Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”
A paranoid, deeply unstable president; protest movements aiming to destabilize political legitimacy; a country so badly polarized that each side feels justified in using uncivil means to defeat its opponents; the nation’s leader convinced that when the president of the United States does something, it means that this thing could not be illegal. Sound familiar? This new book by journalists Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis is not, however, about the present moment but about the time (even more bizarre?) when the Vietnam War and the cultural upheavals of the ’60s were coming to their conclusions.
In 1970, LSD guru Timothy Leary broke out of jail with help from the Weather Underground and made his way into exile in Algeria and Switzerland before being recaptured by American agents in Afghanistan without the formalities of legal extradition. He was rearrested with much fanfare because President Richard Nixon, facing crises in Vietnam and then the threat of impeachment, needed a scapegoat. Nixon had become obsessed with capturing “the most dangerous man in America.” That “most dangerous man” served only about four years in prison after becoming a government informant. When he got out, Leary was an aging celebrity of the ’60s, and he hit the lecture circuit, even trying his hand at what was called stand-up philosophy. He remained a faithful cheerleader for recreational drugs dressed up as spiritual quest.
The book’s linking of Leary and Nixon may at first appear a little forced, even if the president grew obsessed with the druggy outlaw. Leary and Nixon may seem like an odd pair. The former’s apostles chanted “Tune in, turn on, drop out” as they dedicated themselves to changing the chemicals in their brains rather than changing the world around them. The latter’s followers were into chemicals, too, but the kinds that would burn the skin off their enemies’ bodies. While Leary’s followers were tripping, Nixon’s planes conducted the most intense bombings of civilians since World War II. By the time Leary fled prison, Nixon was behaving more and more erratically as he confronted mounting protests. Drunken late-night phone calls to aides were just one of the reasons Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, underscored to military leaders that any orders given by the obviously unstable commander in chief should be ignored until they could be fully vetted.
Nixon was particularly frustrated that his base had lost confidence in his ability to deal firmly with the increasingly violent protest movement. Nixon’s people lumped the political opposition with the druggy, antiestablishment youth culture more generally, and his Cabinet concluded that they needed a highly visible representative of that culture to “turn into the face of the enemy.” Leary was about 50 by that time, but he symbolized everything the Nixonians hated about youth culture. Their plan was to make an example of Leary, painting him as the greatest threat to American young people, and then declare victory when they were able to recapture him.
Leary had been serving time on a very minor drug charge. It was a symbolic incarceration, and the radicals of the Weather Underground meant his escape to be highly symbolic as well. In September 1970, Bernardine Dohrn announced that “the Weatherman Underground has had the honor and pleasure of helping Dr. Timothy Leary escape from a POW camp at San Luis Obispo, California.” She went on to intone that “LSD and grass . . . will help us make a future world where it will be possible to live in peace,” before concluding that “now we are at war.” Leary leeringly appreciated the smart, bold and charming Dohrn, but theirs was a connection of temporary convenience. The good doctor was smuggled into Algeria, where he was supposed to ingratiate himself with the more austere and intensely authoritarian Eldridge Cleaver, who ran the “embassy” that the revolutionary government in Algeria had offered the Black Panthers as a symbol of their joint radicalism. Leary tried hard to make himself useful (or at least amusing) to Cleaver, but the Panther’s paranoid, misogynistic style of leadership had little tolerance for the go-with-the-flow, hedonistic and privileged world that Leary tried to construct wherever he settled. Both men very much depended on the support and labor of women, but that was about all they had in common.
Leary’s prison escape and his sojourns in Algeria and Switzerland are told in a breezy, novelistic style. The authors have done an enormous amount of research, but they have decided to weave a tale, not make any arguments or broad claims. They write in the present tense, as if they are witnesses to events as they unfold. The chapters are very short and easy to digest. There is no analysis to get in the way.
G. Gordon Liddy was at the center of the president’s team executing illegal “dirty tricks,” including the break-in at the Watergate hotel. Years before, Liddy had led a drug raid on Leary’s estate in New York State. The White House knew that Liddy was crazy. As one aide put it, “Liddy’s a Hitler, but at least he’s our Hitler.” To add a freakish, comic coda to the story, after Leary denounced the culture of the ’60s in the pages of National Review and was released from prison, he would go on the road with Liddy staging mock debates at college campuses and clubs. They were, in all senses, entertaining Americans.
Late in life, Leary claimed to have tried to live up to Nixon’s labeling of him as “the most dangerous man in America,” but it’s more likely that he just said this as a way of attracting attention and earning money. The truth is, Leary was generally oblivious to much of what was happening around him, and his narcissism predated his discovery of LSD. He was willing to do anything to serve his cause — the performative pursuit of pleasure. He abandoned family, informed on former comrades, discarded principles. Nixon was wrong about Leary. He wasn’t dangerous because he sang the praises of LSD. He was dangerous because he was a new version of the traditional narcissistic American snake-oil salesman who would go to any lengths to get what he wanted. We now know this type all too well; additional celebration not required.
By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis