Water Man Spouts

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lessons from Mike Douglas's Hobnailed Boots

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon is the compelling and provocative story of John Lennon’s evolution from beloved Beatle to outspoken artist and activist to iconic inspiration for peace, and how, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous times in American history, Lennon stood his ground, refused to be silenced and courageously won his battle with the U.S. government." – from the back of the DVD case

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" in the comfort of my living room. One of the most interesting things about John and Yoko was their decision, made in the early 1970s, to communicate with the American public in their living rooms. It was an interesting progression from their Amsterdam "Bed Peace" campaign from the late March, 1969, and the bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal a month later.

In Montreal, John and Yoko and friends (including Timothy Leary, Tommy Smoothers, and Dick Gregory), recorded "Give Peace a Chance." John and Yoko also continued their "acorn campaign," including offering a couple of acorns to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who told reporters, "I don’t know about acorns, but if he’s around I’d like to meet him. He’s a good poet." (The Beatles Forever; Nicholas Schaffner; page 122)

John and Yoko’s tactics in media manipulation were effective. They were making daily commercials for peace. They were, John said, willing to play the role of clowns in order to get their message out. The song "Give Peace a Chance" (attributed to Lennon/McCartney, but a clear indicator of what direction John was heading in), was a powerful anti-war statement.

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" documents that as Lennon went from "Give Peace a Chance" to "Power to the People," and became allied with anti-war activists, the Nixon administration became concerned. They were afraid that Lennon would be a vehicle by which radicals such as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman would reach a much wider audience.

Lennon’s genius for spreading his anti-war message would reach one of the most important, yet frequently overlooked stages when Yoko and he were the co-hosts of the Mike Douglas Show for the week of February 14-18, 1972. At a time when we need to spread the anti-war message to living rooms across America, and when many people are frustrated by the corporate media, I believe that we can benefit from examining the Mike Douglas Show from 35 years ago.

One of the myths that we often hear is that today’s media is inferior to that of the 1960s and ‘70s as far as reporting on issues such as the war, and on political scandals. This is largely because of the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate. Yet that scandal was largely ignored for a long period by the corporate media. When asked why the media had not covered the story for so long, CBS anchorman Dan Rather would say, "We didn’t want to believe that what happened, happened." (NBC Nightly News; 6-17-92)

"You have to realize that people like us never get on television," Jerry Rubin told a press gathering in February, 1972. Looking back, we see that the anti-war activists such as Rubin and Hoffman were only in the news when they participated in "street theater," or when they were arrested as a result of these actions. And even if we look back at the media coverage of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s anti-war speeches, the reaction was extremely hostile. For most middle class Americans (Nixon’s "silent majority"), the anti-war movement seemed to be a threat to this nation.

John decided to accept an offer to appear on the Mike Douglas Show. This was a 90-minute late afternoon talk/variety show that was considered the most popular with "middle America" in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The majority of its audience consisted of middle class housewives. "This is a show that really communicates with an older generation. We wanted to reach our hands out to them and say, ‘Don’t be afraid of us’," Yoko told reporters at the February, 1972 press gathering. "We were trying to show that not just slogans and demonstrations are gonna change the world, but we have to change the whole lifestyle."

Mike Douglas had allowed "controversial" guests on his show before. Among them were Martin Luther King, Jr., and also Malcolm X. "I remember talking with Malcolm X," Douglas later told reporter Stephen Peeples, "and I remember many of the things he would say I would totally agree with. But he was very much ahead of his time – people weren’t ready for it."

During the week the Lennons co-hosted the show, Douglas agreed that they could invite half of the guests. Thus, middle America had the opportunity to listen to "radicals" that they had previously only viewed as symbols of anger and unrest. It may be hard for younger people to appreciate what took place. Luckily, there is a boxed set from Rhino of the "Five Days That Changed the Course of Television." I strongly recommend that people watch those shows.

On Monday (2-14-72), after Mike Douglas opened the show with his version of Paul McCartney’s "Michelle," the musical performances included John backed by the Plastic Ono Band w/Elephant’s Memory (POEM) doing "It’s So Hard." Guests included consumer/student activist Ralph Nader.

John told people that, "We’d like to talk about love, peace, communication, women’s lib, war…." Yoko added, "…racism, prison conditions…" Douglas asked, "Drugs?" John replied, "Drugs, anything – whatever that’s what’s going on now."

Yoko: "And also to show the future direction, because the future direction is actually beautiful. Because people are getting very pessimistic these days, but actually it’s going to be very beautiful, and we want to show that to people."

On Tuesday, Jerry Rubin was a guest. "What [Nixon’s] really done is automate the war in Vietnam so that it’s machines killing people. Create a situation where 43 people can be murdered at Attica. Create a situation where four kids can be killed at Kent State, and people are afraid to stare…"

Douglas asked if he really believed Nixon was responsible? "It’s the atmosphere in the country … is one of just death …. I think his administration did, and he’s just a symbol of it, and so I’m working very hard with people all over the country to defeat Nixon…." John noted, "Non-violently."

On Wednesday, guests included Chuck Berry; Joseph Blatchford, the director of the Peace Corps; and research psychologist David Rosenbloom.

On Thursday, the guests included Donald Williams discussing his work with the Mid-Peninsula Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation; and Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers chairman discussing community organization.

On Friday, guests included George Carlin and Harvard Medical School biofeedback expert Dr. Gary Schwartz. John and Yoko did a wonderful version of their song "Luck of the Irish."

On March 6, less than a month after co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show, "immigration authorities unexpectedly refused to renew John’s visa, allegedly because of a technicality relating to his 1968 marijuana bust. But it seemed strange that around the same time, deportation procedures were instigated against dozens of ranking ex-Nazis only after great pressure was applied by the media – whereas John was singled out for having once kept some pot in the house. In the aftermath of Watergate it came out that arch-conservative Senator Strom Thurmond had sent a dossier on Lennon’s anti-Administration views to Nixon’s Attorney General, John ‘law-n-order’ Mitchell, with the suggestion that Lennon be somehow expelled from the U.S." (Schaffner; page 164)

The significance of John and Yoko co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show wasn’t that they converted Douglas into a radical, or that the housewives watching the shows joined the Weather Underground. It was that the anti-war activists had used the media in a manner that allowed them to reach "middle America" in a rational, non-threatening manner. Lennon understood "communication" better than perhaps any other person on the progressive left. And that is what made him such a threat – even, I believe, when he released his "househusband" LP in 1980.


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