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The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

March 24, 2018

timothy_leary

About ten years ago, I was at a production house in Los Angeles playing pool and someone said that the pool table had once belonged to Timothy Leary. I thought of the brash, chain-smoking comedian Dennis Leary. No, someone corrected me. The LSD guy.

In the early ‘70s, Nixon was right to be paranoid. There were a growing number of people who legitimately wanted to overthrow the government. Dangerous revolutionaries. Timothy Leary wasn’t one of them. He was into peace, expanded consciousness and psychedelic drugs. He had bumbled his way through various universities to a PhD and eventually lectured for a stint at Harvard. In the mythologizing he would usually be described as a “Harvard Professor,” with the insinuation that Leary had left teaching either because he’d had a bad trip and ruined his brain or had a good trip and found enlightenment. Regardless, Leary had become a figure in the counterculture, a spokesperson for the benefits of psychedelics, telling everyone they should “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Not the best influence, maybe, but relatively harmless otherwise.

But Nixon, with the war in Vietnam going down the tubes and the public turning against him, began expanding his list of domestic enemies. He set his sights on the counterculture, and Timothy Leary was a symbol of everything Nixon hated. This book dives into Nixon’s anger, his paranoia, and his misplaced obsession with capturing Leary, whom Nixon dubbed “the most dangerous man in the world.”

Leary was arrested dozens of times in the ‘60s, and in 1970 was sentenced to 20 years (Ironically, during his prison intake he was given the standard regimen of psychological tests, some of which he’d designed himself). Six months into his stay, he escaped prison and went on the lamb. He was aided by an unwitting coalition of political groups ranging from the hippy-dippy to the downright dangerous: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and an international arms dealer to name a few.

His run took him to Algiers where he shacked up with Eldridge Cleaver at the Black Panthers embassy, then on to various points in Europe, several times avoiding dragnets and infuriating Nixon. Leary was eventually apprehended in 1972 and sent to Folsom prison.

Regardless of what one thinks of Leary’s message as the psychedelic messiah, his story is a fascinating confluence of three major forces of the time period—the counterculture, the revolutionary movement and the government’s increasingly reckless behavior. I’ve been digging through the stories of this period for a while (Manson, Patty Hearst, Jim Jones, currently reading Nixonland), and Leary’s story fits right in. It’s full of larger-than-life characters, all misguided in their own way. His time with the Black Panthers is prime material for a miniseries.

If rather than repeat itself, history rhymes, it may do so at a rate of 50 years. It feels like our modern moment is an echo of this period. That said, it’s is pretty stark how relatively muted the revolutionary voices and the accompanying violence of today are, despite the impressions of the media.

This book can be read as a slice of that radical moment, or just a Gumpian story of a spacey dude swimming through the cosmos, trying to have a good time, ruffling feathers and bumping into downers left and right. Timothy Leary is Jeffrey Lebowski with an inflated ego and a global reputation. The cast of this story is long and star-studded: celebrities like the Beatles and Hendrix; revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton; Richard Nixon, as the king who is losing his mind; and at the center of it all, Timothy Leary as the court jester.

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