The strange case of Richard Nixon vs. Timothy Leary
Posted January 10, 2018 2:00 p.m. EST
AUSTIN, Texas -- At one point during a free-ranging conversation about Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, acid and the ability to just hop on a plane in the 1970s, increasingly legendary Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio asks me a question I was not expecting:
"Joe, do you think young people even know who Timothy Leary is?"
It's important to note that the man didn't ask it in a condescending, "millennials don't know anything" kind of way -- you don't get an outstanding teaching award from the University of Texas Board of Regents by being a jerk about "these kids today." He was genuinely curious. (My answer: If you are someone interested in drugs or psychedelic culture or things that happened more than 40 years ago, absolutely. If not, who knows?)
You sort of can't blame him for wondering. In a world where folks voluntarily track their own movements and upload them to social media, publicly discuss their drug use and are generally easier to find than ever before, Minutaglio's new book, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD" -- co-written with frequent collaborator Steven L. Davis -- seems as if it takes place on a completely different planet.
In "The Most Dangerous Man in America," Leary -- a brilliant, middle-aged former Harvard professor who has become world-famous for advocating all things LSD -- is sent to jail for marijuana possession.
He subsequently breaks out with the help of American underground organization the Weathermen, heads off to Algeria to seek refuge with the Black Panthers (who have an embassy there headed up by Eldridge Cleaver) and becomes an obsession of then-President Richard Nixon, who is presiding over a country that seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Nixon spends the next 28 months pursuing Leary and wife Rosemary across northern Africa and into Europe -- the Learys often using fake passports, sporting bad wigs and jumping on international flights while high as brachiating monkeys.
Leary, for his part, has the help (on and off ) of African-American radicals in exile, the drug dealing "hippie Mafia" known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a mysterious European financier, weird Swiss lawyers and more. This thing would make an insane HBO miniseries.
"It really does help if the person you are writing about has had a really rich and interesting life," Minutaglio says.
He says he met Leary years ago when the older man was on a book tour. They hit it off and talked now and then.
"Over the years, I would call him," Minutaglio says. "Either he had a great memory or was operating on some other plane, but he seemed to remember me, and he would start talking about his life -- matters of criminality, travels. And I swear, back in the early 1980s, he really was describing something like the internet. He was a visionary guy."
When Minutaglio and Davis decided to write a book about Leary, they looked for a story that Minutaglio says would capture "the rollicking spirit of the time yet still point at the danger that existed for people that were advocating the sorts of things that Leary was advocating."
Bingo: The story of Leary vs. Nixon. "There are plenty of other books about Leary, but just this period really illustrated the zenith of the insanity being visited upon him by other people," Minutaglio says.
Or, namely, one person: Nixon, whom Minutaglio sees (in some ways) as Leary's player on the other side.
Leary was a luminously smart, almost happy-go-lucky Massachusetts Irish Catholic, blessed with charisma to spare. Nixon was a drawn, hardworking Californian of Quaker extract who clawed his way into the White House. It's hard not to think that Leary probably reminded Nixon of his other bete noire, John F. Kennedy, who was only three years older than Leary and whose assassination was the subject of the authors' book "Dallas 1963."
Again and again, the reader is struck by how naive it all seems. Members of the leftist underground (mostly white) seem convinced that teaming Leary with Cleaver in Algeria will make for "a marriage of dope and dynamite, flower and flames."
Except Cleaver and Leary have radically different goals. Leary is an academic-turned-roving philosopher/cause celebre. Cleaver is a revolutionary in exile, running an international outpost for the Black Panthers and advocating for violent revolution in America. Just because they are both on the run from the American law doesn't mean they want the same things.
Not to mention the fact that any hint of serious drug dealing by Leary or the Panthers would not have sat well with Algeria's Muslim government -- they may have hated the United States, but they weren't too wild about drugs being brought into the country, either, especially after they found out that Leary wasn't a young, African-American revolutionary after all.
"That 'marriage of dope and dynamite' was an arranged marriage at best," Minutaglio laughs.
It almost sounds like something Nixon would make up.
"The early 1970s were the birth of modern paranoid politics," Minutaglio says. "When you use a lot of drugs, like Leary did, they can make you paranoid. When you drink a lot, like Nixon did, it can make you awfully paranoid."
A challenge Minutaglio says the authors faced was one of balance: On the one hand, there were plenty of things that were happening that were ribald or madcap. On the other, this was the birth of a pretty serious war on drugs that has led America down an awfully grim path.
"Nixon needed a poster boy, and Leary was it," Minutaglio says. "They literally sat in a meeting and decided on this. Once they got into it, they really grew to believe that he was a fountainhead of this revolution that Nixon was really afraid of. And then Nixon's aides are coming back to him, 'By the way, Leary really is a drug kingpin of sorts' (with his connections to the Brotherhood)."
Minutaglio pauses, as if shaking his head at the sheer weirdness of it all: "Nixon really got lucky."
Joe Gross writes for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: jgross(at)statesman.com.
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