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Publisher's Summary

From the host of MSNBC's The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, an important and enthralling new account of the presidential election that changed everything, the race that created American politics as we know it today.

The 1968 US presidential election was the young Lawrence O'Donnell's political awakening, and in the decades since it has remained one of his abiding fascinations. For years he has deployed one of America's shrewdest political minds to understanding its dynamics, not just because it is fascinating in itself but because in it is contained the essence of what makes America different and how we got to where we are now. Playing with Fire represents O'Donnell's master class in American electioneering, embedded in the epic human drama of a system and a country coming apart at the seams in real time.

Nothing went according to the script. LBJ was confident he'd dispatch with Nixon, the GOP frontrunner; Johnson's greatest fear and real nemesis was RFK. But Kennedy and his team, despite their loathing of the president, weren't prepared to challenge their own party's incumbent. Then, out of nowhere, Eugene McCarthy shocked everyone with his disloyalty and threw his hat in the ring to run against the president and the Vietnam War. A revolution seemed to be taking place, and LBJ, humiliated and bitter, began to look mortal. Then RFK leapt in, LBJ dropped out, and all hell broke loose. Two assassinations and a week of bloody riots in Chicago around the Democratic Convention later, and the old Democratic Party was a smoldering ruin, and, in the last triumph of old machine politics, Hubert Humphrey stood alone in the wreckage.

Suddenly Nixon was the frontrunner, having masterfully maintained a smooth façade behind which he feverishly held his party's right and left wings in the fold, through a succession of ruthless maneuvers to see off George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and the great outside threat to his new Southern Strategy, the arch-segregationist George Wallace. But then, amazingly, Humphrey began to close, and so, in late October, Nixon pulled off one of the greatest dirty tricks in American political history, an act that may well meet the statutory definition of treason. The tone was set for Watergate and all else that was to follow, all the way through to today.

©2017 Lawrence O'Donnell (P)2017 Penguin Audio

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Brilliant synthesis of history past and present

Lawrence O’Donnell combines an impressive command of facts with exceptional skill in the art of storytelling. His account of the radical transformation of the political convictions of so many Americans in that single, fateful, traumatic election year touches me deeply, as one who experienced that transformation personally. The rich portraits of that diverse cast of characters from my parents’ generation, almost all gone now, offer so much crucial insight into the counterpart cast of characters of my own generation, up to and including the most deplorable contemporaries, now mirroring Nixon in ways unimaginable until the fateful year just past. The narrative of losing Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, so familiar, brings painful tears one more time for what might have been. O’Donnells mastery rises to Shakespearean, quite fitting for a historical arc encompassing material for perhaps half a dozen Shakespearean tragedies.

27 of 29 people found this review helpful

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I learned so much.

I lived through the 60’s and thought I was aware. Listening to Playing with Fire brought a lot back but more importantly helped me to understand what was really going on. The story of that era was well written and difficult to put down. I would advise you to have a listen, you won’t regret it.

16 of 17 people found this review helpful

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Lawrence O'Donnell delivers a powerhouse book

Being old enough to remember some of the 1968 election, I certainly didn't know the details behind the headlines. Lawrence O'Donnell made them come alive in this book.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Interesting, full of information, but biased view

The author of this book, Lawrence O’Donnell, is a well connected pundit who apparently has good connections with those people involved in the 1968 Republican and Democratic nominations as the information in this book is very detailed. I was an adult of voting age at the time of the 1968 election and was paying careful attention to what was going on during the Primary season and during the election, but much of the information in this book either was not public or escaped me, and I learned a lot from reading the book. The general outline of what happened, the McCarthy campaign, Bobby Kennedy being in, and then out, and then in the race, the terrible King and Kennedy assassinations, the riots during the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and much else was constantly in the news so it was not possible to be paying attention and not know what was happening in general terms. But much of the information in this book involves actions that took place behind the scenes and although there may have been rumors about some things covered in this book, the actual details were not public, so I am indebted to Mr O’Donnell for much he has written about the period in question.

The book is extremely well written, full of information not generally available to the public at the time and conveys his passion about the subject, and so fills in much background information, and is thus very helpful. However the book is also suffused with Mr O’Donnell’s own political biases and that colors much of what he has written. This bias is clear during his telling of the events of 1967 and 1968, but is impossible to ignore during the epilog where all of what appears to be his anger spills out. Mr O’Donnell is a self described socialist and he described his own political views by saying “I lie to the extreme left, the extreme left of you mere liberals” and he has made those views crystal clear in this book.

In Mr O’Donnell’s world it appears that those who supported Richard Nixon, regardless of the reasons they did so, must be segregationists or consumed by hate, those who supported Hubert Humphrey, regardless of the reasons they did so, must have been war mongers, those who opposed the violence of the street demonstrations must have been fascists and those rioting in the streets were doing so only for the purist of reasons. Given that bias, and how it colors what he has written, many of his conclusions have to be taken with extreme caution. Thus, in his view, those opposed to a unilateral suspension of the bombing of North Viet Nam caused unnecessary American combat deaths, regardless of the views of the US generals in charge. Thus the students rioting in the streets were responsible for reducing combat deaths by bringing the war to an earlier end without giving consideration to the views of those who considered the rioting students to be prolonging the war by encouraging the North Vietnamese to resist coming to the peace table. Thus Lyndon Johnson was guilty of keeping his war strategy secret, as though previous American Presidents had made their war strategy open and public.

Mr O’Donnell narrates this book, and does a superb job doing so. His voice is clear, concise and conveys much of his emotion. As I said, the book is extremely well written and full of information that I was not aware of at the time, and I would have given this book 5 stars had it not been for the tone of lecturing and the veneer of bias displayed during the retelling of both the highlight and depths of the 1968 election campaign.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Drew
  • Green Brook, NJ, United States
  • 02-15-18

Perspective and honesty

A wonderful job by Lawrence which left me pleasantly surprised. Unknown (to me) details, multiple perspectives, and an honest positioning of how and why things happened. It’s been said that history is a great teacher if you pay attention. In that light, this is required content. You will be informed, frustrated, and entertained.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Tom
  • Warm Springs, Georgia
  • 02-03-18

Memories.

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 exhilaration, frustration, adrenaline and pain of that year for those of us who lived it. The Dream will Not Die! Even now.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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TO UNDERSTAND 2016 ELECTION YOU MUST READ THIS!

Lawrence O'Donnell excellently narrates his book Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics. One will better understand the insanity, racism & treason in 2016 better by seeing the playbook for these behaviors. I urge you to buy it.

8 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • Carl U.
  • Marin County, California
  • 06-07-18

Living History

As a person who lived as a man just entering adulthood in 1968, and one who was keenly aware of the polictics of the day this book was both a reminder and a glimpse behind the scenes. O'Donnell's narration is a very good one. A bit of his personal views on the situaiton come through but not enough to flavor the material do any signifiant degree. The material is both enlightening and a engaging. I love reading/listening to books on history but do not often have the chance to read about history I lived through. I recommend this book hightly to history fans of that era, especially those old enough to have lived it.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent

Lawerence O'Donnell should become a mystery writer and narrator. This book reads like fiction, but we know its true. A really great book. I highly reccommend it.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent!

As someone who came of age during the sixties, I found this book mesmerizing. Even those of us who had little interest in politics during that time were forced to question our country’s direction as our friends and classmates died in a far off land. Those who returned suffered and continue to suffer physical and mental disabilities. Thank you, Mr. O’Donnell.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful