DATE December 8, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Historian Jon Wiener discusses his fight to gain
access to the FBI's secret files on John Lennon, and his book
titled "Gimme Some Truth"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, filling in for Terry Gross.
Today we're commemorating the 20th anniversary of John Lennon's
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JOHN LENNON: Two, one, two, three, four. (Singing) Everybody's talking
about Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism,
is-m, is-m, is-m. All we are saying is give peace a chance.
BOGAEV: Anti-war music like "Give Peace a Chance" didn't exactly endear
Lennon to the Nixon administration. In 1971, shortly after John Lennon
arrived in New York on a visa and had hooked up with radical anti-war
activists, the FBI put Lennon under surveillance. The Immigration and
Naturalization Service tried to deport him. Jon Wiener is a historian who
investigated what the FBI and the INS did to Lennon between 1971 and '72.
After Lennon was murdered, Wiener requested Lennon's FBI files under the
Freedom of Information Act. Fourteen years later, after the case went to
Supreme Court, the FBI agreed to release all but 10 of the documents. Terry
spoke with Jon Wiener earlier this year. His book about the FBI files is
called "Gimme Some Truth." It opens with a memo from Senator Strom Thurmond
to the Nixon White House about an upcoming Beatle tour of the United States
which warned that John Lennon might combine rock music with politics and
organize young people to vote against Nixon in the 1972 election.
memo also suggested that terminating Lennon's visa might be an effective
Mr. JON WIENER (Historian): Well, a little historical background here. The
'72 election was going to be the first in which 18-year-olds had the right
vote. Before that, you had to be 21. Everybody knew that young people were
the strongest anti-war constituency but also all real politicos know that
then, and as well as today, young people are the least likely to vote. So
question was for Lennon: How could he use his power as a celebrity to get
young people into the political process? And also this is a time when kids
are very alienated from, you know, mainstream politics.
So to get Lennon out of the country, the strategic countermeasure is to
Lennon so he won't be able to take this tour that would register young
At the same time, they're worried that, you know, young voters will vote
against Nixon for kicking out, you know, the clever Beatle.
However, it was the FBI's information that John Lennon did want to help
organize these political concerts. That...
Mr. WIENER: Well--but...
GROSS: ...would be for peace and against Nixon.
Mr. WIENER: There's no question that Lennon was talking about this with his
friends, his friends being Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale. And
tried doing one of these in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December 1971.
and Yoko headlined a political rock concert, the Free Johnson Sinclair
concert. Every once in a while I run into somebody who was there.
Fifteen thousand people spent six hours in Chrysler Arena. They listened
only to John and Yoko, but Stevie Wonder came, Commander Cody came, the MC5
came, William Kunstler gave a speech, Jerry Rubin gave a speech, Bobby Seale
gave a speech. And a lot of it was about, you know, mobilizing young people
to oppose Nixon. And they were very excited--John and Yoko were very
about the tremendous turnout they had for this concert and how successful it
was; so they were interested in the idea. They never got to the stage of
setting up the national concert tour because the deportation order came down
just two months later.
GROSS: How far did the INS get in deporting Lennon?
Mr. WIENER: Well, for much of 1972 and '73, Lennon was under an order to
leave the country within 60 days. He had very talented legal help and they
kept getting these deadlines extended. There was a lot of people mobilized
support him, but really it wasn't until after Watergate, after Nixon left
office, that the Gerald Ford administration Immigration Service finally
to grant Lennon his green card on very narrow legal grounds. So for two
years, he was under a 60-day order to leave the country almost continuously.
GROSS: Now let's talk more about the FBI documents that you were finally
to get through the Freedom of Information Act. You say that the FBI
make the FBI look more like the Keystone Cops and the Gestapo. Give us an
example of one of the documents that you think makes them look like Keystone
Mr. WIENER: Well, there's one where J. Edgar Hoover sends out instructions
locate Lennon as quickly as possible. They say his last known address is
Regis Hotel, 150 Bank Street, New York City. Now every cop and cab driver
New York knows that the St. Regis Hotel, you know, is on Central Park. It's
not--and that Bank Street is in the West Village. So this couldn't be
In fact, Lennon, at the time, was living on Bank Street, but he was living
105 Bank Street, not 150 Bank Street. So here's like this all-points
bulletin, you know, `Find Lennon.' They're just confused. I mean, it
could've happened to any of us, I guess.
The other really strange one is that there's a kind of a wanted poster for
Lennon. The FBI proposed that Lennon should be arrested, if at all
on possession of narcotics charges--I'm quoting now from one of the
documents--'which would make him more immediately deportable.' And these
instructions to local police officials include a kind of a wanted poster, a
picture of Lennon, you know, height, weight, eye color and so on. You'd
that they wouldn't really need this. Lennon was certainly one of the most
recognizable faces in the world in 1972. They have a picture there anyway,
but the strangest thing is the picture isn't of John Lennon. It's of
guy, a guy--I mean, I know who it is. It's a guy named David Peel who was
East Village folk singer, street singer, busker type who looked a little
Lennon. I mean, he wore the wire-rimmed glasses and had Lennon's style of
long hair. Of course, lots of other people did in 1972. David Peel had
recorded on Apple Records. Maybe that's how they got confused.
So the FBI, you know, was lamentably out of touch with the mainstream--not
just of, you know, the radical counter culture of New York City but, you
you would think John Lennon is kind of pretty much the mainstream in 1972.
GROSS: Well, the funny thing is is that the FBI documents--like, for
instance, there's a memo from Hoover in which he describes Lennon as
like a member of this singing group, The Beatles, as if like--you know, as
like, who The Beatles are really needs to be explained.
Mr. WIENER: You know, I've always been fascinated by that sentence. This
in J. Edgar Hoover's letter to H.R. Haldeman. And the first sentence is,
`John Winston Lennon is a member of The Beatles singing group.' Now what
not sure is, is it that J. Edgar Hoover wants to prove that he knows what
Beatles are and the names of The Beatles? Or is it that he thinks that
does not know who John Lennon is or that it's this John Lennon, the John
Lennon who's the Beatle is the one we're talking about here? I've never
able to figure out which of those is the case.
GROSS: Did you find anything in the FBI files that were released to you
indicated that the FBI went beyond surveillance, that they ever tried to set
Mr. WIENER: Yeah, there's a couple of documents. Their concern was that
Lennon would participate in some kind of concert, rally, anti-war
demonstration outside the Republican National Convention. And there's a
from J. Edgar Hoover to the head of the Miami FBI office that suggests that
Lennon could be arrested on possession of narcotics charges, he would become
more immediately deportable. Now this seems to me an effort to set Lennon
for a drug bust. The FBI doesn't enforce possession of narcotics charges.
That's a state offense. This is not part of what the FBI's supposed to be
I then filed a Freedom of Information request with the Miami FBI office
for their files on Lennon to see what their response to this was. They
replied to me that their John Lennon file had been destroyed as a part of a
routine file destruction procedure.
Mr. WIENER: Now I have to note that Lennon files were collected in five
cities, and none of those places destroyed their Lennon files. So we wonder
what was in the Miami Lennon file that was destroyed.
GROSS: My guest is historian Jon Wiener, author of the new book, "Gimme
Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Wiener. He's a historian
and author of the new book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files."
And he tried to get those files for about 14 years in a series of lawsuits.
Now you have the FBI document that explains why the FBI stopped its
surveillance of Lennon. Would you summarize and read an excerpt of that
document for us?
Mr. WIENER: This is dated August 30th, 1972. This is, like, two months
before the presidential election. This is a memo to the acting
that's L. Patrick Gray--J. Edgar Hoover had died in May--from the special
agent in charge of the New York FBI office. It says, `For the past several
months, there has been no information received to indicate that the subject
active in the New Left.' Then it indicates what the sources are. `All
advised that during the month of July 1972 that the subject has fallen out
favor of activists Jerry Rubin, Stuart Albert and Rene Davis due to
lack of interest in committing himself to involvement in anti-war and New
activities. In view of this information, the New York Division is placing
this case in a pending, inactive status.'
GROSS: Now is that true of the whole FBI or just the New York Division?
Mr. WIENER: Well, New York was the office of origin, the OO, as it's called
in the files. They're the ones who are responsible for conducting the
investigation. I mean, what this really is saying here is that the
Immigration Service and the FBI have succeeded in pressuring Lennon to
his plans for this national concert tour and to withdraw from anti-war
activity. His lawyers told him that his case for fighting deportation was a
pretty weak one. In fact, they'd never seen anyone win a case under these
terms and, therefore, the legal advice was, `Don't do anything more that
further provoke the Nixon administration.' He really wanted to stay in the
United States. Yoko was involved at that point in a custody dispute over
daughter from a previous marriage, her daughter Keyoko(ph). So John--if he
had been deported, Yoko would've stayed behind. He didn't want to be
separated from Yoko, so he canceled the plans for the concert tour, he
out of movement activity. And the FBI is reporting that they've
GROSS: So in that sense, the FBI did succeed in neutralizing, as they like
put it--in neutralizing John Lennon.
Mr. WIENER: Yeah, `neutralizing' is one of the scary words which appear in
the file. Some people think this refers, you know, to assassination plans
something like that. I don't think that's the case. Neutralizing means
silencing him, getting him out of the picture through this deportation
And there's no question that Lennon was silenced as a spokesman of the
GROSS: How much do you think John Lennon knew about the FBI surveillance of
Mr. WIENER: Well, he understood that this whole deportation thing was
politically motivated. He complained publicly on TV shows, on "The Mike
Douglas Show," on "The Dick Cavett Show," you know, these criminal
enterprises, that too many people were coming to fix his phones down on Bank
Street in the West Village and that there were strange men outside in suits
who followed him around. He eventually sued the FBI, claiming he had been
target of illegal wiretapping. Part of his FBI file is the FBI's own
to that charge.
They replied that they could find no evidence of authorized wiretapping in
their files. Now this seems to me like a typical Nixon-era non-denial
They said they could find no evidence, but maybe they didn't look very hard.
They said they could find no evidence of authorized wiretapping, but it
could've been unauthorized. It's also possible that the wiretapping was not
done by the FBI but was done by the New York Police or some other agency.
Lennon sometimes thought he was just being paranoid. He would say, you
he wasn't important enough to be the target of this kind of surveillance.
other times he, you know, loudly proclaimed that he was the target of
government persecution. It turns out it's the second that was correct, but
never was sure in his own time that it was the FBI that was after him.
GROSS: Do you have evidence that his phone really was tapped?
Mr. WIENER: There are no wiretapping logs in the Lennon FBI file of the
that there are, say, in the Martin Luther King file. So this remains an
question. I mean, he lived next door to John Cage on Bank Street, and
whenever he needed...
Mr. WIENER: ...to make a--well, you know, it's the '60s. It's the West
Village in the '60s. Whenever he needed to make, you know, a secure
conversation, they would go next door and use John Cage's phone in the
that the FBI didn't know who John Cage was. They were probably right about
GROSS: Right. The FBI wasn't interested in chance music, huh?
Mr. WIENER: Probably not.
GROSS: Has reading all the files about John Lennon, the FBI files, changed
your impressions of Lennon? I mean, there are insights from these informant
documents. Has it added to your knowledge of John Lennon the man, added to
your knowledge of his character, how he behaved in the world?
Mr. WIENER: Well, you know, this is a period which people don't pay very
attention to anymore when they're remembering Lennon. You know, it was
less than 12 months, but reading these files, you get a sense of just what
intense and devastating period this was for Lennon. I mean, he starts out
full of enthusiasm, high hopes, going to do this concert tour. He hadn't
performed live for five years. You know, excited to be in New York, you
the center of the universe.
Within a couple of months, he is feeling the heavy hand of the government of
the most powerful country in the world which, you know, wants to get rid of
him, wants to kick him out. And it really--I think it ruined his life for
next few years. And it's easier to see, you know, what happened to him.
the next year his music kind of falls apart as a couple of albums that he
makes here are, you know, pretty much the worst of his career. He breaks up
with Yoko, moves out to LA, the so-called lost weekend, living the life of a
kind of over-the-hill rock star. I think all of this is--I mean, I don't
how much he understood at the time, but this is sort of the time when he's
lost his optimism, he's lost his hope, he's been punished for not doing very
much. And he paid a heavy price, both as a creative person and in his own
GROSS: You know, you say in your book that one of the things you really
fascinating about these FBI files is that they document an era when rock
seemed to have real political force. Say some more about that.
Mr. WIENER: Well, you know, it's a little hard to believe today that a
president would fear the power of a rock star. Rock stars often today have
political causes but they're always--they're often--they're usually the safe
ones, you know, save the rain forest or fight breast cancer or something
that, issues that nobody is going to, you know, try to deport you for
advocating. It's still hard to figure out whether the effort to deport
was complete paranoia on Nixon's part. After all, Nixon did win the 1972
election by an overwhelming landslide. His opponent, George McGovern,
carried--What?--two or three states, something like that? So maybe the
thing was just paranoia on the part of Nixon matched by paranoia on the part
of Lennon and his friends.
On the other hand, all of this was put in motion long before that
election, you know, in the winter beforehand. And at that point, I don't
think it was clear to anybody that Nixon was going to win in a landslide.
Nixon was concerned about this youth vote and how that might affect the
elections. It wasn't clear that McGovern was going to be the candidate.
You know, there's a lot of reasons not to like Richard Nixon. I
liked him very much myself, but, you know, he was one of the most successful
political candidates in recent history. So I'm kind of willing to accept
Nixon's judgement that Lennon's political plans for 1972 were significant,
were interesting and, you know, did merit some kind of presidential
GROSS: And that's something that you find interesting about the times and
something that you admire Lennon for.
Mr. WIENER: Yeah. I mean, Lennon really took risks here of a kind that you
hardly see anybody ever taking. How many people in the entertainment world
have faced deportation because of their political actions? I mean, what,
Charlie Chaplin was sort of run out of the United States. Paul Robeson
It was sort of the opposite where he was denied the right to travel and then
he left, you know, anyway. You know, Bertolt Brecht fled after being
by HUAC. This is a very small group of people, so I think it underscores
intensity of Lennon's commitment. I mean, I don't think he knew the risks
was taking, but, you know, that's sort of what he was like. He was a risk
taker. He wanted to stand up for what he believed in. He wasn't going to
play it safe. It wasn't a safe age, so I think that's admirable.
GROSS: Jon Wiener, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WIENER: My pleasure.
BOGAEV: Jon Wiener's book is "Gimme Some Truth." Terry spoke with him
earlier this year.
Coming up, a review of the new movie "Proof of Life." This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Movie "Proof of Life"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
The Australian actor Russell Crowe first made his mark playing edgy,
characters in a series of ambitious films. Now, after the likes of "Romper
Stomper," "Proof" and "L.A. Confidential," the star of the summer hit
"Gladiator" takes on another action role in "Proof of Life." He plays a
commando-for-hire who specializes in rescuing kidnap victims. Film critic
Henry Sheehan has a review.
Hollywood action movies long ago ceased demanding much from their stars
a few wisecracks and buffed muscles. You're dating yourself if you can
remember when the action scene was dominated by performers who could not
pull a trigger but actually pull off a characterization; actors such as
McQueen, Sean Connery and the era's last-standing hero, Clint Eastwood. So
the fact that Russell Crowe has turned up in the intelligent international
thriller "Proof of Life" is cause for some celebration.
It's not that the movie is a masterpiece. At over two hours, it's about a
half hour too long. It's overexplicit when it comes to setting up
relationships, and director Taylor Hackford sometimes forgets he's making a
big-time shoot-'em-up, not adapting Dostoyevsky. But this yarn about a
professional hired gun who specializes in rescuing hostages from
groups does show us what Crowe can do with action material. For one thing,
former British Army commando Terry Thorne, Crowe never loses his cool.
Whether in battle fatigues or, more often, a neat, black suit, he never
furrows his brow, raises his voice or even breaks a sweat, which is a good
trick when you're in Telaca(ph), the mythical, mountainous South American
country where the action is set.
Co-star Meg Ryan, who plays Alice Bowman, handles most of the emotional
displays. Her husband, a construction engineer named Peter Bowman, has been
kidnapped by drug smugglers and extortionists. At first, Peter's employers
agree to foot the bill for his ransom, engaging the international security
firm that employes Thorne. But corporate chicanery intervenes and Thorne,
has already started work on the case, is ordered to leave town. In this
scene, Alice beseeches Thorne to stay and rescue her husband.
(Soundbite of "Proof of Life")
Mr. RUSSELL CROWE: I'm not even supposed to talk to you.
Ms. MEG RYAN: So this is what? This is you being brave?
Mr. CROWE: No, this is me doing my job.
Ms. RYAN: Well, it's good I came by then, right, soldier? Let you get that
Mr. CROWE: I'm sure it's all going to work out.
Ms. RYAN: Hey! You know, they're giving us some local security guy.
giving us exactly the kind of guy you warned me about.
Mr. CROWE: I don't know what to tell you. I don't make policy.
Ms. RYAN: Great. So when this is over and my husband's dead and I'm suing
heck out of these suits, you can tell the judge you did everything you could
to help me out? Wait a minute! Wait! Wait! Wait, wait! Oh, no, no!
Listen to me. I'm sorry, all right? I apolo...
Mr. CROWE: OK.
Ms. RYAN: I'm sorry! I'm sor--I'm sorry to be like this, but you are--you
the first--you are the only person I've met who knows what they're talking
about. So I am begging you, I am totally begging you to help me out on
Mr. CROWE: You asked me to be straight with you, right?
Ms. RYAN: Right.
Mr. CROWE: I've got a plane to catch.
SHEEHAN: You can hear how the two stars complement each other. With Ryan
emoting like mad, Crowe can keep to his understated murmur. What you can't
see is how dynamic a presence Crowe is and not just because of his muscular
good looks. Crowe's real strength, the one that makes him a likely
to the great action stars, is his eyes.
Action heroes must always be shown looking, checking out allies and foes,
taking in the landscape, measuring distances, just generally calculating.
paradoxically, they must also have the ability not to look. That's because
good action hero is always uncomfortable in the presence of his superiors,
especially when he's a member of the British Commonwealth. Scottish Sean
Connery and cockney Michael Caine each sported unfashionable accents, so
filmmakers always tried to pair them off with toffee-nosed London bosses
own accents mark them as social superiors. But these heroes did what they
not because they were told to but because they responded to an inner
compulsion. In the presence of their la-di-da bosses, their eyes would
over or look down or to the side. They had to be physically present, this
gesture said, but mentally, they were gone.
"Proof of Life" gives the Australian-born Thorne the familiar set of British
upper-class bosses, if only to prove that the man of action is the natural
aristocrat, a classic action hero response to chivalry's call even, or
especially, when it runs counter to a business agenda. Of course, Thorne
still has to blow stuff up. "Proof of Life" opens and closes with terrific,
large-scale action scenes that put Thorne's bloody competency beyond
And throughout the movie, he faces down one bad guy after another with
Crowe isn't the whole show here. The movie spends a lot of time with the
kidnapped Peter who is well played by David Morse. A slate of talented
supporting players, which includes Pamela Reed and David Caruso, also get
their moments, but it's Crowe's internalized dynamic which gives the movie
the proof of life it needs.
BOGAEV: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
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