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Book Review: Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush by Bernard von Bothmer

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Bernard von Bothmer explores the political use of the 1960s in Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush Bothmer teaches American history at the Dominican University of California and the University of San Francisco. He has a nose for research and it shows, as his book is packed with copious notes and facts. Bothmer interviewed more than 120 sources for Framing the Sixties, doing thte bulk of the comprehensive research in 2004 and 2005.

The book concerns itself first with defining the “good” sixties and the “bad” sixties, noting that one’s political persuasion has a lot to do with one’s perception of the era. Bothmer suggests that “the sixties” did not “begin on time,” citing Peter Collier. Instead, “the sixties,” at least in terms of political value, likely began around 1963.

JFKSays Thomas C. Reed, special assistant to President Reagan: “‘The sixties’ are a short form for Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara bringing to an end all the hopes and dreams that were based on the Eisenhower years and then blossomed with the Kennedy election.”

The sixties, Bothmer posits, are less about specifics and more about idealogies. Further to that, the “bad” sixties and “good” sixties run along the same gamut; one’s political persuasion decides not only when “the sixties” took place in the arena of ideas but also how “good” or “bad” the decade was.

“The ‘good sixties’ were John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, the Peace Corps, Martin Luther King, the integrationists, the civil rights movement, the March on Washington in 1963, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the figures like Congressman John Lewis,” suggests Democratic speechwriter David Kusnet. “The ‘bad sixties’ start with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the escalation of protests at home.”

After setting the table, Bothmer discusses how the presidents from Reagan to George W. Bush “used and abused” the era, using excerpts from various speeches and sources to provide insight about the views of the leaders.

Ronald Reagan’s compelling use of JFK makes for good reading, with Bothmer exploring the president’s often conflicting views of Kennedy. Reagan’s views on Vietnam and “the Vietnam syndrome” are also explored.

vietnam war protestsFor George H.W. Bush, much like for Ronald Reagan, the sixties represented a loss of patriotism that needed restoration. Bush’s view of the era was, to say the least, less than favourable. Curt Smith, Bush’s speechwriter, noted that the president considered the era especially “immoral” and “the antithesis of what he embodies as a human being.”

Bill Clinton, as you might have guessed, approached the sixties in a completely different way. His use of the imagery of Kennedy and King served him well, as he carefully identified himself with the liberal icons of the era while distancing himself from the “bad sixties.” Even so, Clinton’s use of distance from LBJ proved to be a vehicle of opportunity for the president, as identifying with the creator of the “Great Society” was still considered political suicide.

Finally, George W. Bush’s hostility towards the “decade that shaped his generation” was perhaps the greatest of all among the presidents discussed in the book. Bothmer cites Bush’s love for the “early stuff” of the Beatles before they “got strange” as a way of contrasting the president with his competition (Al Gore). Bush also attacked his predecessor (Clinton) by painting him as a “60s radical” interested in stripping away the military.

Bothmer concludes Framing the Sixties by exploring how the sixties still carries influence today in politics. John McCain’s allusions to the sixties were numerous, as were Barack Obama’s, and the trend doesn’t appear to be running out of steam.

For many Americans, the sixties may well be the ultimate cultural litmus test. Bothmer’s book explores how the era’s influence in politics has shaped how the country’s leaders try to sell themselves to the public and how one’s views of the sixties influences politics and policy.

Framing the Sixties is a well-researched, intelligent read and Bothmer does well to guide the path. The author stays out of the fray, for the most part, and lets his countless subjects and sources do the talking. This approach serves the subject matter well, as it really does dig at the heart of the matter.

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