“Framing the Sixties” Exposes the Scapegoating of an Era

Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush
Bernard von Bothmer
University of Massachusetts Press, 2010

Bernard von Bothmer's fascinating look at the 1960's – and the ways the decade has been portrayed by political winners and wannabes – adds an important chapter to our understanding of the domestic right wing. While progressives have also called up images from this beleaguered decade, conservatives have triumphed in seven of the last 11 presidential elections – 1968 to 2008 – victories that can be partially attributed to backlash against sixties excesses, both real and imagined.

“Nostalgia,” von Bothmer writes:

plays an integral part in contemporary American political culture. For the right, the 1960s replaced an earlier version of America in which the country was moral and just. The 1960s elicited anger by questioning this cherished notion – and arguing that the nation needed to change. The 1960s rejection of traditional values challenged the established view of American exceptionalism, and in doing so eventually destroyed liberalism and propelled the modern right to power.

Forget such pesky things as Jim Crow and equal rights for women. All but the archest of archconservatives will concede that tinkering was needed to correct egregious racism and sexism. This shift led, von Bothmer continues, to a bizarre splitting of the 1960's into two parts: the good sixties and the bad sixties.

The good sixties, he writes, ran from 1960 to 1964 and included John Fitzgerald and Robert Kennedy, the nonviolent resistance of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Act, the 1963 March on Washington and the activists who pushed for racial integration as part of the beloved community.

On the flip side, he continues, are the bad sixties, which ran from mid-decade to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Among the markers of this period: the sexual revolution, Roe v. Wade, escalating protests against the Vietnam War, the Stonewall Rebellion, urban riots and the growing influence of groups such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.

According to von Bothmer, the right wing places the antipoverty policies of President Lyndon Baines Johnson squarely atop the bad sixties heap. Johnson, he writes, is blamed for fueling the so-called culture of poverty. Worse, the safety net Johnson created is lambasted as the worst thing the feds could possibly have done and as fostering dependence on government instead of self-sufficiency.

This theme was first voiced in Ronald Reagan's 1966 bid for California's statehouse when the Great Communicator argued that the “Creative Society,” not the Great Society, was what was needed. “The Great Society grows greater every day,” Reagan told the eager minions who listened to his campaign speeches. “Greater in cost, greater in inefficiency and greater in waste.” His solution? Volunteerism. Years later, in 1989, George Bush Sr. would pick up this mantle in positing “A Thousand Points of Light” as the solution to growing social needs. But it was Reagan who planted the seeds, arguing that government should reduce its scope and be less involved in people's everyday lives. “Since the nation has traditionally fought poverty without federal interference,” Reagan argued, “the Creative Society marks a return to the people of the privilege of self-government.”

The residue of this “privilege” was seen in Bill Clinton's “end of welfare as we know it,” and in the 1996 scaling back of social programs that were created in response to the political unrest of the 1960's. Still, it was the United States' loss of the Vietnam War that iced the cake of right-wing fury. Again, Reagan was at the helm. Von Bothmer writes that:

At the 1980 Republican National Convention, running against Carter's record and the assorted woes of the 1970s, Reagan emphasized, as he would during his presidency, that the 1960s were at the root of many of the nation's problems. During the era, he charged, America had lost its way: The problems of the 1970s were merely the outgrowth of the previous decade's faulty policies…. He would return America to the promise and prosperity of that happier time before the 1960s. Vowing to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose, he called for a national crusade to make America great again. A key part of this restoration involved rebuilding a military demoralized after Vietnam and restoring an assertive foreign policy.

“It's morning in America,” Reagan announced. And, of course, nothing says morning better than a swift, victorious military action. As von Bothmer explains, “One way Reagan addressed the Vietnam syndrome was through an invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 after a coup by the People's Revolutionary Government, which Reagan saw as a Marxist threat to American interests and security.” Orchestrated just two days after terrorists killed 241 US servicemen, the decisive incursion – launched without consulting Congressional leadership – was expected to eliminate some of the bitter aftereffects of losing that conflict. Apparently, it worked: von Bothmer reports that 63 percent of the US public supported the aggressive foray.

Go figure.

The quick triumph, von Bothmer adds, cheered disgruntled cold warriors and conservatives. Yet it was just a first step. The US defeat in Vietnam continued to rankle, and the right wing knew it had to construct a new narrative to explain it. In the reconfigured version, the military did not lose because it was inferior; it lost because its soldiers “were denied permission to win” by a government that was weak on defense and that refused to see Vietnam as “a noble cause.”

“Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win,” Reagan railed. Fabrications about soldiers returning to an ungrateful nation became a fixture of his speeches. In addition, ramped up patriotism served as an antidote to sixties liberalism and its espousal of peace and love.

Nonetheless, Reagan did not work alone. Help in countering the lingering effects of the bad 1960's came from both major parties and politicians – from George H.W. Bush, to Clinton, to Bush Junior – who have zeroed in on the decade's failings.

In fact, W's faux folksiness and anti-intellectualism were used as cudgels to beat what he – and Karl Rove – called “the sixties symptoms still infecting America: elitism, cynicism, anti-Americanism and self-absorption enforced by a penchant for psychobabble.”

By the 2004 presidential race, the 1960's were used to blindside Democratic contender John Kerry. Relentless smears were articulated in an attempt to link him to the bad years, the period in which the decorated war hero renounced his medals and became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “We did not want one of these Woodstock characters in the White House,” one Republican told von Bothmer.

Bush, a man with a history of substance abuse who had skirted active military service in Vietnam, was so successful in tarnishing Kerry that he skated to victory. By presenting himself as a God-fearing, born-again Christian who was family-oriented and believed in tradition, he represented the good, nothing-to-fear years of pre-1960's mythology.

Obama, not born until 1961, represents a shift from this good/bad dichotomy. That said, the right wing continues to dredge up the sixties in its attempt to blame them for every flaw in contemporary life. The so-called culture wars continue to rage and, perhaps nostalgic for the good 1960's – before queers took to the streets, before women flooded the workforce and before a family of color lived in the White House – have taken on new urgency. Indeed, conservatives seem ascendant.

At the same time, we need to remember that backlash works both ways. It's now our turn. Yes, it is evening in America, but there is much to be done before we sleep.