UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener has mined books, lectures and a documentary film consulting gig out of the FBI spying on John Lennon at the behest of the Richard Nixon White House. So when TheNewNixon.org featured a post this week on Nixon-era surveillance of Leonard Bernstein, you had to wonder how one of the site's frothing Nixonpologists was going to brand ol' Lenny a threat to mom and apple pie to justify Dick's paranoia.
Refreshingly, that did not happen.
Blogger Frank Gannon--who served as a fellow in Richard Nixon's White House from 1971 to 1974, accompanied the freshly resigned president to San Clemente aboard Air Force One, organized the researching and writing of the President's memoirs, RN, and yet at one time worked as the "comedy arbiter" on David Letterman's NBC show--has instead composed a thoughtful look at some strange days indeed.
What's even more fascinating is Gannon's later involvement in the event that sparked the White House's interest in Bernstein in the first place. More on that in a bit. First, the hook that got Gannon to blog about this:
Last week on The New Yorker's website, music critic Alex Ross wrote three articles based on newly released Freedom of Information Act-obtained government documents regarding inquiries into composer-conductor-polymath Leonard Bernstein's politics. They include an 800-page FBI file, memos from the Nixon White House Special Investigation Unit (aka Plumbers), and several taped conversations between RN and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman regarding the impending premiere of Bernstein's Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center in September 1971.
Gannon then goes into a long explanation on how Bernstein first got on the FBI's radar, during the Harry Truman administration. It was completely understandable: young and not yet nearly as internationally known and beloved in the mid-1940s, Bernstein was about to meet with Israel's new president. Who could fault the government for doing a background check?
Unfortunately for Lenny, he leaned to the Left, and a decade later that put him in the crosshairs of Joe McCarthy's goon squad. During the sixties, Bernstein became enamored with the Black Panthers. So by the time the composer came to the attention of the Nixon White House, his FBI file was thick.
But, again, at least based on Gannon's telling, you could not blame the ever-paranoid president's henchmen for shading Bernstein. He'd been hired by Jacqueline Kennedy (by then, Jackie O) to compose a piece he would title Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers for the Kennedy Center's opening, something Nixon would be invited to.
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Bernstein and others involved in the production were stridently anti-war, and when it was discovered that part of the composition would be spoken in Latin, there were fears that the president could be televised applauding peacenik messages without knowing what had been said. Based on the intel (which Gannon documents quite thoroughly), the White House actually came up with a sensible solution: Nixon would give up his presidential box to Jackie for the opening featuring the Mass opera she had commissioned. He would attend the National Symphony's opening of the Center's Concert Hall the following night.
Gannon's involvement regards the critical as opposed to political reaction to Bernstein's composition. The New York Times' chief music critic Harold Schonberg was savage in his damnation: "A combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies' magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce." Other reviews ranged ranged from lukewarm to downright hostile.
The only glowing review among major national publications appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and, as Gannon writes, "that review was written by, of all people, a new member of the Nixon White House staff --only on board since 2 August-- who was working in the small room he shared with Dick Cheney in Don Rumsfeld's second floor West Wing suite. . . . And that fellow was.....me."
Gannon goes into a lengthy description of why he loved Bernstein's Mass, which was eventually embraced by audiences. Its recording remains the best-selling multi-disc classical recording of all time. Not to be missed the story of how Bernstein was seated next to Gannon years later, how Gannon recounted his Journal review to Bernstein and how ol' Lenny reacted to that encounter. Only in America.