The Washington and Hollywood insider discusses the troubling year in politics and his latest book, Playing With Fire.
Author and Television Host Lawrence O’Donnell
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
2017 may go down in the history books as one of America’s most challenging years ever and, for many, it rivals the nightmarish events of 1968. Tonight, MSNBC host, Lawrence O’Donnell joins us to reflect on that troubling year of political assassinations, convention violence, and the election of Richard M. Nixon. It’s all laid out in his new text, “Playing With Fire”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Lawrence O’Donnell in just a moment.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome my friend, Lawrence O’Donnell, back to this program. The host of the MSNBC program, “The Last Word”, has worked inside the Beltway and behind the scenes of Hollywood, including, of course, as a writer for “The West Wing”.
His latest text is called “Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics”. Lawrence O’Donnell, good to have you on the West Coast and on our program, my friend.
Lawrence O’Donnell: It’s so good to be in the studio with you because usually you’re coming on my show. I’m in New York, you’re doing it on the satellite from here and we always get the Tavis Smiley bump in the ratings, which is what we’re going for. That’s what we’re always going for.
Tavis: Yeah, you’re funny, you’re funny.
O’Donnell: But we’re almost never in the same room.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad to have you on. I’m sure my ratings will bump as well [laugh] that you’re on tonight. Let me start with that since you went there. What is it like being on that network covering this moment in our nation’s history?
O’Donnell: It’s a completely changed job. There used to be, you know, a section of the day, a good three hours of the day, where you were trying to figure out what you’d cover in an hour of cable news primetime. You’d do probably four completely different stories, sometimes five totally different stories.
And now there’s this overwhelming flow of hugely important stories from Washington generally centered around the president. Even the tax bill would not have been happening without a Republican president, so he’s the engine for that.
So you’ve got legislative stuff like that and then this cascading scandal that has more moving parts than any scandal in political history or any of our history has ever had because Twitter is both an engine and a reflector of the scandal. You have a President of the United States appear, as soon as I read the Tweet, to confess to obstruction of justice over a weekend.
And I have to tell you that, in the past, my weekends were generally news free. I would ignore the news until Monday morning. And I would immediately reply to the president’s Tweet about saying that, you know, he knew that Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI when he fired him. The idea that Twitter could be part of the engine of the whole thing is just amazing.
So the jurisdiction of my hour of cable news is very, very clear and it is sorting out which of the 15 kind of overwhelming stories that has Donald Trump somewhere in them, if not right on the top of them, which of those are we doing in a given night?
Tavis: The part that scares me — and I’m glad I’m not in your seat every night because this stuff changes sometimes while you’re on the air. I mean, these stories morph and metastasize and who knows when Trump is going to Tweet something.
Like, for example, we’re conducting this conversation now. Just a few hours from now, it will air. I don’t know where this Paul Manafort story that broke a little while ago is going to end up by the time the audience actually sees this later tonight on PBS.
O’Donnell: The ankle bracelet might be back on [laugh]. They’re recharging the ankle bracelet right now…
Tavis: For those of you who haven’t heard the news, what is your understanding of this Manafort story today?
O’Donnell: Well, that the special prosecutor made a certain — you know, they always do when they have these indictments and they bring someone in who pleads not guilty. There’s bail situations. They make a kind of behavioral agreement with the defendant about letting them travel to a certain extent or not.
So they had a very tight rein on Manafort and then they decided to loosen it as a result of we’re not sure what, but they decided to loosen their rein on him a little bit. Now the special prosecutor wants to tighten him up again.
He finds out that he’s been ghostwriting, as the story is putting it, an Op Ed piece that would benefit Manafort and he’s been ghostwriting it with someone who used to be involved or maybe still is involved with Russian intelligence.
So, you know, the special prosecutor is going to tighten that up a little bit. You know, a twist like that, we’ve never seen a twist like that in any stories like this. I mean, if you go back into Watergate and the Nixon stories, they proceeded in a pretty straight line.
So when, for example, Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell gets indicted, there aren’t stories of erratic and strange behavior on the part of John Mitchell after he’s indicted [laugh]. They all kind of knew what to do at the spot where they were exposed and in trouble, and these people from the president to Paul Manafort, they publicly seem to panic while under all this scrutiny.
Tavis: John Dean was in this chair not too too long ago and I asked him, having been there with Nixon, what the primary trait was that he saw between both Nixon and — what is that characteristic that they both have…
O’Donnell: Well, what it isn’t is intelligence, that’s for sure [laugh].
Tavis: He didn’t say that [laugh]. What he said that won’t surprise you is authoritarianism, that these guys are both — that’s the word he went with. I want to ask you that very question since you’ve done the research now, what is that thing that they most have in common?
O’Donnell: You know, I think the longer you look at them, the harder it is to do that. Nixon became extremely erratic and, we know, dangerous in the final months of his presidency, literally wandering the White House at night drunk in the company of Henry Kissinger who had alerted people that the president is unstable now.
And they had certain kind of precautions about any kind of nuclear order that the president might give. But that was a relatively brief period in Richard Nixon’s life. He was otherwise a completely stable person in relation to all of that.
Donald Trump, who’s never been drunk in his life, is the most worrisome person in the history of nuclear weapons. There’s no one we’ve had to worry about more. Him having the nuclear codes is, to me, the single most chilling thing about the Trump presidency.
Everything else, everything else, can be repaired. We’re going to have another tax legislation that’s going to change our tax code, you know, as soon as the Trump presidency’s over. We can repair a lot of this stuff. You won’t be able to repair a nuclear exchange on the Korean Peninsula.
Tavis: To your point about Kissinger suggesting to others that Nixon was a bit unstable, there are those who are advancing the notion now that Donald Trump is mentally unstable. Would you go that far?
O’Donnell: I went that far years ago, okay [laugh]? I went that far on the birth certificate, okay?
Tavis: Okay, okay.
O’Donnell: It’s a birth certificate, okay? This is an intelligence test. The Obama birth certificate is an intelligence test, a sanity test, an integrity test. It can be all of those things. Trump failed every one of those, every bit of it.
And I don’t think there’s a thing that’s different about his behavior since becoming president. I don’t think there’s anything that wasn’t advertised, that he didn’t publicly advertise about himself, that’s emerged since he became president.
Tavis: There are those who are saying with increasing volume that now is the time to get serious about looking at impeachment when Nancy Pelosi and others have said, “Don’t go there. That’s not where we want to go.” Is it time to start having…
O’Donnell: Well, you have to distinguish political speech from reasonable speech. So Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to be seen as the party that just wants to impeach the president. Of course, they would all go along with impeachment.
They’d go along with it tomorrow if the Republicans — and that’s how it would have to happen. If the Republicans were to make a move on it. Because you can’t make a move on it in the House of Representatives without the leadership, which is all Republican, doing that.
They simply don’t want to be perceived out there in the country as immediately after an election thinking about impeachment. You know, Richard Nixon who was reelected overwhelmingly in 1972 is inaugurated in January of 1973. 18 months later, he is driven out of town and he leaves.
At this point, we are not 18 months into the presidential term of Donald Trump. At this point, at the December, the Christmas, say, period of that first Nixon Christmas after his second inauguration, there wasn’t a person in America who thought he could be impeached.
There wasn’t a person alive who thought he wasn’t going to fill out his term. No one saw it coming. We’re sitting here and we have been talking about impeachment, talking about the 25th Amendment since the first month of the Trump presidency.
And one of the reasons for that is people who have a certain muscle memory of the last time something like this happened, which was the Nixon time. It feels the same. It really feels the same. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same, but we only have one experience like it, and that’s Richard Nixon.
Tavis: To the book, you had a powerful line that I had never processed in the way that your commentary forced me to process it, Lawrence, which is that there was no — I’m paraphrasing it — but there was no fellow citizen, there was no citizen in this country in 1968 who was the same person in 1960.
Tavis: So what was it about that period, and particularly about this year, that transformed not just the country, but obviously the country’s transformed people or peoples’ lives have been transformed? What was happening?
O’Donnell: Well, you know, I make that point within a spot where I’m talking about the evolution of Bobby Kennedy. Because Bobby Kennedy — and I was in high school at the time of the 1968 campaign — and Bobby Kennedy was viewed as an opportunist then, especially by people who saw Eugene McCarthy get into the campaign first on the left side of the Democratic Party challenging incoming president, Lyndon Johnson. Bobby gets in second after Gene McCarthy does very well in New Hampshire. That looked like opportunism, and it was.
And it also looked like to some people a false evolution toward liberalism by Bobby who had been part of authorizing wiretaps on Martin Luther King when he was Attorney General. So once I stared at this, once I stared at not just Bobby Kennedy, but all these men and women in this story in the 1960s, not one of them is the same person in ’68 that they were in 1960.
And it was the 60s, which is a thing I tried to capture in this book and it’s the single most difficult thing to capture. The cultural revolution that goes on in the 1960s, and you’re tempted to say beginning with a music revolution, but you don’t really know.
Did it really begin with a civil rights revolution which then fed a music revolution which then fed an anti-war revolution and a peace movement revolution? Eventually, at the end of the decade, you’re just seeing the birth of a women’s revolution, a women’s rights, a feminism revolution, so all these revolutions are happening at ultra high speed in the 1960s. You can watch it.
The person you can most clearly watch it through is Bobby Kennedy who is suspect of James Baldwin when he first sits down with him to talk about civil rights in New York City in the early 1960s. By 1968, he’s pretty much where James Baldwin is. And I don’t believe that’s opportunism. I believe that is enlightenment.
I mean, I experienced it as a kid in Boston which was as racist a place as you could grow up in in America when I was a kid. It was, you know, all the same language that segregations in the south would use was being used in Boston all the time.
You watched that fade out. You watched these words become bad words. I remember, you know, being in a friend’s house and hearing one of the parents use the “N” word very casually. The guy was a Boston cop and I was stunned by it because my parents would never allow those words in our house.
And it was only then that I noticed that my parents would never allow those words in my house because it could happen in other houses. But by the time you get to the end of the decade, the language in my house was the norm. It had become the norm, so there were segregationists, hardcore segregationists, in 1960 who were not segregationists in 1968.
I don’t mean like George Wallace who was a segregationist and then, when he lost the legal battle on segregation, he actually says as I quote him in the book here, he says at a certain point, “Yeah, I don’t talk about segregation anymore. I talk about law and order.” And that phrase of his law and order became the code that Republicans then carried for decades.
But, boy, I’ll tell you, I probably experienced a little less of it than, say, people who were in college in the 1960s. I mean, just the pictures. If you went around to college campuses and said, “I’m just gonna take photographs of college campuses in 1962”, they’re going to look like this. The men are going to be in blue blazers, they’re going to have neckties.
You know, at Harvard and Yale, there was a dress code and all that. By the time you get to the end of the decade, there’s no dress code, every Harvard kid looks like a hippie, looks like they walked out of Woodstock, and there’s coed dorms on the campuses of these schools. This is the kind of evolution that used to take 100 years.
Tavis: Because so much happened in 1968, which is why it’s obviously a transformative year in our politics, looking back on it, Lawrence, did 1968 make us more cynical or more skeptical?
O’Donnell: That’s such a fine line. Certainly, much more skeptical, but the thing that had already made us intensely skeptical was November 22, 1963, was watching the President of the United States quite literally get his head blown off on national television.
Dealing with the aftermath of that and simply not knowing, the only thing that could have saved us from the highly skeptical that was going to come from that is a kind of case closed, mystery solved within the week kind of solution.
You know, they had Oswald and then we watch him as he’s moving through the police station get shot and killed on TV by this mystery man, Jack Ruby, and then we are left with a mystery.
And the problem with the mystery is it says to us your country’s out of control. It is out of control because the thing that you would expect to be able to control the most, which is simply the safety and the life of the President of the United States who’s constantly surrounded by armed guards, he’s gone.
And, oh, by the way, the guy who they’re accusing of killing him, he’s been murdered, so we don’t know what he’s going to say. And you’re now left to what? Figure this out? And then there’s a Warren Commission that takes a very long time to give a very unsatisfactory answer, so everyone’s critical facilities came to play on this.
Everybody had a theory and, by the way, they were not called conspiracy theories then. They were simply called theories because no one knew the facts of what this was. Trying to hold that to simply be skepticism and not slide across to cynicism, it ultimately became impossible.
Tavis: So how many times have you heard the question asked how different America might be if, in 1968, they had not assassinated MLK and RFK? You want to talk about that?
O’Donnell: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Is that a sophomoric question?
O’Donnell: No, no, no, because one thing I do at the end of this book is I go through a series of what ifs. Because this campaign here, and this year in American history, has more what ifs than any we could imagine. Beginning with the biggest what if of all is what if a poet had decided not to run for president? Gene McCarthy was a poet as a senator. He’d be hiding in his office writing poetry, not just reading it.
Tavis: It’s the dramatist question.
O’Donnell: Yeah, while he’s supposed to be — that’s the dramatist question. You know, what happens if the poet runs for president? So because Gene runs and succeeds in New Hampshire, Bobby runs. If Bobby didn’t run, he would not have been assassinated. If Bobby had left the stage on the side that he planned to leave the stage on that night in Los Angeles, he wouldn’t have been assassinated.
Sirhan Sirhan was over there, Bobby was supposed to leave this way, he left that way, he’s dead. But MLK, Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated two months before Bobby Kennedy, we get the most horrendous rioting the country had ever seen in the aftermath of that.
If those two men could have lived, they were the two people more than anyone else who could have held so many parts of the country away from the cynicism that were inevitably going to fall into after the assassination of these people.
When you read some of the things that otherwise reasonable men — and I think genuinely reasonable men and women — said after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, it’s in this book, it was a real disgust with America. Columnist Pete Hamill saying, “This is the ugly truth of America, assassination.”
He wasn’t reacting just to Bobby. He was reacting to Martin Luther King two months before. He was reacting to Jack Kennedy before that. He was reacting to Medgar Evers. He was reacting to Malcolm X. He was reacting to the entire lineup of assassinations. It was the assassination decade unlike anything else in our history.
So assassination goes to the very core of the basic things you would like to believe in your citizenship and the very core of the things you want to be able to work, which is, yes, a man can stand up in this country, a woman can stand up in this country, say something that I completely disagree with and completely object to, and not be killed.
And that turned out to not be true. You could sit in this country in 1968 and say, “If you live the life that Martin Luther King, Jr. lived and if you devote yourself to the rights of man the way he did in the most powerful way, if you do that, you can be killed.”
It was very easy to get the feeling in this country, if you do that, you are likely to be killed. And that simply defies everything that is granted to us in the First Amendment. It’s a First Amendment to stand up for whatever you want to, but this is the country that might kill you for it too.
Tavis: If you were going to draw a line from ’68 — since I like round numbers — from ’68 to 2018, a political line, what’s that look like? Just on our politics, from ’68 to 2018?
O’Donnell: Well, all of our current political dynamics were first set in cement in ’68 and then the cement just hardened every year since then. Just one example. At the beginning of 1968, if I said to you I’m a Republican, you didn’t know if I was a liberal or a Democrat, you didn’t know if I was for integration or opposed to it. You knew nothing about me if I said I was a Republican.
They used to have liberal Republicans. At the beginning of the ’68 presidential campaign, a couple of liberal Republicans were among the front runners, including George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York.
Liberal Republican is extinct. It no longer exists. That’s gone, gone forever. Literally, the last liberal Republican standing on a Republican convention stage, was on the 1968 stage, that was Mayor John Lindsay of New York City.
So you have the beginning of the end of liberal Republicans. It was basically the end. They were never contenders again ever in national Republican politics. So they literally just died off and they’re gone. On the other side, on the Democratic side…
Tavis: Before you go there, it’s even hard to find a moderate Republican these days much as — I mean, the liberals, they’re definitely gone.
O’Connell: Yes, and so Nixon intended to drive the party rightward in a way that wasn’t frightening. Because they got the feeling that the 1964 version, which I have to cover extensively in here, with Barry Goldwater, it scared the country too much in his swing rightward.
So the Republican Party moved discreetly, I would say, discreetly rightward in 1968, managed to win the presidency by less than 1% of the vote and then the Republican Party ever since then has been moving farther to the right ever since, just steadily to the right.
Tavis: And the Democrats?
O’Connell: And the Democrats, they were terribly afraid of what happened to them on the left. Gene McCarthy challenged the incumbent president on the left. He opened up this new path which is the left side of the Democratic Party insurgency against the establishment.
Bernie Sanders who was 27 years old in 1968, living in Vermont next door to New Hampshire, watches Gene McCarthy do this. I’m sure not knowing that he’s going to do it in 2016 and run that insurgency on the left of the Democratic Party against the establishment, so he was running the Gene McCarthy play.
So the Democrats then lose in 1968. Part of the institutional establishment of the Democratic Party blames the insurgency on the left, which is actually the only thing that could have saved them, I think. And then in 1972, they lose even worse with George McGovern.
The most liberal nominee any party’s ever had was George McGovern. He lost terribly, so the Democrats’ lesson has been to be afraid of their left edge. You can always see it, how the establishment is always trying to pull away from the left edge. And the Republican lesson of ’68 was to move closer and closer and closer to the right edge of the party.
Tavis: It’s hard to do justice to a book this powerful and this dense in 30 minutes. But the book is called “Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” by Lawrence O’Donnell. Great conversation. Wish I had more time.
O’Donnell: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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