Bigger Than the Beatles

UC Irvine professor Jon Wieners fight for John Lennons FBI file reveals something ugly about democracy in America

"The '60s had no monopoly on either activism or virtue," he said. "In the '80s, there was a huge no-nukes movement. The environmental movement did not significantly develop until after the '60s, and its implications are broader for everyone on the planet. The women's movement is a product of the '70s. All came after the '60s, and each one is more far-reaching and deals with many more people."

His current students' views of the '60s fascinate him.

"There are many different subcultures here at UCI. There are groups that identify with the '60s and others that have critiques, like they didn't treat women right or they didn't pay enough attention to the environment. Many students have a vague sense of the '60s' optimism and experimentalism, and they realize how closed-in everything is today. It's a harder period to live in."

Every year, Wiener takes his Cold War Culture class to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. Despite the battle of wits with Taylor, Wiener loves venturing into enemy territory, considering the Land of Dick tour a "highlight for me. We get a big UCI van with an anteater on the side and visit there for an afternoon."

He and other scholars would never rely on the Nixon Library—or, to be fair, any presidential library—for serious research because of the one-sided view presented. "It is the way Nixon defined his presidency, his ideology," Wiener says of the library. "It's a fascinating example of how to construct a story." He considers the Watergate section "sad," not because it reopens the gaping hole the Nixon White House drove through the nation's heart, but because it's horribly, horribly incomplete.

"When they opened the Nixon Library, they said it would have all three Watergate smoking-gun tapes," Wiener said. "They have one, and it's not the right part of it. Frankly, it's dishonest."

Worse, the display is in a dark, uninviting corridor.

"Library directors know what they're doing. They have made sure this is a place where you wouldn't want to dwell."

The part of the compound where Wiener likes to dwell is the Nixon family's tiny, simple wood-frame house. Pointing to the shamed president's autobiography, which occupies an honored spot in Wiener's campus office, he remarked, "The first line says, 'I was born in the house my father built.' The birthplace is an incredibly vivid and intense evocation of small town, rural Southern California of those times. His father was a failure. From this unlikely spot came . . ."

He leaves it to his guest to complete the sentence.

The unwanted attention Lennon received from the Nixon White House is nothing new when you consider the fate of other radicals in this country, Wiener explained in his UCI lecture. "There was McCarthyism and the World War I Red scare," he said. "The only thing unusual about this is it happened to John Lennon."

When Lennon married Yoko Ono in March 1969, they immediately became pop culture's power couple. They celebrated their union by staying in bed in Amsterdam for a week as an avant-garde expression of pain and suffering in a war-torn world. Daylong news conferences were held for whoever showed up. News agencies from around the planet couldn't resist.

"They thought the protest marches had become boring and outmoded," Wiener said. "They were looking for new forms of protest to engage people who had never been part of a protest before. They rejected the view—widely held in the protest movement—of television's corporate domination. Their idea was to subvert the media while working in the media, to undermine them if only briefly and sporadically. This was obviously a dangerous but bold and creative strategy based on a laudable commitment to reach a new audience for the anti-war message."

The Amsterdam bed-in got so much attention that the couple decided to bring it to the United States in the summer of 1969 since, as Wiener noted, "the U.S. was killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that year." But Lennon and Ono were not allowed in the country, so they went to Montreal and held a bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. On the last night there, they recorded a new song Lennon had written, "Give Peace a Chance." Instead of having Paul, George and Ringo on backup vocals, Lennon featured the likes of Dick Gregory, Tommy Smothers and the Canadian chapter of the Hare Krishnas. In July 1969, this first non-Beatles single released by a Beatle shot up to No. 14 on the American charts and received Top 40 airplay for nine weeks.

In November of that year, an anti-war demonstration—the biggest in U.S. history—was held in Washington, D.C. Folk singer Pete Seeger invited demonstrators to sing Lennon's new song "while Richard Nixon sat in the White House with his friend Bebe Rebozo watching football," Wiener noted.

Not everybody on the Left was pleased. "Radicals considered the song weak," Wiener said. "I had friends who'd sing, 'All we are saying is give the dictatorship of the proletariat a chance.' The criticism here was Lennon lacked politics."

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