Review: “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

From the start, it’s evident that the authors of this book liked Timothy Leary. One of them actually met him, but even though this book is no real hagiography but a deep dip into one part of Leary’s life—from where he was jailed, called “the most dangerous man in America” by Nixon, to his fleeing the USA, and later going back—it’s a wild 28-month-long ride based on a lot of research.

The authors never got the information they asked for from the US government, based on the Freedom of Information Act; not even Leary himself received it when asking for it in the later part of his life. Still, lots of records were found in places such as the New York Library, which the authors used to piece together an adequate picture.

As such, this is a chronological fly-on-the-wall tome which is also an easy read. Sentences glide past, written in a kind of 1970s vernacular, which feels suitable to the entire atmosphere, even when dealing with the near-psychotic Nixon, hell bent on catching Leary probably as a way of turning attention away from what he did to Vietnam and the USA at the time, Kent State, Watergate, et cetera.

It’s fun to read of how Leary’s intelligence turned Nixon’s attempts to get him upside down:

The government convicted him for failing to pay the federal marijuana tax, sentencing him to thirty years in prison. But Leary remained free on bond while he appealed, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court. In Leary v. United States, he won unanimously, defeating the Nixon Administration’s lawyers and striking down key marijuana laws. He celebrated his victory by declaring he would challenge Ronald Reagan in the California gubernatorial election. “Don’t you think I’ve had more experience than Ronnie?” Leary joked to reporters. He promised to legalize pot, selling it through officially sanctioned stores with the tax revenues going into state coffers. He said he would never live in the governor’s mansion—instead he would pitch a teepee on the front lawn and conduct the state’s business from there. His campaign slogan, Come Together, Join the Party, inspired John Lennon to write a song for him that the Beatles recorded as “Come Together.”

It’s also easy to see Leary’s charisma:

“Of the great men of the past whom I hold up as models,” he tells people, “almost every one of them has been either imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment for their spiritual beliefs: Gandhi, Jesus, Socrates, Lao-tse… I have absolutely no fear of imprisonment… I know that the only real prisons are internal.”

Then, there’s the start of The Weathermen Underground (later known as The Weather Underground):

The shadowy revolutionary organization that went underground after that deadly townhouse explosion in Greenwich Village has just issued a “Declaration of a State of War” on Richard Nixon: This is the first communication from the Weatherman Underground. All over the world, people fighting Amerikan imperialism look to Amerika’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire… We’ve known that our job is to lead white kids into armed revolution… Revolutionary violence is the only way… Guns and grass are united in the youth underground. Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks… Within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice. This Sunday, there are also news reports that in Ames, Iowa, the FBI has been called in to help figure out who detonated a massive dynamite bomb inside city hall that injured nine people and blew up portions of the adjacent police headquarters.

[…]

More bombs are erupting across the country, from New York to Chicago to Oakland. The Weathermen, the tight-knit clique of former campus leaders who have gone underground as guerrilla revolutionaries, are careening toward notoriety. They’ve taken their name from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—“you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—and are led by Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. Dohrn is a twenty-eight-year-old with a law degree from the University of Chicago. Raised in an upper-middle-class Milwaukee suburb, she was a dance student and high school cheerleader before turning to revolutionary terrorism. Her coleader, Ayers, is the twenty-five-year-old son of the president of Commonwealth Edison in Chicago. When people call him a rich radical, Ayers bristles: “Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.”

[…]

On July 26, an explosion blows apart a sculpture of a Nike Ajax missile housed inside the Presidio, the iconic army base in San Francisco. The Weathermen issue a new communiqué: “Today we attack with rocks, riots and bombs the greatest killer pig ever known to man—Amerikan imperialism.” They sneer at Nixon’s blustery attorney general, John Mitchell, who has been targeting them: “To General Mitchell we say: Don’t look for us, Dog; we’ll find you first.” A few hours later, at 3:30 a.m., a pipe bomb explodes in the front lobby of the Bank of America in the heart of Wall Street. Chunks of marble and glass from the doors rocket into the street. Twenty minutes after the bomb goes off, the New York Daily News receives a phone call: “This is a Weatherman. Listen close. I’ll only say it once. We have just bombed the Bank of America… Tell John Mitchell that no matter what he does, we cannot be stopped.”

I won’t go to deep into the innards of the book as that would be spoiling it all, but there’s also a lovely interview with the authors of this book as held by a representative of The New York Public Library:

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All in all, this is a wild ride through corruption, international getaways, Nixon, The Black Panthers, international terrorism, war, psychedelics, philosophy, adventure, love, and life in total. Firmly recommended.

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