National Press Club

Book Rap: O’Donnell talks politics then and now

December 14, 2017 | By Dominique Maria Bonessi | dominiquebonessi@gmail.com

Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC (left) talks about his latest book,  “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap, Dec. 13. He's joined on stage by 2016 Club President Thomas Burr, Washington Bureau Chief of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC (left) talks about his latest book, “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap, Dec. 13. He's joined on stage by 2016 Club President Thomas Burr, Washington Bureau Chief of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Talking about his new book on the 1968 election of Richard Nixon as president, Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” on Wednesday night drew strong parallels to the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

“I wanted to write about the craziest presidential campaign we’ve ever had,” O’Donnell said at the National Press Club Headliners Book Rap. He began writing his book, “Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics,” four years ago.

He added that the 2016 presidential campaigns were invented by Nixon in his 1968 campaign, with the exception of “one eccentric candidate.”

Although the victory of Donald Trump as president seems depressing to most people who were not alive in 1968, O’Donnell argued that the time period was much more wild, chaotic and depressing, with the backdrop of the Vietnam War and every American male having a draft card in their pocket with the ability to leave for war at any moment. At that time, 13 years into the Vietnam war, thousands of American soldiers' funerals were taking place.

“Everyone in Boston was anti-war,” said O’Donnell, calling himself the product of 1968. “We were all liberals. No one was on the fence in 1968.”

He admitted that his biases formed during his teenage years and were undone upon researching for the book. As a former Senate staffer, O’Donnell said he wrote the book from the behind-the-scenes perspective of the politicians to help change Americans’ understanding of what really happened.

After voting for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 and seeing President Lyndon B Johnson’s subsequent policies like the bombing of North Vietnam, Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota did a 180.

Ultimately, McCarthy learned in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room that the resolution gave President Johnson authorization to use conventional military force when needed without the approval of Congress. McCarthy left the room without a word, and then said to his chief of staff that he needed to get the Vietnam War on the presidential ballot and if he had to, he would run for president, according to O’Donnell.

Fast forward to 2017 when, in that same committee hearing room on Wednesday, congressmen found out that their approval of the U.S. entering into war with North Korea was mute. Thus, once again, Congress will have no authority over President Trump if he decides to go to war with the nuclear-armed nation.

O’Donnell didn’t shy away from addressing the comparison of politicians’ actions and their consequences, then and now. He recalled 1968’s Republic presidential hopeful George Romney meeting his waterloo on a talk show.

When Romney was asked why he changed his opinion on Vietnam, he replied that the nation “brainwashed'' him while he was visiting it, according to O'Donnell. Romney ultimately accused the U.S. military of using prison-camp tactics, O’Donnell said. After the political gaffe on Vietnam, politicians feared their own Romney moment that could potentially end their career.

O’Donnell sharply juxtaposed Romney to Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, “lying to TV reporters with no consequence of being fired.”