Lawrence O’Donnell chronicles ‘out of control’ 1968 presidential election in new book

Lawrence O’Donnell
Lawrence O’Donnell

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell would like to remind you that however chaotic you think the last presidential election was, the 1968 election was even nuttier. That may not be comforting, but it is illuminating.

“[The 2016 presidential election] really was a completely normal campaign year with one extremely eccentric character,” says the Dorchester native. “In 1968, virtually the whole system was out of control.”

That’s the subject of O’Donnell’s new book, “Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics,” which went on sale this week. O’Donnell says the election that put Richard Nixon in the White House was full of “the kind of characters that Shakespeare would put on a page.”


That the book is coming out now — after perhaps the second-most chaotic presidential election — is kind of perfect timing.

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“The worst thing for me would have been if it had come out right before the Trump campaign,” says O’Donnell. “It would have been nothing but a story of a time long ago. I would not have seen its connective tissue to the present.”

He says there are parallels between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the raucous crusade of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was the candidate of the American Independent Party in 1968.

“Wallace was the first presidential candidate to welcome the protestors in his audience as a way of showing how tough he was, and he confronted them and yelled back at them and called them names,” O’Donnell said. “Trump took exactly that method into his rallies.”

O’Donnell says hosting “The Last Word” — it airs at 10 p.m. on MSNBC — helped him finish the book.


“I discovered, to my surprise, that writing for live television made me a faster writer. The thing about live TV is that it simply has to be done, there’s no space for procrastination,” he said.

O’Donnell’s other writing credits include several episodes of the Emmy Award-winning series “The West Wing.” He rarely re-watches the show, but proudly says, “They are among the most durable episodes of television ever produced.

“I don’t think you lose anything by watching one now. You don’t have a lesser experience than we had when we were watching them in their first broadcast on Wednesday nights at 9 o’clock.”

O’Donnell will talk about his new book Thursday at a Harvard Bookstore event at First Parish Church in Cambridge.