Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. By Bernard yon Bothmer. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. 290 pp.
You know a decade has made it to a new level of significance when historians not only write a library of books about its main themes and events, but also write ones about what people later thought about the era and how politicians used the 1960s to further their own political goals.
Framing the Sixties "examines the ways in which four presidents ... used their own selective versions of the 1960s for political gain in the years from 1980 to 2004" (p. 2). Specifically, the book focuses on the presidents' conscious manipulation of five topics: John E Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, and the sixties era. The author contends, and then demonstrates convincingly, that each president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush offered his own conception of the decade.
The sources that the author used are impressive. Presidential communications and speeches, radio and television addresses, comments and statements to reporters, and memoirs of the presidents and of numerous staff members. Moreover, yon Bothmer interviewed 122 politicians, speech writers, cabinet members, advisors, journalists, historians, and activists across the political spectrum. Both liberals and conservatives expressed strong views on the five topics. "Indeed, the majority did not want to stop talking ... the tensions of the 1960s have not cooled" (pp. 4-5).
There are a few problems with this book--as the author admits in his Introduction. He was able to interview only ten women and two African Americans; many others turned down interviews. And others are voiceless. The opinions of activists in the streets in the turbulent decade, of the massive counterculture, of the various empowerment and liberation movements, are not in this book, resulting in a narrative mostly based on the views of white liberal and conservative politicos. As the author admits, what results on these pages is the views of "insiders and elites: the view from above" (p. 5).
Most of the results are not surprising to anyone who lived through and studied these presidential administrations. Ronald Reagan had been running against the sixties when he was governor of California and continually spoke out against the excesses of the era when he was president. In response to nationwide increased sexual activity and drug...