Ever see one of those action-adventure flicks where the writers try to stuff everything in, including the kitchen sink? You know, the big-budget buddy movie with exotic locales, international intrigue, improbable exploits, white-knuckle action sequences, witty dialogue, rapid-fire editing and lots of celebrity cameos? And then they blow your mind by insisting it’s based on a true story?
Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’ The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD (their previous book, Dallas 1963, received a PEN Center literary award for research nonfiction in 2014) doesn’t read like a nonfiction book as much as it feels like watching the film version of a book. It’s set in the circa-1970 era of antiwar protests, riots and terrorist attacks.
American society was fracturing as the unpopular war in Vietnam fueled dissent. The Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary groups viewed violence as “by any means necessary.” In the middle of this commotion was a mild-mannered former Harvard professor turned psychedelic evangelist, Dr. Timothy Leary.
A consummate showman, Leary spent years promoting the use of psychedelics, in particular LSD, and free love to the outrage of establishment America. First at an estate in Millbrook in upstate New York, then in Laguna Beach, Calif., he offered a psychedelic-driven message with catchphrases like “turn on, tune in, drop out” and “question authority.” To hippies, he was a sybarite philosopher king, a celebrity messiah of all things groovy. To President Richard Nixon and his supposed “Silent Majority,” Leary symbolized all they couldn’t stand in the cultural and political upheavals of the time.