Like that earlier book, this one is told in a present-tense style that privileges roller-coaster participation over dispassionate context. You know early on that there will be entertainment in the details. As Leary is transferred from one prison to another in the opening pages, we pan over all that he carries with him: “two packs of Bugler roll-your-own cigarette tobacco, two ballpoint pens, and rubber shower shoes that are a goodbye present from a murderer he met in another state facility.”
Leary, the former Harvard psychologist who left the Ivy League behind in order to preach his fuzzy gospel of “turn on, tune in, drop out,” became the perfect foil for Nixon and Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, who saw Leary as a “Robespierre on acid, a kingpin hellbent on unraveling the normal order.” Of course, Nixon wasn’t the picture of normalcy himself. “If the president had his way,” Henry Kissinger told aides, “there would be a nuclear war each week!”
Domestically, there was chaos on a weekly basis. Bombs went off at Stanford University, at a San Francisco church during a policeman’s funeral, at a post office in Virginia and a courthouse in Florida, at draft boards in Florida and California. Also in the headlines: the Manson trial, Kent State, Watergate. There are pages here that read like outtakes from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Credit Dennis Darling
Most fascinating among the set pieces is Leary’s time alongside the Black Panthers. Cleaver, 15 years younger than Leary, had to be persuaded to take him into the Panthers’ “embassy” in Algeria. Later, Cleaver said that Leary required worshipers around him, and that the Panthers were done with “the whole silly, psychedelic drug culture, quasi-political movement” with which he was involved. “We’re prepared to go down with Timothy,” Cleaver told a journalist, “but we don’t want to go down for some jive reason.”
During Leary’s stay in Algeria, triangular tensions simmered between the Panthers’ less hedonistic agenda, the LSD crowd’s inclusive hippie ideals (Abbie Hoffman’s wife, Anita, “didn’t come all the way to Algiers to work in the kitchen”) and the Algerian culture’s “beyond uptight” feelings about drugs. Algerians allowed Leary to stick around as long as he did because they saw him as an “extremely valuable bargaining chip” in trying to secure oil and gas deals with the United States.
After Leary leaves Algeria, his escapade — and thus the book’s engine — begins to lose steam. In this account, as he must have in real life, Leary becomes tiresome. He inspired unfair hyperbole in his enemies (an Orange County, Calif., prosecutor once said he was “personally responsible for destroying more lives than any other human being”) and served jail time in the United States for what, in Switzerland, “amounts to an unpaid traffic ticket,” but even with all of that he doesn’t inspire much sympathy.
According to the book, Leary at one point told his third wife, Rosemary: “Our friends are getting bored with rescuing us.” It’s easy to imagine. Leary comes across as wearingly naïve, constantly beholden to others for his protection. He signed over the rights to his future publishing efforts to one savior (telling his story was one of the few remunerative things left to him); the Weathermen forced him to publicly thank them for getting him out of prison; Cleaver and the Black Panthers exasperatedly suffered his presence.
In a note he left behind for guards in the prison from which he escaped, Leary compared himself implicitly to Socrates, Jesus and the Jews killed during the Holocaust. While incarcerated in Switzerland, he spent “10 to 12 hours a day analyzing the numerical consistencies among the I Ching, the tarot and the periodic table of elements.” Driving in a Porsche while high, he talked about “the way DNA works” and how he planned to star in a movie based on Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf.” He was 50 years old.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America,” rigorously researched and shot through with some necessary conjecture, offers the pleasures of the ticktock genre. But the book doesn’t really have registers beyond tick and tock. It’s fine for many of the more well-known historical events here to serve as understated commentary on today’s world, but the present-tense immersion in the proceedings means that complex social and political issues mostly pass by as background blur. What’s left is a chase in which we end up half-rooting for the escapee to get caught. Much like Leary himself, the book is plenty of zany fun right until it’s not.