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Reagan's '60s--a Strange Trip

Presidential library exhibit is a flashback with a viewpoint that is decidedly rose-colored, yet unintentionally amusing.


That history is genuinely democratic, that anyone who lives through an era can lay claim to it, may be self-evident. Even so, something seems peculiar about going to see the installation called "Back to the '60s" at the Ronald Reagan Library. After all, why would a resident bastion of conservatism celebrate the era of questioned authority and torn social fabrics?

Somewhere in the cross-fire of elements behind this show are the makings of unintentionally funny and irony-laden installation art. "Back to the '60s" may have more in common with the incendiary visions of the late assemblage artist Ed Keinholz, currently down the road at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, than anyone planned or imagined.

We've generally been conditioned to view the '60s as a ferocious transitional period in the social and cultural evolution of America, one that somehow belongs to the counterculture. This exhibition was mounted in honor of the 30th anniversary of Reagan's election as California's governor. But, as a conservative politician who locked horns with Berkeley radicals, he became a perceived enemy of the social reform front.

So it's hard to fend off a what's-wrong-with-this-picture sensation as you walk through the facility's front door and find an enlarged photo of the Beatles in their "Sgt. Pepper's" regalia. Questions arise: Would John Lennon approve of this use of their image in a Republican temple? Did the organizers choose this image because the Beatles' music was generally apolitical, or because of the military uniforms?

Needless to say, the exhibition is a not-so-shining example of historical revisionism masquerading as an objective, glossy time trip, a Time-Life coffee table book in 3-D. The '60s, via the Reagan Library treatment, is viewed in a sanitized way more as an extension of the '50s, through rose-colored hindsight.


As a placard reads, "the chasm between generations grew as wide as it has ever been, even as parents' generosity bought children a comfortable life and a good education." Of course, it couldn't buy indifference to social and ecological ills.

Most of the highlights of the epoch are covered, though in strange and often slanted ways. We enter the exhibit on relatively innocent and neutral turf, with a replica of a space capsule. Another replica conveys a less benign impression: In the section devoted to the Cold War, we see a happy suburban family hunkered down, looking almost cozy, in their fallout shelter, next to a life-size recreation of a shelter. We were a people who learned to live with the specter of nuclear oblivion, right in our backyard.

The section detailing the problems of race relations during the '60s is fairly generous. But, audaciously, it features a few paintings of racially tense situations by none other than Norman Rockwell, that blanched sentimentalist. Imagine if Steven Spielberg directed "Malcolm X" instead of Spike Lee.

The Vietnam room is something else again, a tribute to the necessary evil and the underlying valor of the war. As an eerie soundtrack, a video loop of Bob Hope's USO shows runs on a television. We witness the hell and the heroism of the conflict, while Hope keeps up a running commentary of distraction, as when he says to fellow entertainer Ann-Margret, "do you spell that with a hyphen? . . . I spell it with an exclamation point."

Despite a small photo of the My Lai carnage, the prevailing message delivered in this gallery is that the Vietnam War, the most controversial war in our nation's history, was a skirmish with a cause.

Finally, in the back room of the exhibit, the realm of pop and counterculture are dealt with. A display case is stuffed with fizzy pop icons like Sonny and Cher and yet another Sgt. Pepper image. Innocent kitsch is the rule. A '60s living room is set up against a wall, replete with a table with tapered legs and a putrid yellow couch. And speaking of putrid yellow: Isn't that what-me-worry happy face symbol so ominously displayed here actually a relic of the '70s, not the '60s?

But they can't completely evade or whitewash the issue of cultural and political conflict, this, after all, being the '60s. Bloated plaster figures of hippies, rendered with the same crudity as the sadistic East German soldier in the "Cold War" section of the show, are seen painting anti-war placards next to a VW bug. Tucked away inconspicuously on the back of a pillar are photos and text chronicling the anti-war movement.


Reagan, who starting in the early '60s was lured into verbal combat with seminal free speech activists in California, is quoted as saying, "they were carrying signs that said 'make love not war.' The only trouble was they didn't look like they were capable of doing either." Naturally, Reagan has the last say here. It's his place.

The lack of objectivity in the exhibition is to be expected, but it reveals much more about its partisan perspective than it probably intends to. Because of that, the exhibit's intrigue increases: It becomes an object lesson in the vagaries of history.

Even without special exhibitions such as this one, the Reagan Library's palatial, self-aggrandizing kitschiness can be its own reward, whatever your political persuasion. But they've outdone themselves this time. "Back to the '60s" revels in the crazy, hazy days of an era defined through the eyes of the beholder. Along the way, the show eloquently demonstrates the impossibility of objectivity.


* WHAT: "Back to the '60s."

* WHERE: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley.

* WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Sunday; through March.

* CALL: 522-8444.

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