We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Framing the Sixties

The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush

Bernard von Bothmer

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


pdf iconDownload PDF

Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. i

Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. iii

Table of Contents

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. vii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. ix-x

I am indebted to a great many people for the completion of this book. The project began under the thoughtful guidance of Michael McGerr at Indiana University, a mentor of the very highest order. His invaluable advice always steered me in the right direction. I also benefited from my work at Indiana with Nick Cullather and John Bodnar and from their early commentary on the manuscript...

read more

Introduction: Framing the Frame

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 1: “The Sixties”: Defining an Era

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 2: Blaming “the Sixties”: The Rise of Ronald Reagan

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 3: A Tale of Two Sixties: Reagan’s Use of JFK and LBJ

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 4: Reagan and the Memory of the Vietnam War

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 5: Remembering Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement: George H. W. Bush’s 1960s

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 6: George H. W. Bush and the Great Society

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 7: Bill Clinton and the Heroes of the 1960s: Using Liberal Icons for Conservative Ends

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 8: Vietnam and “the Sixties” in the Clinton Presidency

pdf iconDownload PDF
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. “...

read more

Chapter 9: The “Un-Sixties” Candidate: George W. Bush

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

read more

Chapter 10: Framing John Kerry: The 2004 Presidential Campaign and “the Sixties”

pdf iconDownload PDF
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”...

read more

Conclusion: The Persistent Power of the 1960s

pdf iconDownload PDF
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...

Appendix: Alphabetical List and Identifications of Individuals Interviewed

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 233-239


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 241-282


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 283-290

Back Cover

pdf iconDownload PDF

E-ISBN-13: 9781613760529
E-ISBN-10: 1613760523
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497313
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497315

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794700488
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Framing the Sixties

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Presidents -- United States -- History -- 21st century.
  • Political culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Liberalism -- United States.
  • Conservatism -- United States.
  • United States -- History -- 1961-1969.
  • Presidents -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1960-1980.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1981-1989.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1989-.
  • Political culture -- United States -- History -- 21st century.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access