Open Book/Open Mind: Lawrence O’Donnell talks of past and present
By GWEN OREL
President Richard Nixon “invites Ailes into his campaign, and thereby ruins America,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s nightly news show “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.”
The audience applauded. The auditorium at the Montclair Public Library’s Open Book/Open Mind conversation on Sunday, Feb. 4, was standing-room only.
The audience included former Mayor Robert Russo, political analyst and author Jonathan Alter and CNN producer Izzy Povich, who created “The Last Word.”
One audience member, Jack Gavin of West Caldwell, gave out “facts matter” buttons.
O’Donnell had been describing the moment when Nixon, in a makeup chair for television, met Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News; it’s the first line in the television host’s new book “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics.”
Montclair’s Tom Johnson, of Showtime’s weekly documentary series “The Circus: Inside the Biggest Story on Earth,” moderated the conversation.
O’Donnell, relaxed in a black sweater and blazer, read from his book, joking with the crowd that they were missing the Super Bowl to be there and that “this is the closest you’ll get to Rachel Maddow.”
Questions after the event stressed fear of the future.
O’Donnell told the crowd that the only thing he feared, because it could not be repaired, was a nuclear war with North Korea. And, he said, if the president is subpoenaed but the White House closes its gates and a U.S. marshall cannot serve the subpoena then a branch of the government will not be able to do its job. And that’s how there would be a constitutional crisis.
He drew on his experiences as senior adviser to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and as staff director for two Senate committees, while making analogies in his book. O’Donnell was also executive producer and writer for “The West Wing.”
Though his book is about 1968, not the election of 2016, O’Donnell stressed that much of
contemporary politics has its origins in that fraught election. Segregationist governor George Wallace’s former campaign manager, Tom Turnipseed, recognized Trump’s belligerent approach to hecklers as being identical to what Wallace used to do. Wallace’s audiences, O’Donnell said, saw who his enemies were and what they would do to him.
“Cut to 2016, and a presidential candidate saying, ‘I’d like to punch him in the mouth.’”
Prompted by Johnson, O’Donnell read from his book, including a section describing Robert F. Kennedy reading a passage from “Romeo and Juliet” at the Democratic Convention of 1964: “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.”
That passage, suggested by Jackie Kennedy, brought sighs and a few “wows” from the
“It received a 22-minute ovation,” O’Donnell said.
Johnson also asked O’Donnell to talk about “one of the big bangs of the whole ’68 election,” with reverbations to this day: when Senator Gene McCarthy walked out of a Senate Foreign Relations committee and said he might have to run himself as an anti-Vietnam War candidate.
“I can tell you there are moments like that, when senators see how jobs can change,” O’Donnell said.
Johnson also asked O’Donnell about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s surprising on-air declaration that he would not run for re-election.
“It was the single most shocking moment in a political speech in my lifetime,” O’Donnell said. “Shock does not reside in political speeches.”
People who heard LBJ’s speech live would never forget it, “like I know Jonathan can do it now,” he said, pointing to Jonathan Alter.
“‘Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.’
During the Q-and-A, Russo told O’Donnell that he’d begun his career in politics in the 1968 campaign, and that his book meant a lot to him. But he questioned a comment O’Donnell made about Rep. Joe Kennedy III after Kennedy’s response to the State of the Union, which suggested that Joe Kennedy’s grandfather, Bobby, would have responded differently. O’Donnell replied that it was tricky because you’d have to imagine RFK today, but one thing RFK always did well was take into account “the other side.”
He added that he was impressed with the way Kennedy delivered the speech, and that his earnestness had the “Kennedy touch.”
But, he added, “I could have warned him about that lip gloss thing. They always give you too much.”