Playing With Fire. Lawrence O’Donnell.

O’Donnell, Lawrence. Playing With Fire. Penguin, New York, 2017. NF;1/18.

You didn’t have to be an American to have been affected by US political events of the late 1960s, any more than you have to be one now to feel worried about them. I think Lawrence O’Donnell is right in his idea that history for the whole world was changed by several unexpected and unprecedented things that happened during those years, and like many other people my life changed too. There is a welter of “what if’s” about 1968 including of course the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. This very detailed colloquially written history culminating in the election of Richard Nixon in November 1968 comes to us from a clear (and currently popular) politically left point of view. But it’s still a fascinating and not-badly-balanced read.

Lawrence O’Donnell elsewhere describes himself as a “European socialist”, and as being “to the extreme left of you mere liberals”. Yet as author he doesn’t come across as a raver although he’s much more journalistic than any history academic. He was a television political commentator and had his own news shows as well as working in TV drama as a producer and occasional actor. He got in trouble a couple of times for intemperate comments on TV (although not quite as badly as William Buckley Jr for his 1968 famous televised violent homophobic diatribe against Gore Vidal described in this book and available on YouTube. It’s not as if baby boomers invented the left and the right…). I was impressed with the wonderful detail of meetings and conversations O’Donnell gives us and as someone not educated in the United States I learned a lot about the pre-convention primary system and the way party conventions and elections operate there. I was caught up with fascination while being informed about the events of the primaries, the assassinations, the party conventions, and the election.

Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat who was vice president when John Kennedy was killed in 1963, was trying to maintain American forces and win the war in Vietnam, and at the same time attempting to negotiate with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Bobby Kennedy eventually entered the race for the 1968 Democratic nomination for president along with Eugene McCarthy, who was in favour of withdrawing from the war. Hubert Humphrey was the vice president and ran as well once Johnson announced he was out of contention. Nixon, who had publicly given up politics several years before, proved to be an extremely effective politician on the Republican side, defeating at the Miami Beach convention Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller among others to grab the nomination. Bobby Kennedy of course was shot shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, leaving McCarthy as the main “anti-war” candidate coming up to the Democratic convention in Chicago. The city as the convention occurred was chaotic with confrontations between Mayor Daley’s police and various kinds of protesters. Nixon of course easily beat the Democratic nominee, Humphrey, continued the war, and was eventually impeached.

I at age 21 in 1968, just returned from a year hitchhiking in Europe, knew little really of these important events except to have seen snippets of them on TV. Although I had been an enthusiastic hippie since 1965, I realized if I was ever going to become a doctor I had to grow up and work hard, and I did (work hard at least), but it took a few years for me, English lit and philosophy major, to get my science grades to a level acceptable to medical schools. My life during the Nixon years wasn’t much fun. I was isolated, socially diffident, self-absorbed, and lost except for determination to get into medicine. My mother got sick and died, I had no love and it seemed no friends, and for some reason I felt I had to set my inner life right in an atmosphere of marijuana paranoia. I don’t know what I would have done if I had lived in the United States and added to those woes I’d had either to avoid the draft or to risk my life in an Asian war.

For me, “the 60s” of peace, free love, flower power, and getting high were over in 1968. But for all of us in my generation born after World War II, the years preceding the critical political events in that year shaped our thinking in ways we couldn’t understand at the time. We didn’t know that from our late adolescence and young adult world a conflict that would split America in half was coming into focus. Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, a right-wing intellectual periodical, this month characterized the result of that historic time like this: “sexualized victimhood is a typical, and a typically malignant, product of that gigantic exercise in narcissistic self-absorption, the 1960s.” But the new left, created in those years, helped most of us develop a healthy habit of questioning authority and sympathy for troubled people of all kinds we might otherwise not have had. Louis Menard however in his New Yorker review of Playing With Fire this month ended the article by characterizing us young people in the 60s thus: “like young people in any era most of them were like their parents.”

And it’s funny not only do I sense some truth in that (thinking of my hedonistic, determined but risk-taking mother and my sensible, steadfastly decent but fearful dad) I also see at this moment, almost 71 years old, that my kids in many ways resemble my wife and me. And surprisingly they’re doing just fine. It’s not so bad alongside recognizing your personal shortcomings to understand that you have to balance strong sentiments with common sense, and your own interest with that of other people.

Sadly I fear American politics in 2018 could cause our good fortune to take the same kind of turn for the worse that politics did for the world, and life did for me, in 1968.

I deeply hope not. 8.6/8.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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