IRVINE — Jonathan Wiener was a radical student in the 1960s, fascinated by the turbulent politics, social issues and rock music of his time. He protested, he wrote for an underground newspaper and he idolized the Beatles, particularly the mercurial John Lennon.
Today, Wiener, 48, is a self-described "radical historian," who still loves the Beatles. But instead of remembering Lennon as a voice on a scratchy album, Wiener has, for the last 12 years, been dogging a paper trail left in the wake of the murdered ex-Beatle.
That trail has led the UC Irvine history professor through a daunting maze of bureaucracy to the uppermost reaches of the U.S. government and intelligence community and finally to a victory before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Late last month, the high court ruled that the FBI failed to support its claim that certain documents requested in 1981 by Wiener which relate to a government investigation of Lennon's political activities were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
The FBI, said the court, must turn the files over to Wiener or come up with better reasons why it shouldn't. The case, which focused on about 69 pages of documents, has been returned to federal District Court in Los Angeles.
"I doubt very much that anything in the Lennon files involved national security," Wiener said. "Lennon hoped to endanger the reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972, but that's not exactly a crime."
"But it does say something about the mentality of the Nixon Administration and the FBI in 1972," he said. "It is unusual that a pop star, a rock musician, would be perceived by the President as somebody important enough to be the target of dirty tricks."
It was Lennon's life, music and political and social activities in the '60s that, in part, crystallized that decade historically for Wiener, who parlayed his admiration into scholarly research and finally into a 1985 book, "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time."
A lifelong political liberal raised in St. Paul, Minn., Wiener may have participated in his first truly radical social act during his high school years when he picketed a Woolworth's because of that chain store's policy, in the early '60s, of not serving blacks at their counters.
Recruited by Princeton, he majored in sociology and co-founded that university's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. During graduate school at Harvard, Wiener wrote for an underground newspaper, the Old Mole. He marched with SDS on Washington in 1965 and participated in the march on the Pentagon in 1967.
"I was your average '60s person," said Wiener. "But I was more of a politico than a hippie."
He also became a Beatles fan.
"I was at college, a sophomore, when Beatlemania first hit," he said. "I remember it vividly. Everyone was a Beatles fan. It was impossible not to love the Beatles, especially after, say, (their albums) "Rubber Soul" or "Sergeant Pepper." They did things no one had ever thought of doing."
The rock music world of the '60s fascinated Wiener, but he said that he "never thought at the time that it would be a subject for scholarly research into government documents." But, more and more, the fascination and influence of one particular performer began to occupy the greater part of Wiener's thinking.
"What was always appealing about Lennon then and in retrospect is the way he rejected the conventional role of the rock superstar," said Wiener.
"He tried to be more honest, to talk about his successes and his failings. He even quit the biz for a while. He was willing to look foolish. And it was that sort of public struggle to do something with superstardom, something good, something political, that made him such an important person in the '60s."
By 1972, Lennon had come up with a pop culture/politics marriage that, said Wiener, might have become one of the legendary events of the new decade had it not been crushed at birth by the same forces that were, at the same time, engineering what would become the Watergate debacle. And it is this aborted bit of history that would become the locus of contention between Wiener and the FBI.
It was to be a national concert tour, said Wiener, culminating in a huge festival in Miami to be held at the same time as the Republican National Convention there in 1972.
"Lennon and his friends were talking about doing a concert tour to coincide with the 1972 primary election season," said Wiener. "The reason that that was significant was that was the year that 18-year-olds were given the right to vote. And it was generally assumed that the youth vote was an anti-war vote. And it was also well-known that young voters are the least likely to vote of all age groups. So the problem for the anti-war movement was to register kids and get them to vote."