When making the stroll from Fromm Hall down to the freshman dorms, it’s impossible to ignore that USF has a distinct cultural and political vibe. From the ever-present, didgeridoo-playing bands of Marley fans in Harney Plaza to Garden Project and service learning requirement, the university frames itself as a tolerant, fun-loving liberal haven.
Bernard von Bothmer, author of the newly released, “Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush,” would argue USF’s hippie-esque atmosphere is typical of a larger political trend, which equates the terms liberal or radical with the counterculture of the ‘bad’1960s and the ‘good sixties’ of JFK and Camelot with the right wing.
Von Bothmer, who received his Ph. D. from Indiana University and is now an adjunct professor of US history at USF, filters this tendency through the lens of presidential politics, particularly the ways former US presidents have used the legacy of the sixties for political gain. From Clinton keeping his personal distance from the memory of Lyndon Johnson, to Bush the elder’s determination to ‘kick’ the Vietnam syndrome, von Bothmer has painstakingly uncovered stores of documents which highlight what he calls the ‘use and abuse’ of the decade in presidential speeches and political advertisements.
According to von Bothmer, he chose to study the 1960s’ through presidential politics because the connections between the two had not been published.
“This is a very unique study which I think explains so much of the politics for the last thirty years. I wrote this book because I wanted to explain present day politics through history,” von Bothmer said.
In his research, von Bothmer spoke to everyone from James Baker, former Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury to the Reagan administration, as well as Secretary of State to George H.W. Bush, to Noam Chomsky in an effort to piece together first-hand accounts of post-Vietnam politics.
“Each interview was special in its own way, giving different insights into all of the different ways we frame the 60s’,” von Bothmer said. “I really felt I was getting the inside story from people who were there and knew and worked for these presidents.”
“Framing the Sixties,” officially released on February 1, saw its campus debut on February 23, where a crowd of students and professors gathered to hear von Bothmer discuss his work, as well as pick up copies of their own. Von Bothmer’s first book has already received high praise—and not only on-campus.
Tom Brokaw, former anchor of the NBC Nightly News and author of “Boom! Talking About the Sixties,” called the book a “smart, impressively researched account of the decade that far too often is reduced to clichés by the left and the right. This book will be invaluable to anyone eager to know the real story behind […] that tumultuous time.”
Obama-Era politics are not exempt from being reduced to what Brokaw calls “clichés”. von Bothmer stressed that for Obama, it is necessary to keep from being associated with President Johnson, something he has already been careful to avoid and adopt the tactic of both Clinton and Reagan by “hijacking the JFK comparison” that was made throughout his presidential campaign.
Obama is not the only way the 1960s’ will impact the youth of today for von Bothmer. The author also made sure to note that by demonizing the sixties, we also demonize political activity.
“We have to be careful about romanticizing the 60s’, but at the same time, we can’t discount them. Idealism is important—it’s a hope for a better tomorrow and it’s sad that those dreams have disappeared since the end of the sixties.”
He also sees hope in the future, however, and in the memory of those who came out of the culture dominated by the “silent generation of the 50s’” and broke down barriers in the following decade.
“As a teacher, I stress to my students that democracy can’t function if people are disengaged and so I encourage them to keep reading the paper or keep up with current events. Young people need to know this history and how they’re being manipulated. Don’t let politics on either side of the aisle frame politics for you; learn it for yourself, find out what really went on and what’s going on now.”
von Bothmer’s next on-campus talk—outside of the classroom, that is—will be as a participant on a panel discussion, alongside Uldis Kruze, also of the history department, on the legacy of Howard Zinn, a prominent American author, historian, and activist. The panel will take place at 12:30 p.m. on March 30th and the location has yet to be announced.
For information on how you can purchase “Framing the Sixties,” as well as a list of upcoming appearances by the author and his blog chronicling contemporary uses and abuses of the 1960s’, visit www.FramingtheSixties.com.