I love him on TV, but the best is when he gets on a jag late at night when we're chatting and just turns world events into a story. This book is the closest I've experienced to that joy being done for the public.

I was 13 in 1968 and I knew all these names and words, but never knew the story. Now I feel I know the story.

This book is opinionated, but it's not liberal porn. I loved it.
Nov 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In my book (The Color of Money), I have a chapter on the 1968 election and as I was writing it, I was thinking "you could write a whole library on this election!" This book is a worthy first volume for that library. I think we are far enough out and every strand of American politics that either died or was born during that election has played out. The harvest has been an ugly one. But it all started in 1968. I've read a lot of books about the 2016 election as well and none have been satisfying. ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
The election of 1968 was a realignment election. It signaled the beginning of the end for the New Deal Coalition that was established with FDR. It was a tumultuous year. Martin Luther King and RFK were assassinated, the Melee at the Democratic convention in Chicago, Tet Offensive, and as icing on the cake the election of Richard Milhouse Nixon to the presidency also being the most divisive candidate in the field. I was one at the time. Good thing I had no clue what was going on or I would have b ...more
Tracy Rowan
Nov 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 un ...more
Barbara (The Bibliophage)
This is an intense political history, focused on the events of the 1968 US Presidential election. It covers a dozen people, from candidates to the sitting President. There are two assassinations, multiple protest, and one terrible, unwinnable war. Not exactly light reading. But O'Donnell weaves the stories together into a compelling account. I'm very glad I read it, even though it took me a long time.

Full review at
Joseph J.
Oct 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: students of 20th cent. political history; anyone who voted for the current President
I received my copy through a Goodreads giveaway. I own White's The Making of the President 1968 and An American Melodrama; what else did I need to know about the tragic, tumultuous and eventful election of 1968? With the hindsight of 50 years and the election of 2016-PLENTY! I enjoy the author on MSNBC and was a fan of The West Wing which he produced; but O'Donnell is also a great writer who in these pages blends the past with the recent-the rise of Trump and Trumpism in the GOP. It hovers over ...more
Erik Graff
Jul 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: US citizens
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
1968 was the most formative year of my life. I was sixteen, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in both my hometown in Illinois, as a precinct captain no less, and during my first long trip overseas alone, in Hawaii. Then, returning to Chicago without informing the family, I spent the Democratic Convention in (as part of the candidate's entourage, handing out press releases and holding back crowds) and around (here, identified as much with being in the SDS as in the campaign) the Hilton Hotel on Mic ...more
Mar 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Detailed look at the year leading up to the '68 election. The book does a good job hitting the political and cultural concerns from one of the most turbulent years in American history.

Bruce Katz
An exceptional read. Like many other reviewers, I remember that election quite well, but I was young and in college, and thus distracted by life. I had no idea of all that was going on -- as no one could at the time it was all happening. O'Donnell lays it all out, both the events that made it to the daily newspapers and TV screens, and those that were taking place behind the scenes and weren't, in some cases, known until many years later: the secret deals and betrayals, moments of doubt and fury ...more
Scott  Hitchcock
Jul 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-stars, history
This was comprehensive, entertaining, filled in some knowledge gaps and most importantly for me had no sacred cows.

Covering the events that led all of the candidates up to the election, the pop culture elements, the assassinations, civil rights, the Vietnam war and everything else O'Donnell really sets the stage. Then he drives it some with a compelling tension of the events where you really see from the perspective of each candidate. Their mistakes, misgivings, flaws and triumphs all spelled o
Just A. Bean
Nov 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, american
For those wondering about author bias, I would say that he's an MSNBC host, profoundly anti-Vietnam war, and quite possibly a Bernie Bro (this unconfirmed, but I have suspicions). He doesn't like Nixon or Regan, but he doesn't seem to like Humphrey either. He's mixed on the LBJ, Kennedy family and most of the rest of the players. (Most of which means that I more or less agree with his politics, even if he strikes me as somewhat to the right of what I'd call a socialist, and probably not what I'd ...more
David Longo
Dec 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Playing With Fire" is an informative book about the trials and tribulations of the 1968 U.S. presidential election by MSNBC news host Lawrence O'Donnell. I like O'Donnell on TV. I wasn't sure I would feel the same way about him as an author. I did, however. O'Donnell was quite detailed and always remained on track. He didn't write with quite the panache of Jay Winik or David Halberstam. I could let that slide, however. Few historians are such fine stylists. To sum, "Playing With Fire" was, for ...more
Christopher Saunders
Nov 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Many recent works have revisited the tumultuous 1968 presidential election, which seeded many of the conflicts and resentments American politics still wrestles with today. Though covering well-trod ground, MSNBC host O'Donnell teases a gripping narrative bristling with fresh, provocative insights.

Most of the book focuses on the Democratic primaries between Lyndon Johnson, still clinging to hope for reelection despite the Vietnam War's increasing unpopularity (ultimately dropping out for his Vic
Nov 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2017
Playing with fire is the best book on 1968 that I've read, Lawrence O'Donnell combines the social and political history of that time into one seamless narrative, The bulk of the book focuses on the campaign season that year highlighted by an almost a minute by minute analysis of each convention. He also offers probing character studies of each Candidate. The similarities between the Wallace campaign and the Trump campaign are startling and I hope the reader will pay them special attention.

At ti
Christopher Hunt
Jul 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
So amazing to see how presidential elections were run in 1968. As the author states at the end of his book, there were so many “what if’s” that could have changed the course of history. One of the biggest being what if Bobby Kennedy hasn’t been assassinated? Would there never have been a “Watergate” because there would have never been a President Nixon. A lot to ponder. A great book for anyone interested in political elections and the behind the scenes intrigue of what power can do.
Aug 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
The obvious point of comparison for Lawrence O'Donnell's PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS, is the recent RFK biography by Chris Matthews, BOBBY KENNEDY: A RAGING SPIRIT. Both books cover the same period in U.S. history and both authors are MSNBC hosts. But such a comparison does an injustice to O'Donnell's book, which is simply a better, more informative and more compelling, analysis of the 1960s and that decade's impact on our present.

For years my
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is about the events of the American Presidential election of 1968. Author O'Donnell does a masterful job of researching and presenting the facts from multiple angles.

The year 1968 was the craziest of times. President Johnson was escalating a hugely unpopular war in Vietnam. Activists were protesting, and in some cases rioting. There were the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It all culminated with the protests and brutal police response at the Democratic
Apr 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was 12 during the 1968 election so I remember some of the events, the big ones like the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. I remember liking Hubert Humphrey, mainly because he was a home state boy. This is a very detailed look at that election that was different from any election before it. The author has his own show on MSNBC.
Stephen Bird
Apr 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book and thought it was well done. At certain points, I was unable to grasp / keep track of the details, but I was impressed with O'Donnell's presentation of his subject and so this work kept my interest. I normally don't read books about politics / U.S. political history, but the time period interested me as I was 8 years old in 1968. My father was a Republican (moderate conservative) and my mother a Democrat (centrist liberal). Which I mention because this kind of "bipartisanshi ...more
Mar 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
History buffs and political junkies are going to love this book. It is incredibly thorough and yet the narrative story telling makes it a page turner. O'Donnell does add his own life into the mix in the prologue and in the epilologue; other than that it is just JFK, LBJ, Gene McCarthy, Dr. King Jr, Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Nixon, Regan, Rockfeller and the machinations, maneuvers, and outright deception that turns off so many people from politics. O'Donnell ensures minor characters are given p ...more
Nicole D.
Dec 02, 2017 rated it liked it
I had no particular interest in the 1968 election, but I like Lawrence O'Donnell a lot so I decided to give this a go and it was pretty interesting. I was 5 at the time, so obviously didn't realize what was going on around me.

Every time I read a book like this, I think wow - it was exactly the same then as now. From Lincoln on the Bardo, to this. So I wonder - is this just the way of politics? The divisiveness and all that goes with it - or are we reading into what happened then and likening it
Bill Warren
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, politics
this book was simply phenomenal. I was born in 79 and I feel like I just experienced the 1968 elections and events leading up. A great read to end the last and kickoff the new year of reading. Lawrence O'Donnell makes sure to take his shots at the current president throughout, but not at all unwarranted. Highly recommend.
Tom Walsh
Feb 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018-books
I was one of a small group of anti-war protesters on Long Island who led the fight for Gene McCarthy’s nomination in 1968. O’Donnell captures the enthusiasm, excitement, adrenaline, sadness, pain and frustration of that year. The Dream will Not Die! Even now.
Matt Smith
Feb 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
The only reason I read this book is because O'Donnell promised that 1968's presidential election was way more wild and crazy than 2016's. And yeah, maybe I needed to feel a little bit better about that big old gaping wound that still affects my life (and the life of everyone I know) every single day since it happened.

What O'Donnell comes up with here is a book that hits something that most people know the major points of. Lyndon Johnson wasn't president after 1968. Nixon won against Johnson's VP
Julia Shaw
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: recommend
Deeply fascinating, and surprisingly relevant to our contemporary political landscape.

A lot of familiar names crop up on the periphery of mainstream events, from Roger Ailes, George Romney and Pat Buchanan to Bill Clinton and John Kerry.

I wasn't alive in 1968, and previously knew only the broad strokes of that campaign season, with the result that this book almost read as suspense. I knew MLK and RFK would be killed, that Nixon and Humphrey would be the nominees and Nixon would win. But I didn
Mar 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Playing With Fire is a slog. But, if you enjoy history, it is worthwhile. Lawrence O’Donnell, a political commentator on MSNBC, may not be a historian by trade, but contributes something far more worthwhile than simple popular history. This is a master class in political storytelling.

As someone with a history degree, I had a passable knowledge of the 1968 presidential election. I knew about LBJ, Bobby, Nixon, and a bit more. O’Donnell weaves those narratives in with Eugene McCarthy and the anti
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Lawrence Francis O'Donnell, Jr. is an American political analyst, journalist, actor, producer, writer, and host of The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, a weeknight MSNBC opinion and news program that formerly aired at 10 p.m. Eastern, but moved to the 8 p.m. slot, replacing Keith Olbermann's Countdown in late January 2011. He frequently filled in as host of Countdown before getting his own show ...more
“Eugene McCarthy was the last American presidential candidate who thought flattering an audience’s intelligence was the way to win their hearts and their votes.” 2 likes
“Most politicians are more frustrated by the way their own party disappoints them than the way the other party opposes them. They expect opposition from the opposing party. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Dealing with that opposition is a full-time job, and they expect to have the support of their own party in that eternal struggle. But when their own party turns against them, disagrees with them, or just goes off in another direction, they feel unsupported by their party and sometimes betrayed.” 0 likes
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