THE 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 force--becoming 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...