Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Bernard von Bothmer has written a highly readable and impressively researched account of the ways in which presidents and would-be presidents have framed and exploited the major events, key figures, and general zeitgeist of the 1960s. Framing the Sixties is grounded in some 120 research interviews (helpfully listed in an appendix) that the author conducted with figures influential either in the decade itself, or in subsequent efforts to "frame" or interpret its meaning to the electorate. The book thus offers a particularly useful resource to students of history, political science, and communication studies. The latter, in particular, will appreciate the many former presidential speechwriters consulted by the author. Their insights are especially relevant to the questions of how public perceptions of the decade have both empowered and constrained recent presidencies.
Von Bothmer argues that Ronald Reagan and his successors, including a reluctant Bill Clinton, fashioned a largely mythical divide between what one might call the "good sixties" and the "bad sixties." Conservative presidents since Reagan have adeptly manipulated the public's gauzy memories of Camelot in a cynical (and largely successful) effort to co-opt the muscular optimism of the Kennedy years for their own purposes. At the same time, the social permissiveness, racial discord, violence, and (above all) antiwar activism that characterized the late 1960s have been, according to von Bothmer, a godsend to conservative politicians. Consequently, liberals and progressives have often found themselves on the defensive in recent decades, chained to the "bad sixties" by their misguided or unscrupulous political opponents.
Von Bothmer's book is organized chronologically, though, given the nature of his thesis, certain themes recur across chapters, particularly the so-called Viemam Syndrome. Although the term originated in the late 1970s in an apolitical context, the Vietnam Syndrome was transformed by Ronald Reagan into a condensing symbol for the shame, sense of betrayal, and feeling of national impotence that haunted the American psyche in the years after the fall of Saigon. As von Bothmer explains it, putting the Vietnam Syndrome to rest became a major preoccupation of postsixties presidents. Baby Boomer candidates (Clinton, Bush, Gore), in particular, struggled in their own ways to overcome, or capitalize on, the legacy of Vietnam. Von Bothmer hints hopefully that with the election of our first postboomer president, national politics may finally escape the dead hand of Vietnam.
The rhetorical construction of Martin Luther King Jr. by various chief executives and the uses to which King has been put by Republican presidents represents another recurring theme in Framing the Sixties. Granting this premise, it is indeed maddening that Republican politicians (routinely conflated with social conservatives in this book) have enlisted King's legacy to thwart one social justice initiative after another. But such is the price of apotheosizing King, yon Bothmer implies. Now anyone may claim King as a booster, even those who have no "right" to do so.
Von Bothmer's handling of the rhetorical legacies of Vietnam and King illumines a tendency toward political essentialism that unfortunately diminishes the scholarly value of his fine book. Rather than viewing memories as mutable, Framing the Sixties presumes the existence of an authorized (liberal/progressive) reading of the decade's historical record. Deviations from this reading represent either callow (Reagan) or deliberate (George W. Bush) distortions foisted on an unsuspecting and malleable public that must be verified against more objective accounts of the era. Indeed, conservatives come across in Framing the Sixties as almost genetically disposed to manipulate public memory for political gain, a syndrome that somehow does not afflict progressives.
In short, I believe the book would have been more useful to scholars had the author started from the premise that public memory of 1960s remains "contested territory" and that politicians of all stripes have framed it in ways friendly to their own needs. Certainly, yon Bothmer's extensive research would make such a work possible. Indeed, the book's closing chapter comes much closer to providing readers with this kind of balanced analysis. Still, a companion volume exploring the rhetorical uses of the decade by progressive politicians would be a welcome addition to the scholarship on a turbulent decade whose legacy remains a force in American politics.
Perhaps, my own response to Framing the Sixties is proof enough that my (Baby Boomer) generation continues to be haunted by the ambiguities of that now distant decade. We can all hope, with the book's author, that a new generation of political leaders will be free at last from its thrall.
--Charles J. G. Griffin
Kansas State University
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|Author:||Griffin, Charles J.G.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 3, 2011|
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