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Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from George W. Bush. By Bernard von Bothmer. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. Pp. x, 290. $80.00 cloth; $28.95 paper)

The sixties, Bernard von Bothmer argues, are "dead" but "not buried" (p. 232).Von Bothmer analyzes how memories of that tumultuous decade have been exploited for political profit. National leaders, he explains, have partitioned the era into the "good sixties" (1960 to 1963) and the "bad sixties" (1964 to 1974). The former was the age of John F. Kennedy, a "strong national defense, a tough stance against communist expansion, peaceful civil rights protests, and persistence of 'traditional' standards of dress, expression, and family" while the latter, spanning the controversial presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, was a less-than-placid time of "urban riots, antiwar protests, difficulties in fighting the Vietnam War, increased incivility, crime, drug abuse, and social unrest" (p. 2). In subsequent years, Republican presidents blamed the Democrats for the problems associated with the late sixties while poaching what they liked from the early sixties. In contrast, the Democrats, in so many ways shattered by decade's upheavals, tried to reclaim the mantle of JFK, civil rights, and the liberation impulse that helped define the 1960s while also attacking its self-absorption and excesses.

Von Bothmer proves his point in a tightly drawn, crisply written [End Page 274] exploration of four presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Reagan and both Bushes denounced the domestic side of the mid- and late-1960s, that is, the costly failures of the Great Society, rising rates of crime, declining expressions of patriotism, and the rise of an increasingly permissive culture, emblemized by what the younger Bush derided as an "if it feels good, do it" mentality (p. 198). Having gotten the upper hand in this debate, Republicans went further, citing JFK's endorsement of tax cuts, anticommunism, and a muscular defense posture to justify their conservative agenda; interestingly, Reagan "quoted Kennedy more than any other predecessor" (p. 47). Thereafter, the elder Bush sought to replace parts of the Great Society with voluntary efforts while co-opting the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. whom he cast, not as a critic of American racism and a pacifist, but as a man of faith, individual initiative, and racial reconciliation—all at a time when Bush was disparaging affirmative action. The most intriguing of these presidents was Clinton. To offset aspects of his background that seemed to embody the bad sixties—avoiding the draft, smoking pot, and straying from his wife—Clinton identified with iconic figures of the good sixties. He publicized his handshake with JFK, compared Americorps to the Peace Corps, exalted King, and cited Robert F. Kennedy's ability to appeal to both blue-collar whites and racial minorities as a foretaste of New Democrat-style moderation—Clinton's "Third Way" (p. 9). He also made a noteworthy effort to banish the ghosts of the Vietnam War by opening diplomatic relations with Hanoi. Reagan and Bush, in contrast, praised the nobility of America's effort in Indochina while boasting that, on their watch, the United States had restored its military and ended its post-Vietnam reluctance to commit troops overseas. In truth, under Reagan and the elder Bush, the United States intervened in small conflicts that were fairly short in duration and had limited, achievable objectives. In other words, the American failure in Vietnam continued—and continues—to cast a long shadow.

A fine study such as this usually leaves one wanting more. The [End Page 275] missing man in von Bothmer's book is Nixon, who was both a figure of the sixties and an early exploiter of its excesses. The recent war in Iraq also demands a fuller comparison with Vietnam. And a more extensive examination of the secondary literature would have enabled the author to analyze more deeply the historical abuses of the decade. Yet these are lesser matters. Von Bothmer has done a superb job interviewing historians, politicians, consultants, and assorted pundits on the role of the 1960s in recent presidencies...


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pp. 274-276
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