Books

Book review

‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’ looks at Nixon’s public enemy No. 1

Timothy Leary arrives in Boston Aug. 2, 1969.
carl pierce
Timothy Leary arrives in Boston Aug. 2, 1969.

During his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Timothy Leary was not just an affable, gregarious ex-Harvard psychologist and cultural touchpoint. By the end of the decade, he had become the “High Priest of LSD” and the “Pope of Dope,” a paragon of expressive freedom and experimentation that delighted in poking the establishment directly in the eye when given the slightest opportunity.

Leary is the main figure in one of the decade’s most audacious and exciting stories, told with page-turning panache by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, coauthors of the PEN award-winning “Dallas 1963.” While the book is decidedly “not a biography,” the authors succeed admirably in their goal to present “a dramatic, hidden piece of modern American history — a madly careening, twenty-eight-month global hunt for one man.”

At the other end of the ideological spectrum was Richard Nixon, the increasingly antagonistic and paranoid president buffeted by setbacks in Vietnam and countless bombings and other domestic terror attacks at home. To Nixon, Leary was “the most dangerous man in America,” nothing less than what the authors describe as “Robespierre on acid, a kingpin hell-bent on unraveling the normal order . . . a sociocultural terrorist whose real master plan is to blow up the nation’s moral compass in the name of free love and drugs.”

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Free love and drugs figure prominently throughout, but this is no frivolous thriller. Drawing on thousands of previously unexamined primary sources across a variety of mediums, interviews with “[k]ey foot soldiers in the hunt for Leary,” and information from one of the author’s personal meetings with Leary years ago (he died in 1996), Minutaglio and Davis bring to vivid, lucid light the chaos of the era.

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In September 1970, aided by the Weathermen and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a “loose-knit posse of LSD-worshipping young hippies” who has “tabbed Tim its spiritual godfather,” Leary escaped from a minimum security prison in (he was serving time for marijuana possession) San Luis Obispo, Calif. After reuniting with his wife, Rosemary, and moving locations with the assistance of members of the Weathermen and the Brotherhood, Leary and his associates decided to change their identities and make their way to Algiers, where the socialist-revolutionary government vehemently opposed American-style capitalism.

In Algiers, he sought out Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, a meeting described by the authors in pitch-perfect detail. There they were, “two titans of the counterculture — two men who helped define the 1960s, both reviled by Richard Nixon.” After failing to gel with Cleaver and suffering a falling-out that left both men in precarious positions, Leary was on the run again, briefly to Beirut, back to Algeria, and then on to Switzerland. Weeks of luxurious eating, drinking, and cavorting came courtesy of a mysterious wealthy benefactor, Michel Hauchard, who ferried Leary around and kept him hidden from the authorities. His, beneficence, however, came with a steep price: control of future publishing rights for Leary’s books, as well any other windfalls he would experience. As Hauchard told one of his friends, “I own Timothy Leary.”

As circumstances dictated he flee Switzerland, Leary, now a global counterculture luminary, received word that he would be welcomed in Kabul, Afghanistan, a country without an extradition agreement with the United States and, not incidentally, the best hash in the world. Eventually, Nixon and his search teams caught up with Leary, and he was captured and ferried back to Folsom State Prison in early 1973, where his cell neighbor was Charles Manson. Meanwhile, Nixon hoped to get Leary talking to the FBI, which could “cause the counterculture to implode from paranoia.”

Though Leary cooperated at least partially, he only spent 40 months in prison and was released in 1976. He spent most of the rest of his life writing books, appearing on TV talk shows, and receiving standing ovations during his speaking engagements as a “stand-up philosopher.”

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The exceptionally well-researched narrative, as sleekly plotted as the best spy thriller, moves along a well-balanced parallel track. As Leary continues to avoid capture, Nixon becomes increasingly unhinged, raving to anyone listening, especially his henchmen G. Gordon Liddy and J. Edgar Hoover. It’s a wonderful portrait of a real-life trickster at work, confounding the Feds at every turn while “leading a mind revolution” that reverberated for decades.

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, 384 pp., illustrated, $30

Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.