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. Twelve Books, 384 pp., $30.
Can you dig it? In their wild new book, authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis chronicle the far-out odyssey of Timothy Leary — philosopher king of the hippies and evangelist of LSD — as a fugitive from justice in the early 1970s. It’s an episode from the not-too-distant past, when the polarizing president in the White House was Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War was still raging and homegrown revolutionaries were setting off bombs everywhere.
Leary was spreading the message about the mind-expanding possibilities of LSD and running for governor of California when he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1970. (Leary dropped acid more times than he could count, but was busted for two measly joints.) He was sentenced to 10 years in a state prison — but wouldn’t stay there long. With his lawyer, he hatched a cockamamie plan to break out of jail with the help of the radical left-wing Weather Underground, which wanted to exploit Leary’s celebrity to advance their cause.
Amazingly, the plan worked: 50-year-old Leary wriggled a hundred feet across a telephone cable over the wall and was picked up by a waiting car, propelling him on a journey that took him to Algeria and Switzerland, pursued by the FBI and sundry federal minions. Leary’s ability to escape capture consumed an ever-paranoid Nixon, who was besieged at home by protests and social disorder. Leary, Nixon proclaimed, was “the most dangerous man in America.”
The authors themselves, who also collaborated on “Dallas 1963,” are clearly high on their material, gathered from hundreds of primary and secondary sources — interviews, transcripts, journals, letters and the like. Minutaglio and Davis don’t do dry, detached nonfiction. Instead, they have crafted a hopped-up, sometimes risibly over-the-top narrative that unfolds in present-tense real time. It takes a while to get used to, but once you’re in, their book delivers an outlandish concoction of twists, turns and international intrigue.
Cross cutting from Leary on the lam to Nixon as he tries to bomb Vietnam into submission and schemes to destroy the Democrats, the authors’ point is pretty clear: Leary was as harmless as a fly; the real danger lay in the Oval Office.
Yet Leary found himself mixed up with some pretty dangerous characters. In Algeria, he was taken in by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, notorious author of “Soul on Ice,” himself wanted for the attempted murder of two Oakland cops. Cleaver and his cadres, who shunned drugs, didn’t quite know what to do with Leary, who would rather drop acid and ramble on than take up arms. He envisioned Algeria, the authors write with typical ripeness, as “an interplanetary way station for the supercharged super freaks of Planet Earth, the kind of place where people would channel the spirit of Hendrix, connect with the gurus of India, and dissolve their egos inside the soothing, free-flowing lava of Tantric love, space, and time.” Whoa.
The tenuous partnership of Cleaver and Leary soon turned sour. “His mind has been blown by acid,” Cleaver announced. Leary and his forbearing wife, Rosemary, left Algeria for Copenhagen. But a stopover in Switzerland convinced him to stay in the Alpine country, which happened to be the home of Albert Hofmann, the scientist who first synthesized LSD.
Here the story took an even more bizarre turn. Leary was offered shelter by a mysterious playboy named Michel Hauchard, who helped him deal with the Swiss authorities, under pressure from the CIA and FBI to hand over the wanted man. The cunning and well-connected Hauchard more or less extorted Leary, who signed over rights to various book projects in exchange for protection and legal help. It was yet another instance of Leary’s celebrity being bought and sold.
In Switzerland, Leary lived well, even as he was running out of options. The fuming Nixon dispatched Attorney General John Mitchell to force the Swiss to hand over the fugitive. The Swiss government, however, ruled in favor of Leary, arguing that his marijuana conviction was a minor offense. Hippies, musicians and various thrill seekers thronged Leary, hoping for enlightenment — and acid.
But the Leary carnival — and his ties to drug ring Brotherhood of Eternal Love — finally exhausted Swiss tolerance. In 1973, he fled to Afghanistan, where he was busted, brought home and put back jail until 1976. He talked to the FBI and denounced his old radical pals. Yet Leary got away in the end, the authors suggest: It was Watergate-tainted Nixon whose name became a byword for infamy.