Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics
Penguin, $50.95 hb, 430 pp, 9780399563140
It was the year an American presidential candidate declared: ‘We got too much dignity in government now; what we need is some meanness.’ Even without this call to arms, meanness was abundant. A prominent journalist, on live television, derided a rival as a ‘queer’ and harangued him for having written a novel about a transsexual. The mayor of Chicago screamed, ‘Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch,’ at a senator. A leading Republican privately told a journalist to ‘ask a psychiatrist’ about one of his party’s candidates. Another Republican said the party’s presidential nominee could not lose unless ‘he committed rape in public’. The Republican vice-presidential candidate called a Japanese-American reporter a ‘fat Jap’.
Violence was plentiful, too, at home and abroad. The United States was mired in an unwinnable war and riven by political divisions that erupted into street battles and riots. The Democratic Party fissured between an establishment candidate and an insurgency rooted in a youth revolt. Media guru Roger Ailes orchestrated an election campaign that blurred the lines between politics and entertainment. An actor tried to be taken seriously as a national politician.