An excellent account of the 1968 presidential race, a political season of spoilers, outsiders, and broken machines eerily like our own time.
It makes for a fascinating thought experiment to imagine what might have become of America and the world had Robert F. Kennedy been elected president in 1968. He was, after all, the only Democrat who could “beat President Johnson, and then beat any Republican”—good reason, as MSNBC political commentator O’Donnell (Deadly Force: The True Story of How a Badge Can Become a License to Kill, 1983) recounts in this sharp, nuanced account of the election cycle, for Democratic leaders to press an initially reluctant Kennedy to run. When they did, they effectively betrayed party stalwart Eugene McCarthy, whose “legions of antiwar student supporters were sounding angry at the possibility of Bobby trying to steal Gene’s thunder” and who distinguished himself as an “antiwar candidate credibly challenging a war-making president.” But Kennedy was assassinated, the Democratic Party splintered into liberal and conservative wings, and Richard Nixon maneuvered his way to the Republican candidacy past a green but definitely interested Ronald Reagan, who had “won the governorship [of California] by beating the man who beat Richard Nixon for the governorship.” Nixon was helped along by an emerging TV executive named Roger Ailes, who would soon perfect a brand of yellow journalism that runs strong today and who recognized that “the most powerful force blocking Nixon’s path to the White House was television,” with its remorseless attention to darting eyes, mutters, and five o’clock shadows. Notes O’Donnell, “Ailes became more influential in Republican politics than Nixon ever was,” giving the 1968 campaign a dimension of continuing influence—for if no Nixon, then no Trump, who shares with the disgraced president more than unprecedentedly huge armies of protestors at their respective inaugurations.
A careful, circumstantial study that compares favorably to Theodore H. White’s presidents series and that politics junkies will find irresistible.