MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

When Lennon sang, 'Give Peace a Chance,' Nixon and his cronies replied, 'Scram'

September 13, 2006
For the past dozen years, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have made a pretty decent living churning out rockumentaries and video biographies of several generations worth of pop-culture icons, ranging from Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante to Brian Wilson and Jonathan Winters. Indeed, a scan of their resumes might suggest that cable television would be in deep trouble if they stopped collaborating on the kinds of celebrity profiles repeated endlessly on such networks as A&E, Bravo, TBS, TNT, CMT, TLC and National Geographic.
Their revelatory new documentary, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” breaks the mold by starting out in theaters, before touching down on VH1. It opens in Los Angeles and New York Friday, before moving into the hinterlands on Sept. 29.
Lennon’s contributions to pop music in the second half of the 20th Century have been exhaustively recorded, dissected and analyzed ever since the Beatles emerged as one of the greatest cultural phenomenon in recorded history. Likewise, his marriage to performance artist Yoko Ono has been scrutinized with the same intensity usually reserved for the tax returns of mob chieftains. Lennon’s untimely death assured that the mythologizing would continue apace for generations to come.
“The U.S. vs. John Lennon” focuses tightly on a relatively brief period in Lennon’s life, during which the Luvable Moptop became a prime target for the dirty tricksters of the Nixon White House. At a time when Republican lawmakers were in position to end the war in Vietnam and mend the economy, a pinhead potentate from South Carolina — longtime senator Strom Thurmond — convinced President Richard M. Nixon to worry, instead, about a musician whose rallying cry was, “Give Peace a Chance.” The ability of such a well-known dove to appeal to newly enfranchised 18-year-olds was of great concern to the hawks in Washington.
“He was a high-profile figure, so his activities were monitored,” reminds would-be Watergate fall-guy G. Gordon Liddy, whose testimony adds perspective to the more liberal musings of Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, Ron Kovic, Noam Chomsky, George McGovern, Geraldo Rivera, Bobby Seale, John Sinclair and Tom Smothers.
“Liddy gave us a window into the White House,” said Scheinfeld. “Kovic (played by Tom Cruise, in ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ was the moral heart of the movie. Journalists Cronkite and Bernstein described how Lennon fit into what was happening in the streets.”
What got Thurmond’s attention was Lennon’s perceived ability to influence policy and public opinion, simply by singing a few songs and raising his clenched fist at political rallies. In 1971, at the height of civil rights and antiwar activism on campuses and inner cities, Lennon appeared at a benefit for a relatively obscure Ann Arbor radical and music manager who was doing hard time in prison, ostensibly for selling two joints to an undercover cop.
John Sinclair’s sentence was widely seen as a travesty of justice, and punishment for his promotion of the anarchic White Panther Party and the kick-out-the-jams band, the MC5. As long as Sinclair remained a local hero, Michigan lawmakers couldn’t be bothered with his case. Two days after Lennon’s appearance, Sinclair was released from prison.
Celebrities had yet to be taken seriously as forces for change in national political movements. Jane Fonda was more of an embarrassment to the Movement than a godsend, but Lennon was the real deal.
Leaders of the Yippies and Black Panthers saw in Lennon a marquee attraction for their rallies, and happily exploited his passion for the Movement. A series of similar events were planned to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions.
Thurmond, who built his power base by pandering to segregationists, understood only too well the power of Lennon’s appeal and wrote Nixon, suggesting that his visa be pulled and deportation hearings begun. The order would was based on a misdemeanor pot conviction, in 1968, in England. Few in Thurmond’s circle had forgotten, either, Lennon’s off-hand observation, made in 1966, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.”
Instead of meekly giving in, Lennon hired immigration attorney Leon Wildes, who primarily employed delay tactics to buy time for his client and wait out the election. He also sued Attorney General John Mitchell, charging conspiracy.
Although the case for deportation eventually was dropped, Lennon paid a terrible toll in the emotional distress caused by having to deal daily with wiretaps, informers and a high-level smear campaign. He also was distressed about the hatred directed at Ono by fans, who blamed her for the break-up of the Beatles and the couple’s famously kooky Amsterdam “bed-in.”
“John grow up loving the America and was shocked that the government was going after him,” said Sheinfeld. “He also was blindsided by the vehemence of the response by religious groups to his comments about Jesus and the Beatles.”
Much of what’s described in “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” was first made public in Jon Wiener’s book, “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.” It was the product of exhaustive research, intense legal maneuverings and a close perusal of 280 pages of FBI files kept secret until 1997. Leaf and Scheinfeld’s primary task was to illuminate the blocks of largely blacked-out text with archival news, concert and interview footage, and record new interviews to contextualize the material.
(The Smoking Gun has just published a more extensive sampling of Lennon-Ono files — demonstating a range of FBI concerns that borders on the hysterical — made available only through repeated FOIA requests
The FBI’s efforts to discredit leftists, counterculture figures and civil rights leaders was revealed to the public in the early ’70s, after files were stolen from an FBI field office and leaked to the press. The targets of dirty FBI tricks and misinformation campaigns ranged from Martin Luther King Jr. and actress Jean Seberg, and included the infiltration and manipulation of such groups as the Black Panthers, Weather Underground, American Indian Movement, Nation of Islam KKK and American Nazi Party. Suddenly, the prevailing mood of paranoia fostered by leftist, campus and other activist groups seemed, if anything, understated.
Leaf and Scheinfeld worked closely with Ono, who had access to much unseen material, and painstakingly scoured news archives for vintage photos, clips and newsreel footage. Especially poignant is the material shot on the very day — Lennon’s birthday — he not only was awarded his green card, but his son, Sean, also was born.
“We knew that pictures from that day existed, but no one could find them,” said Leaf. “John’s the best in the world at finding those sorts of things. Turns out, they were simply misfiled.”
There’s more to the story, of course, but the film pretty much ends there. Lennon would disappear from the public eye in the mid-’70s, a period during which he battled many personal demons and nearly destroyed his relationship with Ono. This would be followed by a retrenchment into home, family and music, and a career resurgence cut short by Mark David Chapman’s hollow-point bullets.
Although the filmmakers don’t bang viewers over the head with parallels between Lennon’s deportation drama and the Bush White House’s support of the Patriot Act, they’re impossible to miss and ignore.
Radicals of the ’60s and ’70s, who claimed their phones were tapped and their every move chronicled by federal agents or paid informers, were ridiculed as paranoid fools and dupes of the New Left. The disclosure of COINTELPRO demonstrated that, if anything, official misconduct was more extensive than anyone imagined.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that records of phone conversations between millions of Americans have been stored in one government computer or another, conceivably available to any number of agencies, hackers and private eyes. Like J. Edgar Hoover, Bush assured his constituents they have nothing to fear, unless, of course, they happened to be terrorists. But, the revelation almost certainly had a chilling effect on whistleblowers, anti-war activisits and other blabbermouths who might consider leaking information to reporters.
It’s also become clear, despite the President’s promise to prosecute anyone charged with leaking secrets to the press, that the worst offenders worked at the highest levels of the administration, and at the behest of Bush’s closest advisers. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the only people incarcerated over the revelation of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identit

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon