Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at his WEBSITE
Author: Bernard von Bothmer
As Framing the Sixties was published by a university press (University of Massachusetts) and authored by an American history professor (the University of San Francisco), the general reader might fear this study is intended for the academic audience alone. True, this fresh analysis of presidential history should indeed prove useful for researchers and students of the U.S. political scene. But Bernard von Bothmer has provided a valuable service for anyone interested in understanding how our leaders have manipulated the facts and myths of the 1960s to champion their various agendas in the White House since 1980.
von Bothmer’s premise is quickly and clearly defined: that,
beginning with Ronald Reagan, presidents and would-be presidents
looked to cultural and political events of the 1960s as sign posts to
disparage their political opposition or point to past ills as reasons
for their own policies and ideology. In particular, Conservatives and
Liberals alike came to divide the decade into two parts: the “Good
Sixties” which revolved around the idealism of John F. Kennedy and
the “Bad Sixties” which the right claimed, and claims, set the
stage for many problems that followed. In particular, Reagan, the two
Bushes, and the Republican candidates that ran against Bill Clinton
saw Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives as setting the stage
for too much government spending, the creation of the welfare state,
and erosion of personal responsibility. In addition, Republican
opposition to creating Martin Luther King Day was but one example of
how not everyone saw the advances in civil rights as a move forward.
Of course, presidential campaigns and international policies have
remained, despite rhetoric otherwise, under the shadow of Vietnam.
And leaders decrying a perceived decline in morality also point to
the “counter-culture” of the Sixties as a means to label
Democratic Baby Boomers as tainted by a lack of patriotism, spoiled
by a “do what you like” philosophy. As a result, the Dems have
been forced to be on the defensive, having to frame their own
arguments in “Good Sixties” terms and choose candidates as
insulated as possible from the “Bad Sixties.”
While many of these points might seem obvious, what von Bothmer demonstrates is just how prevalent reactions to the Sixties were in presidential thought. Those from the World War II generation like Reagan and the first Bush saw the Sixties as a sad turning point in American history and what happened during those years set a course that had to be reversed. Perhaps the major surprise of the book was just how significant these beliefs were throughout the decades that followed. Not only does von Bothmer provide example after example from presidential speeches, memoirs, and journals, he draws on interviews with more than one hundred and twenty insiders to establish just how much discussion behind closed doors revolved around perceptions of the Sixties and their legacy.
Equally interesting is how elections pitting Baby Boomers vs. Baby Boomers were framed by their pasts. The candidacy of John Kerry, for example, was seen to be viable due to his volunteer service during Vietnam, a hoped-for deflection from Republican claims the Dems are weak on national defense. But Republican strategists were able to frame Kerry as an unpatriotic cultural elitist with a series of lies and distortions, able to portray Bush and Dick Chaney as being more credible voices for military support despite both being past evaders of military service. In short, the first two elections of the Twenty-First Century had as much to do with reactions to the Sixties as they did current issues.
What makes this book more than credible is its reliance on primary sources to build the case, most notably Presidential speeches, leaving the reader room for their own analysis of what was said, by whom, when, and with what purpose. Using these quotations, the author shows that, to this day, both Republicans and Democrats evoke the memory of John F. Kennedy as a useful touchstone while the name of Lyndon Johnson has been rarely mentioned even by those who supported or agree with the legislation he pushed through for civil and voting rights, Medicare, and the “War on Poverty.” Of course, emotional rhetoric has rarely squared with fact. For example, while Ronald Reagan repeatedly claimed he was successful in putting the failure of Vietnam in the rearview mirror, his administration was continually forced to refrain from international interventions precisely because any potential armed conflicts would inevitably be measured by whether or not another Vietnam might be the result.
While some might think von Bothmer is hard on Republican leadership, it’s clear they have been overwhelmingly successful in publicly framing the Sixties and its icons as aberrations in American history. As a result, von Bothmer has only one Democratic president to explore and then mostly through the attacks his opposers threw at him. In the end, von Bothmer believes the parties will continue to frame the Sixties until the Baby Boom generation has left the political scene. Even through the 2008 election, both sides of the spectrum still saw the decade as a historical fault line roughly equivalent to the Civil War. Both sides still have problems with past events—the left unhappy about Vietnam, the right the “Great Society.” For the right, the decade set in motion cultural problems still to be resolved. For the left, it contained progressive ideals that have been lost. The 2008 election clearly continued the long debate with Obama making strong connections to JFK while the right attempted to link him with a member of the Weather Underground. For Bernard von Bothmer, and those convinced by his argument, we’re not done with the Sixties yet.