George McGovern’s 1972 campaign against Nixon changed many lives, including John Lennons’s. Lennon had moved to New York City in 1971, and it was his support for McGovern—who died October 21 at age 90—that led the Nixon administration to try to deport the ex-Beatle.
The story begins with Jerry Rubin. 1972 was going to be the first election in which 18-year-olds were given the right to vote—before that it had been 21. Everyone assumed that young first-time voters were likely to be anti-war and thus pro-McGovern. But all politicos knew that young people were (and remain) the least likely to register and vote of all age groups. Thus the problem for McGovern supporters was clear: how to get young people, who had become disillusioned by mainstream politics, to register and vote.
Jerry Rubin’s solution: get John Lennon to headline a national concert tour that would coincide with the election season, a tour that would combine rock music with voter registration and anti-war organizing. None of the ex-Beatles had performed live in the US for six years, so it would have been a tremendous thing.
Lennon had been singing “Give Peace a Chance” at anti-war rallies, but he wanted to do more to use his power as a celebrity to end the war. He understood the logic of Jerry Rubin’s idea, and eagerly set to work, recruiting other rock stars to join him at different venues.
Lennon did the first of the planned concerts in Ann Arbor in December 1971. He was joined onstage by Stevie Wonder and by Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. 20,000 people showed up. It was a memorable night, and a promising one.
But the Nixon White House understood the significance of Lennon’s effort and resolved to put an end to the planned tour. “If Lennon’s visa were terminated, it would be a strategic counter-measure,” a memo to Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell explained. (The memo came from Strom Thurmond, the segregationist Republican from South Carolina, not known to have been a Beatles fan.) Nixon’s Immigration Service promptly began deportation proceedings against Lennon, and his attorneys advised him that his case was not a strong one and he should not do anything to further antagonize the Nixon people. So Lennon’s plan for a Vote McGovern tour was canceled.
While McGovern campaigned for president, Lennon spent many days in immigration court, arguing that the deportation order was an attempt to silence him as a critic of the president. The Immigration Service attorneys said they were merely enforcing the then-existing law under which Lennon was inadmissible for a visa because of a misdemeanor conviction for possession of cannabis in London in 1969.
On election night in November 1972, Nixon won 60.7 percent of the vote, more than any Republican candidate in history up to that point. Lennon had thought McGovern might win, even though polls showed he didn’t’ have a chance. McGovern’s defeat meant not only that the war would continue but also that the INS would remain in Nixon’s hands and that Lennon’s deportation was now more likely.
I interviewed Jerry Rubin in 1982 about election night a decade before that. John and Yoko went to Rubin’s place to watch the returns, but when they arrived the facts of McGovern’s crushing defeat had become clear. “He came into the house screaming,” Rubin told me, “crazy with rage.”
“This is it?” Lennon shouted. “This is IT? I can’t believe this is fuckin’ IT. I mean, here we are… this is the fuckin’ middle-class bunch that’s gonna protect US from THEM!”
Somebody at the party replied, “You, John, you are gonna protect you from them. You and your friends. Organize your friends, organize your block, organize your neighborhood!” Somebody else said “Yeah, organize people. They’ll listen to you.”
“Listen to me?” Lennon shouted. “Man, where’ve you been? They haven’t been listening to me!”
That night marked the end of Lennon’s engagement with American politics. It also marked a turning point in his personal life: shortly afterwards, he separated from Yoko, left New York City and moved to Los Angeles for his “lost weekend” of alcohol and drugs.
A year earlier, when he arrived in New York City, he said he wanted to live in the home of the free. He had no idea at that point of the power of the American state, especially in the Nixon years, to silence critics and punish “enemies.”
The potential significance of Lennon’s support for McGovern can be measured by the severity of the measures the Nixon White House took to stop him. And of course the story didn’t end on election night 1972. Not long after, Nixon would be forced to resign in the face of evidence of his abuse of power—and when Nixon left the White House, Lennon got to stay in the USA.
Adapted from Come Together: John Lennon in His Time, by Jon Wiener.
For more on the legacy of George McGovern, check out Katrina vanden Heuvel's "George McGovern: American Patriot and Truth-Teller."