Framing the Sixties
The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush
How presidents and other prominent figures have shaped public memory of the turbulent 1960s
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 so-called 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.
"This fine book illustrates the truth of the maxim that history is what the present wants to know about the past. To understand why the meaning of the 1960s remains a critical matter for both conservatives and liberals, Bernard von Bothmer’s careful study is the place to start."—Michael Kazin, co-author, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s
"No decade of recent U.S. history has been mythologized like the Sixties. Historian Bernard von Bothmer has done a marvelous job of setting the historical record straight in Framing the Sixties. Instead of relying on staid orthodoxy von Bothmer analyzes the spin factor irresponsibly promulgated by both right and left. A truly important and essential study."—Douglas Brinkley, author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War
"The Sixties: Ronald Reagan cherry-picked what he wanted and used the rest as a reason to oppose government; George H. W. Bush condensed them into the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ that he used for another war; Bill Clinton ran parallel to the decade for political safety; George W. Bush twisted the Sixties to defeat one of its iconic figures, John Kerry. These framings, richly sourced for us with interviews with high-level Republicans and Democrats and speeches archived in presidential libraries, will be the crown jewel in syllabi for Sixties courses."—Jerry Lembcke, author of Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal
"This is a smartly written work on the political uses and misuses of history. . . . An excellent analysis. Essential."—Choice
"Provides a fine winning account of a decade of U. S. history. . . . College-level American history collections strong in political and social analysis need this."—Midwest Book Review
"With the advent of popular 24/7 cable news channels, Americans have become even more addicted to the news than ever before. Depending on one's age, however, one is likely to perceive it in different ways. For the political junky, there is a very interesting look at the 1960s and how it shaped politics. . . . With a historian's precision the author shows how that decade and the one that followed shaped the nation's political choices."—Bookviews by Alan Caruba
"Von Bothmer details numerous overgeneralizations, misstatements of facts, and revised personal biographies as politicians adjust their ideas and past actions to modern political trends."—Journal of American History
"Sharply argued, provocative, and accessible, Framing the Sixties is destined to find a place on the bookshelves of scholars and in the syllabi of courses dealing with the presidency, public memory, and the 1960s."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society