Today, all books by liberals really are about President Trump. Such is Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, by MSNBC far-left fake-news host Lawrence O’Donnell. This book’s proxy is Richard Nixon and his 1968 victory for president against Aunt Blabby, a.k.a. Hubert Horatio Humphrey. For Nixon, Humphrey, South Vietnam, and Anna Chennault read: Trump, Hillary, Russia, and Paul Manafort.
Trump is mentioned by name 14 times, though he was 22 years old and just graduated from Wharton that May; the book even twice attacks the President’s father, Fred.
The main assault comes in the chapter titled “The Perfect Crime.” The alleged crime here is “treason.” O’Donnell references John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life, published in 2017, as well as transcripts of President Johnson’s White House spy tapes to detail how Nixon sent Chennault to Saigon to promise President Thi?u a better peace deal than he might have gotten from Humphrey.
Of a call between Johnson and Nixon just before the November 5 election, O’Donnell writes:
Johnson never used the word treason with Nixon. He assumed [Illinois Republican Minority Leader] Dirksen had told Nixon that Johnson thought Nixon’s back-channel communication to President Thieu was treason. . . . The president’s only option with two days left before the election was to go through with the threat he delivered to Dirksen and leak this bombshell story to the press and create those headlines he described to Dirksen about a presidential candidate betraying his country and causing more American casualties in Vietnam.
In the end, of course, Johnson didn’t do that. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford convinced him that revealing the wiretaps “would expose some highly sensitive American intelligence-gathering techniques in Washington and Saigon.” Nixon also could have said it was just dirty tricks by the Democrats. And, LBJ and his comrades figured, if Nixon won, it might not be a great idea for a new president to end up impeached weeks after his inauguration.
We might have to wait until Volume 5 of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson to find out what really happened. But it’s rich for O’Donnell to miss a crucial angle: that Nixon would have been able to implicate LBJ in numerous election frauds of his own, such as those that helped LBJ and John F. Kennedy steal the 1960 election from Nixon by, among other things, stuffing ballot boxes in Texas. That chicanery is detailed in Caro’s Volume 4, The Passage of Power (reviewed by me in 2012 in Chronicles).
O’Donnell’s only reference to Caro is to the biographer’s Master of the Senate, and then only to the fact that the U.S. Senate’s legislative job was far more complex in the 1970’s than it had been in the 1950’s. Yet Caro, in that long and highly detailed volume, wrote that after LBJ’s serious heart attack in 1955, Nixon came to the LBJ ranch
for what had been intended as a brief visit but which lasted for more than an hour, as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson fell into a serious conversation, one that was to mark the beginning of a close relationship between the two future presidents which is only now beginning to be glimpsed by historians
—but not by O’Donnell.
Moreover, the U.S. Constitution specifies that “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” That clearly is not what Nixon did. And wasn’t Johnson playing the same game when he halted the bombing of North Vietnam just before the election to help Hubert Humphrey?
Did Nixon’s “crime” really prolong the war by preventing peace in Vietnam, and getting another 21,000 Americans killed beyond the 37,000 who had already perished under Johnson’s command? Any decent account of events in the Vietnam War now details the strategy of the leadership in Hanoi. This includes the surprisingly good, albeit imperfect, PBS series The Vietnam War, released in the fall of 2017, in time for inclusion in this book. The editors of the series interviewed Hanoi politicians and historians. Many other sources are available at local public libraries: e.g., Ho Chi Minh: A Biography, by Pierre Brocheux (2007) and the article “Who Called the Shots in Hanoi?” by Lien-Hang Nguyen in the February 14, 2017, New York Times.
Yet here’s all O’Donnell includes on the Hanoi dictatorship: After the deepening Vietnam quagmire led the President to announce on TV on March 31, 1968, that he was no longer running for re-election, “To his friends, LBJ seemed twenty years younger. He cracked jokes again. ‘It’s easier to satisfy Ho Chi Minh than Bill Fulbright,’ he said,” in reference to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had become a skeptic on the war.
Ho, who died 17 months later, had for several years been Uncle Ho, a national and global figurehead for the Hanoi regime. Yet real power was wielded by Lê Du?n, the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1960 until his death on July 10, 1986. Jack Torry wrote on August 9, 2015, at Real ClearPolitics about some previous Nixon biographies that mentioned Chennault:
University of Kentucky historian Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, author of the book “Hanoi’s War,” and who examined Hanoi’s foreign ministry records, told me in an interview this year that Le Duan “wasn’t ready to negotiate seriously until the summer of 1972” when American airpower and South Vietnamese ground forces smashed Hanoi’s Easter offensive. Professor Nguyen, who is not a Nixon admirer, pointed out Le Duan always believed negotiations at Geneva in 1954 were a mistake that led to the partition of Vietnam, and he did not want to repeat that error.
The irony is Le Duan clearly emerged at the end of 1968 as the winner in this game of high-level political intrigue that involved Washington, Saigon, Hanoi and Moscow. Le Duan outmaneuvered Johnson, gaining a badly needed bombing halt in return for talks that had no chance of success. When Nixon took office in January 1969, he was saddled with a bombing halt he did not want and peace talks in Paris that could not succeed except on Le Duan’s intractable terms.
“In the weeks preceding Election Day,” writes Nguyen, “intrigue permeated the corridors of power not only in the United States, but also in the two Vietnams as leaders in Saigon and Hanoi both tried to manipulate American electoral politics to further their own objectives in the war.”
If any “crime” or “treason” were committed, it was by the always treacherous Lyndon Johnson.
Getting sucked into global intrigues happens when you’re running a globe-spanning empire. In 1968, America was still staring down the murderous Soviet Empire and its satellites—something that is not the case today, despite the obsession of O’Donnell and his Main Sleaze Media colleagues in trying to start a new Cold War with Moscow. Today, there may be more communists in the break room at MSNBC than in all of Russia.
In 1968, I turned 13 and devoured everything I could on the war and the election it dominated. But there were other issues and events: the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the latter followed by hundreds of riots in American cities; the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; Mao’s Cultural Revolution; the continuing civil-rights legislation; and the arrangement of the Great Society giveaways that, along with LBJ’s ten-percent income surtax and devaluation of the dollar (not covered by O’Donnell), were to pay for everything.
The period is better covered in The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority, by Pat Buchanan—who is gratuitously attacked in O’Donnell’s book for being (what else) a precursor of Donald Trump. But one thing O’Donnell makes very plain is that, like others in the liberal elite, he has no idea what actually has been going on in the real America—the heartland, where people lose their jobs to ideologically inspired trade schemes, send their sons to fight the wars, and witness their children getting hooked on OxyContin. To O’Donnell, they’re just a lot of bigots resisting ingenious social engineering by their betters, who, like the author, come from wealthy families, attend prep schools and Harvard, and send American boys, and now girls, to war but avoid going themselves.
O’Donnell has written for the unfunny Harvard Lampoon, worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and penned Hollywood scripts. He just can’t understand why hoi polloi keep shunning all his favored liberal candidates, from Humphrey to Hillary. Such voters helped give LBJ his 61 percent of the vote in 1964—the most of any president except Washington—then voted to Dump the Hump in 1968, when Humphrey garnered only 42.7 percent of the popular vote, a drop of 18 points for the Democratic ticket. (Nixon took 43.4 percent, and George Wallace 13.5 percent.)
“Wallace voters who agreed to be interviewed sounded like Trump voters in 2016,” O’Donnell asserts. He adds, “Wallace was more Nixon’s problem than Humphrey’s. Wallace was attracting the most conservative voters, all of whom would otherwise be going to Nixon.” That’s mostly correct. Yet “all” is an overstatement, while “conservative” was not as well defined in 1968 as it was in 1980.
“A smaller part of Wallace’s support included union workers who would normally be with the Democrats but were worried about law and order,” O’Donnell continues. In fact, it was more than “a little.” My family were Nixon supporters, but in the working-class, UAW-dominated Detroit suburb I grew up in there was big support for Wallace, not just on law and order, but because he was tougher even than Nixon on the Soviet Union and Vietnam. (His running mate was Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay.) In my hometown, we all listened to the same acid rock most people our age across the country listened to, but no young man I heard of dodged the draft or took part in the campus protests in Ann Arbor.
That’s why Wallace took 51 percent of the Great Lakes State’s votes in the Democratic Party’s 1972 primary, compared with George McGovern’s 27 percent. That’s why Trump won in 2016. O’Donnell simply cannot comprehend the revulsion Middle America feels for liberal overlords such as himself.
[Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, by Lawrence O’Donnell (New York: Penguin Press) 496 pp., $28.00]