Commentary: Washington Post Political Bookworm
The 1960s vanished a half century ago but the political images live on – and show little sign of abandoning our collective consciousness anytime soon. In the past 25 years in particular, political leaders have drawn on 1960s memories to define their ideological positions and sway voters. In “Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush,” published by University of Massachusetts Press, Bernard von Bothmer explores how the White House has advanced its political agenda by shaping the way the public thinks of the 1960s. Von Bothmer teaches American history at the University of San Francisco and at Dominican University of California. Here, he examines the persistence of that fertile decade and reflects on echos of the era in the Tea Party movement today.
By Bernard von Bothmer
Those darn ’60s just won’t go away and die, will they?
A May letters section in the New York Times, entitled, “Fighting About the ‘60s All Over Again,” expressed a variety of opinions about the controversy over the squeeky-clean Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s past statements regarding his service during the Vietnam War. Former South Dakota Republican Senator Larry Pressler had given his own two-cents to the debate the day before in a controversial Times opinion piece, “The Technicality Generation.” It’s no wonder that Blumenthal’s Republican challenger, Linda McMahon, is currently focusing on this issue from the ’60s to try to slam Blumenthal to the mat.
The recent flap over Blumenthal is yet another example of how we still have not fully come to terms with the ’60s. Just look at the many ways that the 1960s continue to define our politics, and the many ways that we reflexively turn to the era to try to understand America today.
Take the Tea Party. Many commentators and historians see comparisons between the Tea Party and the rise of the Right in the 1960s. The New York Times had a fascinating piece that finds the root of the Tea party in ’60s-era conservatives. “The Tea Party supporters recycle their language from the conservative movements of the early 1960s in response to the Kennedy presidency,” the story argues, noting later that one can find in the Tea Party “echoes of the early 1960s.”
The Tea Party reminds the Washington Post’s Colbert King of anger found in the 1960s, specifically the anger of those who opposed the civil rights movement. The Tea Party, he argues, can be traced back to the likes of George Wallace and the KKK.
Yet to New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Tea Party movement, “The Wal-Mart Hippies,” reminds him of the 1960s. Personally, I did not see the link, nor did many readers, including, on the left, Todd Gitlin, and on the right, former Texas Congressman and current Tea Party activist Dick Armey.
Even Obama’s pick of Elena Kagan as his nominee to the Supreme Court has been viewed through the prism of the 1960s, in this case through the right’s successful backlash against the ’60s. “But much like every other Democratic nominee since the 1960s, she does not fit the profile sought by the left, which hungers for a full-throated counterweight to the court’s conservative leader, Justice Antonin Scalia,” wrote Peter Baker in The New York Times, arguing that since the 1960s, “conservatives have largely succeeded in framing the debate, putting liberals on the defensive.”
This, of course, is not a recent phenomenon. We’ve been arguing about the ’60s ever since Ronald Reagan invented something called ’60s back in the 1960s themselves.
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. Yet is remarkable to observe 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.
“Despite a forty-year remove, the tumult of the sixties and the subsequent backlash continues to drive our political discourse,” wrote Barack Obama in 2006 in “The Audacity of Hope.” When he announced announce his presidential run in January 2007, Obama expressed his desire to have America’s leaders move beyond the preoccupations of the baby boomers.
My reaction when I read his speech? “Good luck, Senator. It’s not going to happen.”
Eventually we will get over the 1960s, just as we got over the 1860s, the 1890s, and the 1930s. When every voice heard here has fallen silent, we will be done talking about the 1960s—but only then.
By Steven E. Levingston | July 6, 2010; 5:30 AM ET