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1972: The Year That Made 2018 Seem Sane

Richard Nixon's battle with Timothy Leary puts today's culture wars to shame.

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 pages, $30

Twelve BooksTwelve BooksThe early 1970s were a strange, chaotic, terrifying time. Exactly how strange, chaotic, and terrifying has been largely forgotten, to judge from how many Americans on both sides of the Donald Trump divide view our current tensions as unprecedentedly intense.

Journalist-historians Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis are not deliberately trying to deliver a message about historical perspective. But in their thrilling The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD, they show how bad things got in a nation truly troubled by vicious culture wars, wracked by violent ideological conflict, and ruled by a near-lunatic abusing his power to pursue personal and political grudges.

Timothy Leary was a Harvard professor–turned–psychedelic advocate, a leader of the "head" faction that was rebelling against the establishment. He had been a voice for personal liberation and for "dropping out" of a stultifying culture, not a politically motivated leftist revolutionary. The U.S. government helped change that.

The war on the troublemaking psychologist is in progress as the book's narrative begins in May 1970. Leary, who had received a maximum sentence of 10 years for being caught with two charred marijuana roaches, is being shipped to a minimum security prison in San Luis Obispo, California.

After serving fewer than four months in that prison, the 49-year-old academic managed to clamber over the fence via a telephone wire. His next moves were intimately entwined with two different American revolutionary armies operating at the time. One, the Weather Underground, provided Leary with a getaway car, safe houses, and help with the fake passport that allowed him (and his wife Rosemary) to flee the country by plane. The Learys, as the Weather Underground directed them, then hooked up with the other revolutionary forcebecoming guests of the Black Panthers' government-in-exile run by Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover swore Leary wouldn't last in the wild for more than 10 days. But Leary's post-escape trip rolled on for more than two years and shadowed the crackup of the Nixon administration.

The book's greatest fun is the tense and comic-absurd description of the intractably hedonistic Leary aggravating Cleaver with his lack of revolutionary discipline. Cleaver wanted Leary to study up on Mao and Kim Il Sung; Leary preferred tripping on acid in the desert. (The Weather Underground did successfully pressure Leary into issuing calls for violent revolution, an idea he'd never advocated before and disavowed later.) The psychologist eventually found himself the victim of what became known in the underground press as a "revolutionary bust": Cleaver had the Learys kidnapped from their apartment and held captive, because he felt Tim's recklessness was "jeopardiz[ing] our work toward revolution in Babylon."

During Leary's Algerian captivity, the FBI, in an effort to break up the Black Panther Party, began taunting Cleaver and the U.S.-based Panther leader Huey Newton with invented accounts of the terrible things they were supposedly saying about each other. This added to the atmosphere of paranoia.

President Richard Nixon, in a classic tragicomedy, created the conditions that long foiled his Leary manhunt. More than one foreign government refused to help the hated Nixon on general principle. The more obviously desperate he became to nab Leary, the less cooperative they wanted to be.

In Switzerland, where Leary spent 1972 after slipping out of the Panthers' grip in Algeria, the government noted that Leary's initial pot crime would have been at worst a ticket for him there. International intellectual pressure convinced the Swiss that Leary qualified as a political refugee, not a mere grubby drug criminal. They booted him by the end of 1972, but they still refused to deliver him to Nixon.

The book is structured so that details of Leary's wild exile alternate with Nixon's descent into paranoid mania and what would in any nonpolitical context be horrific fits of mass murder, such as the "Christmas bombings" of Vietnam. A tantalizing possibility may arise in the reader's mind: Perhaps, if not for Timothy Leary, the president might not have behaved in a way that led to Watergate and his eventual resignation.

Nixon did begin to seriously consider procuring a private squad of intelligence goons a couple of months before Leary escaped. (That specific plan was shot down by Hoover, of all people.) But G. Gordon Liddy, one of the euphemistically named "White House Plumbers" Nixon eventually dispatched anyway, came to the president's attention because of his role in an earlier arrest of Leary in New York. Nixon's growing preoccupation with surveilling and crushing his enemies grew in lockstep with his mania to capture this man who dared suggest that psychedelics could offer a desirable experience. Such counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but Leary obsessed Nixon, who saw the roving trickster running free as a synecdoche for the population of hippies, yippies, and druggies he perceived as being at literal war with America.

For those contemplating exactly how out of control America was then compared to now, the most pertinent evidence is the book's compendium of a near-constant series of terror bombings.

The authors describe explosions in New York at National Guard headquarters, police headquarters, and three Manhattan banks; bombings in San Francisco's Presidio and at a church during a police officer's funeral; Molotov cocktails tossed in Wisconsin city halls and Connecticut ROTC offices; post offices, courthouses, and draft boards lit up across the country; 81 sticks of dynamite found at a Kansas university; and rocks, bottles, and eggs tossed directly at Nixon and California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

According to Bryan Burrough's 2015 book Days of Rage (Penguin Press), the U.S. suffered nearly five bombings every day during one 18-month period in 1971–72. Hijackings had become so common33 in 1969 alonethat the president's family was barred from flying commercial.

Leary's overseas spree (where he found himself continually squeezed as a cash cow by those he relied on) dovetailed with America's cultural and political chaos. By January 1973, when the feds decided they weren't going to let aggravating legal niceties hold them back and just kidnapped him in Afghanistan, the violence that had inspired Nixon to prioritize his capture was winding down.

But for a while there, it was bad. The modern American populace would likely die of head-exploding embolisms if even a quarter of that sort of madness were common today.

Photo Credit: Twelve Books

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  • seadog7616||

    Well we do have semi-regular school shootings, mosque shootings, church shootings, etc to compare favorably with a Molotov cocktail here and there. And exactly how many violent mass-murder dictators did Nixon praise, host, or visit on friendly terms? Yes he visited China, but how many banana republic strongmen did he prop up? How many global alliances did Nixon tear up, or break existing treaties outright where the US was in direct defiance with the world? How often did he decree twitch-response policy through the most casual social setting at his disposal, undercutting his own understaffed Cabinet and Congressional alliances weekly, just to keep his own name on TV? I'd reason the people of the 70s would need far more of their considerably weaker drugs to deal with today's climate.

  • Don't look at me.||

    You didn't learn anything from this article, did you?

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    People trying to make the current period a time of uniquely high turmoil are ignoring the past.

    If you think about each decade since the beginning of the 20th century, there are at least 4 decades that were clearly more tumultuous than our current time - the 1910s, the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1960s. And as the author points out, you can also argue about the 1970s - which started out crazy for the first half then sort of settled down in the second half.

    In terms of societal turmoil, the current period is roughly high average.

  • Fancylad||

    A more apt comparison is Paris in April 1789. The global clerisy have no idea how resentful and hostile the sans-culottes are becoming.
    The kindling needs just one more match.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Seems your TDS has progressed to the point that you think clumsily rehabilitating Nixon will win some hearts and minds here. Pretty bold strategy so I'll play along. School, Mosque and church shootings have been declining for decades. I think by any reasonable definition Nixon, aided by Kissinger, was himself a mass murderer. And he did prop up that banana republic strongman Pinochet, among others. And I don't recall Nixon or Trump breaking any treaty approved by 2/3rds of the senate so your point is? Of course back in the 70's the internet was still just a gleam in Al Gore's eye so we can only imagine what Nixon's Twitter page might have looked like. "I am not a crook!" fits the character limit but beyond that we'll never know. Trump is an asshole and a big poopyhead but he's not anywhere close to the evil of Johnson and Nixon, at least not yet. As it happens I came of age in the 70's and my drug use has plummeted but so far I'm surviving today's climate just fine.

  • NashTiger||

    Pinochet voluntarily gave up power after saving his country. I love how he is the Left's favorite boogeyman, particularly the Che T-Shirt set, the "One man, One Vote, One Time" crew

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Each side has their favorite dictators, whom they rush to defend.

  • Fancylad||

    The left has dozens, the right has Pinochet? maybe Franco?

    The progs pretend the Schicklgruber gang was right-wing, but economically they were pedestrian proto-Keynesians to soft socialists. And while Röhm held sway their social policies were indistinguishable from the DNCs (As long as you swap out "Jew" for "Israeli").

  • Agammamon||

    Hero or villain - he was still a banana republic dictator.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Well we do have semi-regular school shootings, mosque shootings, church shootings, etc to compare favorably with a Molotov cocktail here and there

    You're an idiot. What's going on today isn't anywhere near as crazy as it got in the early 70s, when bombings and violence by leftist revolutionaries were commonplace and the commies in the National Lawyers Guild were enabling the domestic terrorism to happen. Pull up "Days of Rage" by Bryan Burrough if you want an education on what was going on at the time.

  • Agammamon||

    . . . but how many banana republic strongmen did he prop up? How many global alliances did Nixon tear up, or break existing treaties outright where the US was in direct defiance with the world?

    So you're saying Obama was worse than Nixon?

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Really interesting review, I think I'll check it out.

  • Rockabilly||

    Nixon was a royal ass hat; not only did he ramp up the war on drugs, he created the EPA.

    While it's good that people are now able to buy marijuana in some states; the war on psychedelics continues. While it's fairly easy to grow your own marihuana, getting reliable psychedelics is a whole different matter.

    True, you can grow your own psychedelic mushrooms, in fact I am thinking of doing just that this year. But making your own LSD or MDA is another matter. I was never good at that kind of chemistry.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    you can grow your own psychedelic mushrooms, in fact I am thinking of doing just that this year

    Four authoritarian conservatives on the Supreme Court would applaud as Jeff Sessions used your internet connection information to track you down without a warrant and incarcerate you for that.

    Thank goodness Chief Justice Roberts could be expected to go against the right-wing grain and side with his freedom-loving colleagues -- Sotomayor, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan -- to provide the fourth vote for a warrant requirement.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Kirkland, Neil Gorsuch beat you up and stole your lunch money in grade school, didn't he? Only way I can think of to explain your jihad.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Justice Gorsuch is no worse -- in general -- than any of the other stale-thinking Republican authoritarians on the Supreme Court. He's likely to be better than Justice Alito on cases involving abusive policing, for example.

    I don't like intolerant, old-timey, right-wing authoritarians. I blame it on my libertarianism.

    In a free country, you are entitled to embrace the bigotry, backwardness, ignorance, and superstition that constitute the pillars of the current Republican-conservative electoral coalition. Indeed, you are able to do so while prancing about in garish, unconvincing libertarian drag.

    Carry on, clinger.

  • Sevo||

    "I don't like intolerant, old-timey, right-wing authoritarians. I blame it on my libertarianism."

    You could as easily blame it on your 'intelligence'; it's as absent as anything like your 'libertarianism'.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    I know this isn't your main point -- but last I checked, it is still legal in the US to buy spores.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    It's a good way to be put on a list.

  • Juice||

    If you can find someone selling viable spores, let me know. Even The Hawk's Eye sells sterile spores now. Got burned a couple of times thinking they were good.

  • Stilgar||

    Ah the 70s. Call me crazy but I kinda miss them. Wouldn't mind revisiting for a year or two. It was a simpler time in many regards.

  • Dan S.||

    When Leary arrived at prison he was, like all new inmates, administered a psychological test to see what kind of prison job would be best for him. It was a test that he himself, as a psychologist, had devised some years earlier, so he was able to give answers that he knew would get himself assigned to outdoor work in the garden, which made his escape easier.

  • Agammamon||

    New inmates are not given psychological tests to determine what kind of prison job would be best for them. They're not now, and they never were.

  • Dan S.||

    Maybe saying "best for them (or him) isn't quite accurate. Best for the prison to have him do? Anyway here's a source: http://countyourculture.com/20.....pe-prison/ I know there are others.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    His next moves were intimately entwined with two different American revolutionary armies operating at the time. One, the Weather Underground ...

    Why does the Weather Underground have a reputation for being an "American revolutionary army" while I get labeled a jihadist by a neighbor? I guess it's not what you know, it's who you know.

  • Agammamon||

    Its more 'how white and middle class you are'.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    During Leary's Algerian captivity, the FBI, in an effort to break up the Black Panther Party, began taunting Cleaver and the U.S.-based Panther leader Huey Newton with invented accounts of the terrible things they were supposedly saying about each other. This added to the atmosphere of paranoia.

    Options were limited before we could finger puppet folks on Facebook.

  • John C. Randolph||

    I'm still quite disgusted that Obama's buddy Ayers isn't cooling his heals in prison today.

    -jcr

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    I'm disgusted the members of Weather Underground weren't shot for "resisting arrest".

  • ||

    Ahh, the year I was born. Does it strengthen the case for astrology that I was born in a "crazy" year? Perhaps.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    "The draft will be abolished, the war will end, and pot and LSD will be legalized."
    A lot of people believed that at the time. We actually got the first two thanks to Nixon, although the draft continues to lurk in the shadows. Pot legalization appears to be pending, but LSD will be outlawed until the inevitable collapse of the empire. And just to agree with the author, Leary and the hippies in those days were not leftists or progressives. The culture was actually very libertarian and most were apolitical. The leftists killed the counter culture and became the establishment.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Well I admit my memories of the 70's are kinda Fuzzy, I was doing a lot of drugs at the time. But it seems congress appropriated 700 million in '74 and the agreement with Saigon that ended the war was signed in '73 so funding was not really an issue.
    https://tinyurl.com/yatg8wqq
    And while you're correct that Nixon kept the draft going for 2 years after it's expiration in '71, he didn't ask for an extension after that.
    https://tinyurl.com/7jxhqgn
    I actually agree with your characterization of Nixon. But I was born in 1956 and my number was up in '74. I was terrified that I'd be cannon fodder or have to make a run for the border. But he didn't ask for an extension. So from my personal perspective, thanks to Nixon for ending the war and ending the draft while in office. He may not have had any other choice but he was a helluva lot better than Johnson.

  • JoeBlow123||

    Hahah this was a funny post. Thanks for the anecdotes :)

  • Agammamon||

    Uhm, the war didn't end 'thanks to Nixon' - unless you want to say that Nixon being forced to resign and *Ford taking office and ending the war* was somehow a deliberate result of Nixon's 4d chessplaying.

    As for ending the draft - again, not Nixon. Unless you're going to say *his* continuation of the Vietnam war was the straw that broke the camel's back and got Congress to end it. Except that its not ended though, is it?

  • NoVaNick||

    Don't remember the Nixon years at all since I was 3 when he resigned, but, it seems to me that he was a prototype for today's modern progressive, with some law and order politics thrown in. The progs now are very different from the live and let live liberals of the 70s, only now are a few of them lukewarm about legalizing pot, while they target tobacco and big gulps with the same zeal that Tricky Dick went after psychadelics.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I was barely out of diapers in 1972, but I grew up under the influence of those live and let live-style liberals. To this day, it is mostly what informs my libertarianism: do your own thing so long as you're not hurting anyone, question authority (especially government), end the war/give peace a chance, and watch out for the fuzz 'cause you can't trust them.

    It's why I'm mostly mystified when people accuse libertarians of being conservative or right wing. It's also a shame that the term "liberal" was so completely co-opted by authoritarian statists.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Nixon....progressive? LOL, no.

    I remember him well - I was in 5th grade when he was elected and the entire Watergate mess more or less overlapped with my high school years.

    Law and order, rabid anti-Communist, anti-drug, anti-hippie, Silent Majority-loving, Israel supporting, "new federalism" Richard Nixon was about as far from progressive as you can be.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Um, wage and price controls? Seems pretty progressive to me.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    "Um, wage and price controls? Seems pretty progressive to me."

    Meh. Inflation had been running at 5ish% due to the war. Nixon had always opposed wage and price controls, so the Democratic Congress passed a law in 1970(?) granting the President the right to impose them as a potential campaign issue for the future, assuming he wouldn't. Nixon said "fuck it" and imposed them, TEMPORARILY both to try to break inflation and to deny the Dems that issue during his re-election. They eventually expired.

    So it wasn't so much that that sort of thing was part of his core philosophy - it wasn't - as it was just political one-upsmanship with his opponents.

    He tried it again in '73 when the Arabs cut off our oil and sent inflation skyrocketing, but it just lead to shortages of stuff like meat. That imposition was also temporary and expired in the spring of '74 when Nixon's entire focus was on the distraction of Watergate.

    It's just really not reasonable to categorize Nixon as a progressive. You can trace the beginnings of our current problem of mass incarceration back to Nixon. And he was one of the last of the die-hard Cold Warriors.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    I thought Reagan was the last of the cold warriors.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    And as far as anti-communist, anti-drug, anti-hippie, Israel supporting maybe you should take a look at the policies of celebrated progressives on those issues like JFK, LBJ, WJC, and HRC. They are identical to Nixon's.

  • Eidde||

    I'd call him a Nixonian whose view of leftists was one of hate and paranoia (and just because he was paranoid didn't mean nobody was out to get him), but on several of the great conservative/progressive conflicts he was either AWOL or on the prog side -

    EPA
    Wage and price controls
    affirmative action

    He took what on the surface seemed moderate positions, which later turned out to be obsessive and lawless positions. For example, he was against domestic terrorism and riots - which most leftists would deny being for - though it turns out that he was willing to break the law to go after terrorists. He also wanted to break the law to go after his political opponents, but that's neither left nor right (Kennedy and Johnson, it turns out, also broke the law to go after their opponents).

    Like other Republican politicians, Nixon in his pre-Presidential and Presidential career was for the Equal Rights Amendment.

    https://bit.ly/2yDpiyx

  • Eidde||

    Although...at one point the ERA could be considered in certain respects a conservative position, or at least an anti-leftist position, because leftists worried that the ERA would invalidate "protective" legislation which protected women out of certain jobs.

  • Eidde||

    Actually, I'm reading the Kindle of this book and so far it's a fascinating account of Leary's adventures on the lam and the manhunt (excuse me, person-hunt) for him.

    And it certainly makes Nixon look like a drunkard who was on tape discussing with Art Linkletter (in a "private" conversation) about how booze is not as bad as dope and other drugs.

  • tzx4||

    " it's thankfully hard to imagine Trump marshalling the forces of America's diplomatic, intelligence, and crime-fighting apparatus to nab someone merely for the symbolism."

    Until the man is out of office, don't jump to conclusions. This sounds like something The Pres would do.

    Nixon was educated and intelligent, and that made him a menace in ways the current chaotic uneducated character in office is not. Can't decide which is more dangerous. I tend to think IQ45 is the more dangerous of the two.

  • macsnafu||

    Ah, the 1970s. They were indeed a simpler time, at least for me. In 1972, I was just a 7-year-old kid who liked bicycling and playing baseball. I knew nothing about Nixon, politics, or Timothy Leary.

  • aajax||

    Funny, it seems way worse to me now than it did then. Must be old age.

  • ||

    Can we blame the CIA and move on?

  • kcuch||

    " it's thankfully hard to imagine Trump marshalling the forces of America's diplomatic, intelligence, and crime-fighting apparatus to nab someone merely for the symbolism."

    The quest for Osama Bin Laden?

  • johnsena||

    Really interesting review, I think I'll check it out. .

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