Sometimes you read a book and it seems like the story is so familiar.
Uber paranoid President of the United States concern with his enemies? Check.
Political operatives who are not concerned with the actual law of the land as long as “their” guy gets elected? Check.
Coordinated and concerted effort to discredit a free and independent press because of unfavorable news coverage? Check.
The list could go on, but the point is the same regardless of how hard I drive it home. If you read 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 you might just think you are reading a book about Donald Trump’s America. Instead you are reading about Timothy Leary, famous for advocating that people should “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and his flight from the American justice system hell bent on using him as a bogeyman for the collective guilt of the entire counter culture movement at the time.
Understand that by the 1970s Leary was long past his psychedelic heyday at Harvard and Milbrook. In 1970 as a 50 year old man he was sentenced to 10 years for a middling marijuana possession charged effectively doubled to 20 years in captivity when a second, earlier offense was tacked on. This is where things get wild and Nixon gets really paranoid. With the help of a casting call of counter culture figures including the Weather Underground, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and the Black Panthers in Algeria escaped from prison in California and spent the next couple of years essentially on the run from the long arm of American law enforcement.
All of this comes at a time when bombings in the United States were common. I think it is hard and maybe impossible for modern Americans to imagine a time when bombs could go off in government buildings with seeming regularity. In 1970 the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for 25 actions. In 1972 the Weather Underground managed to plant a bomb in Pentagon. Other organizations including those affiliated with Puerto Rican independence were responsible for additional bombings. Think about what Trump and the Republicans would do today if such a thing happened. Okay, it probably depends on the race and nationality of the bomber. White male, thirty five years olds, Christian of some sort…disturbed individual but such a nice boy in eighth grade. Hispanic, twenty four years old…we’re being invaded by criminals and rapists! You get the idea.
What is even scarier are the parallels between an increasingly isolated Richard Nixon and today’s increasingly isolated Donald Trump. Angry at the media, listening to the few sycophants who remained, latching on to the military as a source of legitimacy, and the list could go on. However, at least Nixon had a working understanding of how government should function whereas Trump is barely cognizant of what he is supposed to be doing on a daily basis. I do not know if paranoia and anger are more dangerous in the hands of someone notionally capable of running the country or in the lap of someone assuredly ill-equipped to handle the task. It reminds me of what Dan Jones wrote in the The Wars of the Roses where he distinguishes between a king reigning versus a king ruling. One is about the ceremonial trappings of power while the other is about actually administering government. Jones is very clear that it is possible for someone, even an infant, to reign but it required a level of technical competence to actually rule.
In the end the central character in this story is somewhat sad. Leary bounces from Algeria to Switzerland and eventually to Afghanistan—imagine a time when Afghanistan could be a sanctuary from anywhere—before being hauled back to the United States to face a bevy of legal issues. The portrait painted by Minutaglio and Davis is hardly someone who could be considered the most dangerous man in America. Unless, of course, they were actually referring in a sly way to Leary’s foil Richard Nixon.
Funny enough, a lot of authors have liked the concept of someone being the “most dangerous man in America” as there are several books and documentaries that go by this title. Those books take the term literally whereas Minutaglio and Davis are out to show just how absurd Nixon’s dogged pursuit of Leery was given the other problems facing the United States at the time.