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Framing the Sixties

Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Framing the Sixties
    Book Description:

    Over the past quarter century, American liberals and conservatives alike have invoked memories of the 1960s to define their respective ideological positions and to influence voters. Liberals recall the positive associations of what might be called the “good Sixties”—the “Camelot” years of JFK, the early civil rights movement, and the dreams of the Great Society—while conservatives conjure images of the “bad Sixties”—a time of urban riots, antiwar protests, and countercultural revolt. In Framing the Sixties, Bernard von Bothmer examines this battle over the collective memory of the decade primarily through the lens of presidential politics. He shows how four presidents—Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—each sought to advance his political agenda by consciously shaping public understanding of the meaning of “the Sixties.” He compares not only the way that each depicted the decade as a whole, but also their commentary on a set of specific topics: the presidency of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” initiatives, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. In addition to analyzing the pronouncements of the presidents themselves, von Bothmer draws on interviews he conducted with more than one hundred and twenty cabinet members, speechwriters, advisers, strategists, historians, journalists, and activists from across the political spectrum—from Julian Bond, Daniel Ellsberg, Todd Gitlin, and Arthur Schlesinger to James Baker, Robert Bork, Phyllis Schlafly, and Paul Weyrich. It is no secret that the upheavals of the 1960s opened fissures within American society that have continued to affect the nation’s politics and to intensify its socalled culture wars. What this book documents is the extent to which political leaders, left and right, consciously exploited those divisions by “framing” the memory of that turbulent decade to serve their own partisan interests.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-052-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    B. v. B.
  4. Introduction: FRAMING THE FRAME
    (pp. 1-10)

    “In case you missed it, a few days ago Senator Clinton tried to spend one million dollars on the Woodstock concert museum,” said Senator John McCain, referring to Hillary Clinton at a 2007 Republican presidential debate. “Now, my friends, I wasn’t there,” McCain said. “I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time.” McCain’s next words were drowned out by loud cheers and a sustained standing ovation from the partisan audience. McCain was alluding to the fact that, as a navy pilot, he was captured after being shot down by the North Vietnamese...

  5. 1 “The Sixties”: DEFINING AN ERA
    (pp. 11-27)

    American politicians frequently speak of two 1960s—an earlier part, which they view favorably, and a later part, which they do not. Also, when they say “the sixties,” they tend to mean 1964–1974, not 1960–1969: “the sixties” thus exclude President Kennedy but include President Nixon. Eager as they are to demonize what they dislike about “the sixties,” conservatives owe much to that era. “The sixties” were a gift to the Right, as the decade—along with the Watergate scandal and the loss of the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s—spawned a counterrevolution that subsequently blamed the...

  6. 2 Blaming “the Sixties”: THE RISE OF RONALD REAGAN
    (pp. 28-44)

    By characterizing his political rise as an antidote to the 1960s, Ronald Reagan successfully propelled debate about the decade to the center of American politics. But long before the phrase “the sixties” entered the national vocabulary, before the backlash against the Great Society had begun, and even before Reagan had won his first election in 1966 as governor of California, he expressed his hostility to the liberal ideas associated with the era. The notion of “the sixties” began to take shape during the 1960s themselves, well before the end of the decade, when conservatives such as Reagan started to rail...

  7. 3 A Tale of Two Sixties: REAGAN’S USE OF JFK AND LBJ
    (pp. 45-69)

    Reagan may have demonized the 1960s throughout his presidency, but he was always careful to distinguish between the Kennedy and the Johnson years. Reagan must have felt almost as much disdain for the Kennedy administration as he did for Johnson’s—he voted for neither candidate and publicly criticized each—but as president he could not openly say so, for the Kennedy myth had grown much too powerful by the 1980s. So Reagan simply co-opted Kennedy and claimed to admire him as much as anyone else. One thing Reagan learned in show business was that there was nothing to be gained...

  8. 4 Reagan and the Memory of the Vietnam War
    (pp. 70-92)

    While President Ronald Reagan blamed the 1960s for many problems, he saw as its greatest sin the shattering of the nation’s morale. The country had ceased to believe in itself, he said in 1980. Reagan vowed to renew America by curing the Vietnam syndrome, broadly defined as a reluctance to project military force abroad after the defeat in Vietnam. Nine years later, in his farewell address, he confidently claimed that he had lifted the lingering malaise of “the sixties” and Vietnam. Yet however deftly he tried to exorcise it, the pain of the Vietnam misadventure restricted Reagan’s ability and even...

  9. 5 Remembering Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement: GEORGE H. W. BUSH’S 1960s
    (pp. 93-112)

    George H. W. Bush’s positions on the critical issues of the 1960s played a prominent role in his presidency. He referred often to the Vietnam War as well as to the civil rights movement. The 1988 election turned in large part on memories of the 1960s, as Bush used the themes of patriotism, race, and crime to discredit the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Like Reagan, Bush constantly used the “bad sixties” as a stick to beat his opponents, blaming the era for Americans’ reluctance to employ military force and a decline in patriotism, among other ills. Bush also...

  10. 6 George H. W. Bush and the Great Society
    (pp. 113-130)

    Fundamental to George H. W. Bush’s sentiments toward the 1960s was the belief that the government was encouraging bad personal behavior. He consistently attacked the Great Society, asserting that the ambitious government programs of the 1960s had failed. He argued that his own volunteerism program, “A Thousand Points of Light,” would improve society more than Johnson’s government programs had. Bush’s response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and Dan Quayle’s 1992 “Murphy Brown” speech show how the Right continued to blame the 1960s for the nation’s ills. Though Democrats sharply questioned Bush’s negative view of the Great Society’s impact, he...

  11. 7 Bill Clinton and the Heroes of the 1960s: USING LIBERAL ICONS FOR CONSERVATIVE ENDS
    (pp. 131-157)

    The 1960s figured prominently in Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton and his supporters tried to identify themselves with the idealism of the early 1960s: John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps, and Martin Luther King and the pre-1965 civil rights movement, while Clinton’s detractors tried to link him with the second half of the decade, focusing on his having avoided the draft, smoked marijuana, and strayed from his marriage. Clinton’s presidency was defined by this battle between his supporters, who valued his origins in the “good sixties,” and his opponents, who hated the hallmarks of the “bad sixties” that they saw in...

  12. 8 Vietnam and “the Sixties” in the Clinton Presidency
    (pp. 158-178)

    Soon after the 1992 election Bill Clinton received a letter from Robert McNamara, JFK and LBJ’s defense secretary. “For me—and I believe the nation as well—the Vietnam War finally ended the day you were elected president,” he wrote. McNamara had decided to write on hearing of Clinton’s friendship at Oxford with roommate Frank Aller, a draft resister who committed suicide in 1971. “By their votes, the American people, at long last, recognized that the Allers and the Clintons, when they questioned the wisdom and the morality of their government’s decisions relating to Vietnam, were no less patriotic than...

  13. 9 The “Un-Sixties” Candidate: GEORGE W. BUSH
    (pp. 179-199)

    As the end of the Clinton presidency drew near, the political use of the 1960s only intensified. The leading Republican candidate, Texas governor George W. Bush, was openly hostile to the decade that shaped his generation. While presidents before him (Ronald Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton) differentiated between the “good sixties” and the “bad sixties,” Bush drew no such distinctions. Consistently he characterized the 1960s as an era that destroyed all the good his father’s “Greatest Generation” had achieved. Above all, he envisioned his own presidency as a personal mission to restore the nation and society he...

    (pp. 200-220)

    The 2004 election campaign reignited the simmering fight over discordant memories of the 1960s by focusing on the most painful issue of that time: the war in Vietnam. The Democrats tried to take advantage of nominee Senator John Kerry’s distinguished service record in the war: Kerry, a navy lieutenant, was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat V for valor, and three Purple hearts. As a decorated hero, to the Democrats he seemed emblematic of the “good sixties”: a selfless volunteer who answered John Kennedy’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” by joining the...

  15. Conclusion: THE PERSISTENT POWER OF THE 1960s
    (pp. 221-232)

    Liberal Democrats recall the 1960s as a high point of American idealism. They long for the sense of promise of John Kennedy’s presidency, exemplified by the Peace Corps, the New Frontier, and the feeling of optimism Kennedy inspired. Liberals also admire the Great Society’s efforts—and accomplishments—in fighting poverty, improving health care, and providing educational opportunities to all Americans. The nobility of the civil rights movement and the revolutionary civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s remain for many Democrats the peak of America’s quest for social justice in the twentieth century. Today’s liberals also admire the spirited attempt by...

    (pp. 233-240)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 241-282)
  18. Index
    (pp. 283-290)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-292)