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On September 13, 1970 LSD champion and 60s counterculture hero Timothy Leary escaped from a prison in San Luis Obispo, California. He did so with the help of the underground revolutionary group the Weather Underground (WUO). The escape and Leary’s eventual trip to Algeria was funded by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group dedicated to manufacturing and distributing the best LSD in the world. Timothy Leary was their spiritual head. As far as anyone can tell, he had no practical role in the organization; he did not help make the LSD, nor did he actually distribute it. However, it was his inspiration that had led the members of the group to see their LSD involvement as a spiritual mission. After escaping from the prison and throwing the authorities off the trail, Leary and some WUO members ended up in northern California, where Leary reunited with his wife and put together a disguise. Soon, he was on the way to Algeria, where Yippee member Stew Alpert was trying to get him into the Black Panther International Headquarters. This section of the Panthers was led by the fugitive Eldridge Cleaver, who was wanted in the US on numerous felony charges related to an incident with Oakland police after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. That incident resulted in Panther Bobby Hutton’s murder by the Oakland Police. It also brought even greater repression down on the Black Panthers.
Meanwhile, Richard Nixon had declared Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in the world.” The FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had gone on record, saying, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” The FBI’s most wanted list featured at least two or three members of the Weather Underground. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love was quickly becoming the focus of numerous police investigations carried out by different California law enforcement agencies. In other words, everyone involved was hot…very hot.
A new book titled The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD tells the story of Timothy Leary’s escape and exile. It is an adventure many readers might find too incredible to believe. Yet, it did happen. The book captures a fair amount of the temperature of the times this all occurred. The authors are competent journalists and good storytellers. If one decides to read this book, they will certainly be captivated by the story and the telling. The only thing missing is the revolutionary politics. Those politics are essential to understanding how the story told in these pages could have taken place. Instead, the politics are reminiscent of Rolling Stone magazine. In other words, they are fairly insipid.
It was always an ambitious project of the New Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s to create a coalition of the freak counterculture and the Black liberation movement. Having Timothy Leary as the public fulcrum for this alliance was asking for trouble. Leary’s politics were minimal to begin with and his drug proselytizing rubbed most Black radicals the wrong way. Indeed, in 1971, the New York wing of the Panthers with whom Cleaver was more politically in tune with than the Oakland group, wrote a public letter to the Weather Underground about their statements regarding the use of drugs and making revolution. As far as the Panthers were concerned, drugs were counterrevolutionary. Their use not only jeopardized the security of revolutionary organizations, they also muddled the mind of potential revolutionaries. Weather and other countercultural radicals (Yippies, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, etc.) saw certain drugs (marijuana and LSD) as means to open young people’s minds to the possibility of revolution. Both opinions could be related to the social and cultural experience of drug use in each group’s segment of US society.
Although the authors hint at this debate and the underlying politics, they do not examine them in any substantial way. Instead, the disagreements between Leary and the Panthers (especially Cleaver) come off as differences in personalities and clashes of egos. It seems fair to assume that those elements were involved, but the fact remains that the Leary and Cleaver union only took place because of the politics of the time. There was no other reason for the confab. Lurking behind them both and the personification of what both oppose were Richard Nixon and his government. Probably more paranoid than either Cleaver or Leary, he was joined by an unholy group that included J. Edgar Hoover and several men soon to be convicted felons—most of his immediate advisors.
I’ve heard many stories about Leary, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Weather Underground. Most of them were second and third hand, told by folks who knew one or the other characters or just happened to be in the same commune or circles. This book is also mostly sourced second and third hand. The broader context is that it is story of a rebellion torn asunder by agents of the state, weaknesses of the human mind and experiential differences based on class and race. It is also a tale of paranoia and joy, revolution and ego. The authors have written down a fairly detailed chronology of events. This is a good piece of journalism. It does, however, lack a deeper context that would make the tale even better. Nonetheless, this fast paced and very readable narrative is worth the time.