Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 148

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics," by Lawrence O'Donnell:

Sitting in the makeup chair, Nixon offhandedly mentioned to Ailes how silly it felt to try to reach voters by appearing on an afternoon talk show like this one instead of a news show like Meet the Press. The Mike Douglas Show was targeted at housewives and usually populated by B-list showbiz celebrities. In response, Ailes instantly rattled off a list of every bad move Nixon had ever made on TV. It was a long list. Ailes was a teenager when he had seen some of these things. This was not the way people talked to former vice president Richard Milhous Nixon. There was none of the deference Nixon had been accustomed to for decades. And he loved it. 

Nixon made Ailes an offer he couldn’t refuse: instead of trying to make Mike Douglas America’s biggest afternoon TV star, make Richard Nixon America’s next president. 

With Ailes on the media team, the Nixon campaign was ready to make the move from being the worst TV campaign to the best. “We’re going to build this whole campaign around television,” Nixon told his media team. “You boys just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” 

Roger Ailes’s career in Republican politics, which included every day he ran Fox News, turned out to be longer than Richard Nixon’s. Ailes became more influential in Republican politics than Nixon ever was. We have reason to wonder who would be president today if Richard Nixon had not provoked Roger Ailes in The Mike Douglas Show makeup room. Such are the seeds that were planted in American politics in the 1968 presidential campaign.

They would reach their hands up toward the stage. They would try to touch his shoe, the cuff of his pants, anything. When Bobby reached his hand down to them, a thousand hands would fly up toward him. He would shake each one that he could. It was as if he were blessing them, one by one. When they looked up, they weren’t just seeing Bobby. They were seeing Jaqueline Kennedy in her bloody clothes. They were seeing Bobby and Teddy Kennedy at their brother’s grave site. They were seeing history, painful history. Bobby had a movie star’s smile, but when he smiled, his audiences believed they were seeing a grieving man who was somehow strong enough to smile through his pain. Bobby was the only politician whose smile could make people’s eyes tear. And with those tears in their eyes, when they looked up at Robert Francis Kennedy, they were always seeing John Fitzgerald Kennedy. For them, justice demanded that RFK take JFK’s seat behind the desk in the Oval Office. History demanded it. 

No other politician in our history ever had such an advantage. Or such a burden.

I was in high school in 1968 and I never heard my brothers and their college-age friends talk about career planning. They only talked about how to deal with the draft and Vietnam. There was no long-term planning, no career hopes and dreams. Life was a short-term game for many young men in 1968. It was as if they were prisoners who would only begin to think about life on the outside when they got outside. Their prison was in their pocket, the draft registration card that controlled their lives and blocked their hopes and dreams. 

The presidential election could end all that. The presidential election was a matter of life and death for real people we all knew. That meant that this time running for president didn’t have to be about ego. It meant that running for president couldn’t simply be a matter of political calculation. It meant that it wasn’t just about what was best for Bobby’s future in politics. It was about life and death.

In his pain and horror and loss, feeling every day the sting of having to report to his enemy instead of to his brother, Bobby began to see Johnson as worse than simply a crude man and a bad president. Johnson became, in Bobby’s eyes, a monstrous, demonic force of sheer evil. The assassination changed nothing about LBJ’s attitude toward Bobby. Johnson called him “the little sh*t*ss.” 

At LBJ’s first cabinet meeting, where the new president hoped to count on their full support, Bobby showed up late, making an entrance that drew the cabinet to its feet in respect for his loss. Johnson took that move as a calculated insult. He didn’t rise. Bobby took that move as a calculated insult.

Johnson’s final frustration at the 1964 convention was all about Bobby Kennedy. On the convention’s last night, the Democrats showed a short film honoring JFK. Bobby was scheduled to make a short speech before the film. 

As he came to the podium, the hall went wild. The applause and cheering went on and on. It wouldn’t stop. Television commentators were speechless. No one had ever seen anything like it. Bobby didn’t even try to speak. He waited, looking bashful. When he tried to speak, the applause and cheers got louder. Twenty-two minutes. The longest ovation anyone there had ever seen. Bobby knew it wasn’t for him. It was for the assassinated president who should have been there running for his second term. 

Bobby quoted from Romeo and Juliet. “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.” 

Then Bobby promised his party he was looking not only to the past but to the future. The place exploded again. It was the most moving moment ever seen on an American political stage. 

It was the rawness of the emotion, the intimacy of reverential love, and Bobby’s open, nearly shy reading of Shakespeare that made his speech the glory of the convention. 

Was LBJ “the garish sun,” unworthy of worship when compared to “the face of heaven”? Even someone less paranoid than Johnson might have taken that moment as a declaration of war. 

The truth of what Johnson just saw was not something he could comprehend or imagine. It was not the clever trick of a speechwriter trying to poke an opponent. No political speechwriter in 1964 would want their man invoking Juliet’s blend of female passion, worship, and yearning. 

Adding the Juliet passage was not Bobby’s idea. It was Jackie’s. She had read the speech in draft and at the last minute added the passage. The grieving widow put a female voice in Bobby Kennedy’s beatification of Jack Kennedy. She gave Bobby the words that would mythologize Jack and Bobby at the same time. 

And so, through a Republican senator he trusted, the Democratic president was reaching out to a Republican presidential candidate who he thought was capable of treason in the hope that the candidate would go against his own interests and save the president’s peace talks and help the Democratic candidate for president. This moment was the darkest presidential secret of a very dark year.

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