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Even Jack Kennedy Was No JFK: Historian Sees Politicians Continue to Play the Myth

"The way the nation commemorates the tragedy in Dallas tells us much about the present," says presidential historian Bernard von Bothmer, author of Framing the Sixties.
  • <strong>Framing the Sixties by Bernard von Bothmer</strong>
    SAN FRANCISCO, CA, November 12, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Half a century after his assassination, the Kennedy myth still carries the power to evoke nostalgia from both ends of the political spectrum--though for quite different reasons. Both the right and left, according to historian Bernard von Bothmer, long for the Kennedy era. "The way the nation commemorates the tragedy in Dallas tells us much about the present," says von Bothmer, who teaches history at the University of San Francisco and at Dominican University of California. The author of Framing the Sixties (University of Massachusetts Press), a critical examination of that decade's outsized influence on current presidential politics, sees liberals longing for the idealism, hope, and sense of promise of the early 1960s, while Republicans, he argues, are convinced that Democrats veered sharply to the left after the events of November 22, 1963, never to return.

"Both the right, and left, paradoxically, are each nostalgic for the Kennedy era," says von Bothmer, recipient of USF's 2010 Distinguished Lecturer Award for Excellence in Teaching. "Democrats today view Kennedy as a liberal icon, while many conservatives vehemently argue that JFK would actually be a Republican today. Few figures in 20th-century America can be cited politically in such diametrically opposite ways."

Von Bothmer's premise is simple: The 1960s, far from being a unified era, can actually be divided into "the good 1960s"--from Kennedy's inauguration through his assassination, a time of progress and possibility, and "the bad 60s," which, at least for the right, were a turn toward the permissive counterculture from which the nation has never quite recovered. "What we today refer to as 'the sixties,' really starts with the assassination in 1963, and ends with Nixon's resignation in 1974." Kennedy's death, von Bothmer contends, ushered in a "whole new era in American history, representing a real break with the past. The trauma of the assassination was a watershed moment in the American experience, one still reverberating--and being capitalized on--half a century later."

Indeed, politicians on both ends of the aisle have been invoking JFK for their own purposes, none perhaps as prolifically as Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who loudly demonized the 1960s (even during them), was quite careful to distinguish between the Kennedy years and the Johnson years in public though disdaining both in private. Reagan, the Great Communicator, adroitly leveraged the myth of John Kennedy and the longing for him. "Reagan simply co-opted Kennedy as much as anyone," writes von Bothmer. "One thing he learned in show business was that there was nothing to be gained by attacking another performer, especially a beloved dead one. Instead, he astutely, and explicitly, used JFK to his political advantage by claiming to agree with his policies."

The way the nation commemorates the tragedy in Dallas fifty years ago tells us much about our present sense of self. "Nostalgia for JFK speaks directly to our dissatisfaction with the present and with the course of American history after 1963," says von Bothmer. "'If only Kennedy had lived,' we think to ourselves. And everyone climbs on board for their own political ends."

Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush
By Bernard von Bothmer
University of Massachusetts Press
$28.95 paper, ISBN 978-1-55849-732-0

About the author

Bernard von Bothmer teaches American history at the University of San Francisco and at Dominican University of California. He was born and raised in New York City and received a BA with honors from Brown University, an MA from Stanford University, and a PhD in American history from Indiana University. He is the author of Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush (University of Massachusetts Press). Professor von Bothmer received USF's 2010 Distinguished Lecturer Award for Excellence in Teaching.

For further information, visit the author's website at www.framingthesixties.com

Media contact: Victor Gulotta
Gulotta Communications, Inc.
617-630-9286
http://www.booktours.com
victor(at)booktours(dot)com


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