ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the early 1970s, with a countercultural revolution in full swing, an unlikely figure became the No. 1 enemy of the state - Timothy Leary, the so-called High Priest of LSD. Leary was a former Harvard psychologist. He left the ivory tower behind to spread the gospel of psychedelics. After breaking out of a California prison he went on the run, sparking a madcap manhunt for a bumbling fugitive.
BILL MINUTAGLIO: He's kind of a Mr. Magoo on acid, if you will.
SHAPIRO: That's Bill Minutaglio. He's the author, along with Steven L. Davis, of the new book "The Most Dangerous Man In America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon And The Hunt For The Fugitive King Of LSD." The story follows Leary as he hops from country to country, trying to stay one step ahead of the Nixon administration.
MINUTAGLIO: He's a 50-year-old, middle-age guy, not in the greatest shape in the world, and he manages to escape from a pretty strong security prison in California by dangling over a wire, pulling himself out of the prison that many others had tried to escape from. He gets picked up by underground activists. He puts on a disguise that allows him to escape the country, including using fake passports, and then embeds himself in the most unlikely way with extremely scary, dangerous, tending toward violence members of the Black Panther Party who are living in exile in Algeria of all places.
SHAPIRO: And the country has recognized the Black Panthers as a representative of America with their own embassy.
MINUTAGLIO: Yeah. The Black Panther Embassy was in Algeria. That's where Timothy Leary wound up. He escapes to Europe and then suddenly turns into this other sort of wild, living above the cloud line, European aristocrat experience where he's hanging out with Andy Warhol, you know, royalty.
SHAPIRO: There are, like, more guest stars in this than Pee-wee Herman's Christmas special.
MINUTAGLIO: (Laughter) Allen Ginsberg shows up for a split second. His life was - you know, in our acknowledgements in the book the first line says, we'd like to thank Timothy Leary for leading a very interesting life.
SHAPIRO: Timothy Leary is best known for promoting psychedelic drugs. He was called the High Priest of LSD. His famous catch phrase was turn on, tune in, drop out. So why did Nixon view him as the most dangerous man in America?
MINUTAGLIO: You know, a lot of people had called Nixon that, so maybe he was doing some diversionary politics there.
MINUTAGLIO: (Laughter) Nixon needed a poster child, someone to vilify in his burgeoning war on drugs. But it really was a matter of misdirection. The war in Vietnam was still raging, and there was a lot of violence, aggressive activism on the streets of the country. And we stumbled across doing some research a tape where Nixon at the White House with many of his infamous colleagues, a lot of the Watergate-era folks, had gathered around and said, you know what?
To salvage your approval ratings, to misdirect attention away from this flagging war in Vietnam, a stagnant economy, your swooning poll numbers, we need to find a villain, a guy in a black hat. And why not choose Timothy Leary? He's sort of the godfather of the countercultural revolution. And we can make him public enemy No. 1. And Nixon officially got obsessed with him.
SHAPIRO: This is one of the amazing things about your book, is that because Nixon recorded everything in the Oval Office you have these verbatim transcripts of White House aides saying, find a villain. It's got to be good guy against bad guy. As this whole narrative plays out, you know what the president and his advisers were saying as they were saying it.
MINUTAGLIO: I hate to call that kind of history exciting. But when you come across it, it really was exciting. He really singled out Timothy Leary in a meeting. They were equating him at a meeting just outside his office - some of his closest aides were calling him tantamount to Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, heads of the Mafia.
SHAPIRO: Was that just because those would be useful foils? Or was it because they actually saw him as dangerous as a mob leader?
MINUTAGLIO: You know, that's the brilliance of this story, too, in my opinion, at least the way that it unfolded. They initially just thought he would be a pawn. He would be a rube. But then as they got into it and they unleashed people against Leary, they began to really believe it. They began to accumulate certain bits of evidence in their mind that indicated that Timothy Leary, in fact, was the greatest, you know, drug lord. He was the narco chieftain of the United States in a way.
So they became convinced over time that their initial political ruse was, in fact, turning out to be, you know, a true political reality. The other thing that was working in the background was that Nixon really was convinced that there was something going on out there. There was a disturbance in the shire, to steal a line from "The Lord Of The Rings." I guess that makes him Sauron. But he was looking out from the tower and he saw revolution in the streets.
Things were unhinged. The social fabric was unraveling. And I think he wanted to find, again, you know, somebody symbolically whom he could kind of pin all of this on and essentially identify him as not only a drug kingpin, but the leader of sort of the domestic terrorist movement.
SHAPIRO: When you say Nixon saw upheaval and unrest in the country, he was not entirely wrong. One of the things that amazed me about this book was the sheer level of violence in the U.S. Today we hear the phrase radical leftists and it does not even compare to what was happening in the 1970s.
MINUTAGLIO: It really does pale. And I don't know if we've just forgotten or we've moved on, you know, in our electric digital news age, but things were really, really explosive. Cities were on fire. Buildings were being attacked. Campuses were being shut down. And there were really - no one was keeping an exact list, but there were millions of people in what might nebulously be called the movement, the counterculture movement. And Leary served an interesting purpose. He was an intellectual. He was a Harvard professor. He was extremely charismatic. He was handsome to boot, extremely eloquent, friends with John Lennon, other cultural leaders. And...
SHAPIRO: I didn't realize that the Beatles song "Come Together" was actually written by Lennon as a campaign song for Leary's unsuccessful gubernatorial race in California.
MINUTAGLIO: Yeah. Yeah. Leary, almost as a joke, had run for the governor's office in California. And that was an early warning kind of missile system attack, in some ways, against Nixon and Reagan. They were going, what is happening because people were getting interested and beginning to think about voting for him.
SHAPIRO: Timothy Leary died more than 20 years ago. How much of this story did he know by the time he died?
MINUTAGLIO: You know, I met him in the early 1980s and we had a very robust discussion in a dark bar in Houston (laughter) that lasted for several hours, as far as I can remember. And he told me then that he just couldn't figure out really what had happened to him. But he was one of these people that I think just enjoyed uncertainty, if that makes sense. He really embraced the next adventure.
So the book, you know, ends in some way with a nod to the fact that Leary had wanted to have his ashes blasted into outer space, which, in fact, did happen. I like the fact that when they were blasted into outer space his ashes were commingled with the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, the inventor of "Star Trek."
And then when the capsule that was holding his ashes disintegrated, Timothy Leary's ashes filtered all over the planet. And I think that was his last kind of cosmic joke, and also in a way his sense of continuing adventure. You know, little pieces of him were far flung and cast to the wind.
SHAPIRO: Bill Minutaglio is the author with Steven L. Davis of the new book "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon And The Hunt For The Fugitive King Of LSD." Thanks for a great read and for the nice conversation.
MINUTAGLIO: Ari, I really, really enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "COME TOGETHER")
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