New Book by UT Journalism Professor Looks at Life of Counterculture Icon Timothy Leary

In the early 1970s, an ex-Harvard professor named Timothy Leary, who had become the “High Priest of LSD,” became something else: President Nixon’s public enemy No. 1.

Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’ new nonfiction book, The Most Dangerous Man In America, chronicles the Nixon administration’s 28-month search for Leary after he escaped from a California prison, adopted a fake identity, and fled to places all over the world with the help of radicals like the Weather Underground. Through the use of unexamined primary sources such as court documents and White House audiotapes, plus firsthand interviews, Minutaglio and Davis, BJ ’89, construct the narrative of this global manhunt. The Alcalde spoke with UT journalism professor Minutaglio about his latest work.

Who was Timothy Leary?

He really was a big presence in the ’60s and ’70s. He was on the covers of all the national magazines, he was on all the talk shows, and he was mostly famous for being what I call the godfather of the counterculture. He was an ex-Harvard professor who had begun very deliberate, serious research into the use of hallucinogenic drugs—especially LSD—on folks who he thought suffered from mental health issues. Today it sounds outlandish, but back then LSD was legal. His work transmogrified, it sort of expanded beyond the confines of his research and people began using the drug recreationally. It seeped into music and pop culture, people wrote songs about it, the Beatles started alluding to it. The guy behind it, the guy who really opened up the Pandora’s Box in terms of not just LSD but suggesting that drugs were a gateway to higher consciousness, awareness, enlightenment, and creativity—that was Timothy Leary. And Nixon said, “This guy is perfect, let’s make him the poster child, let’s make him the face of the war on drugs.”

Does the book span his entire life?

The book opens up with Timothy Leary being imprisoned. He was arrested at about the age of 50, and the idea was that they were going to throw away the key. And then he busted out of prison. His escape was rather dramatic and he went on the lam for 28 months. He adopted a disguise and along with his wife basically went underground. Nixon wasn’t able to catch him for almost three years. He was finally captured in Afghanistan by DEA agents and brought back to the U.S., to Folsom State Prison, and he hears a voice from the cell next door saying, “Dr. Leary, I’m really pleased that we’re together at last.” He’s going, “Who are you?” and [the voice] says, “Well it’s Charlie, Charlie Manson.” [Laughs.] I’m only laughing at the absurdity of this guy’s life.

It’s like a fictional life, almost. A journalist’s dream story. When did you decide to write about him?

Years and years ago. I wrote a book about George W. Bush in 1999, and after doing that book, I was really drawn to Timothy Leary—he was quite the polar opposite and he just seemed really interesting. The real reason though? I met him once.

What was that like?

I met him in Houston and talked to him for a couple of hours, this was 1981. I had to keep reminding myself he was a trained psychologist. As we were talking he was in the moment but hovering above it—I think I was metaphorically on the couch and he was taking notes about me. But it was a fascinating conversation, and it touched on a million different things, and he was super cool. He said, “Hey if you ever wanna stay in touch, here’s my phone number.” I thought that was weird, that would be kind of a cool thing to show people in my contact list. But I used to call him over the years. I like stories about unlikely people who are caught up in extraordinary things.

You wrote this book with Steven L. Davis, your co-author on Dallas, 1963. What is your process like?

It’s kind of hard, but fruitful. I think we bring different things to the table.  Steve is a beautiful writer and just a brilliant researcher. He has an ability to go into the cobwebs and archives of libraries and a very discerning eye for winnowing out, finding the good stuff. We work together really well. It was pretty simple: I’d write something and send it to him and then he would write something and send it to me. We would kick it back and forth, have lots of debates—the book is really like a crazy quilt.

Are there parallels between events taking place during the time of this book and politics today?

[Steve] and I called each other one day and said, what is this book about? Is anybody really going to care? So we went down to the little town of Luling, Texas, because there’s some pretty good barbecue there. We came to a decision that sometimes people take politics in this day and age to such a deadly, serious degree that it becomes so polarizing you can’t wrap your head around it, and you just don’t wanna engage with it. And we said, “Wow, we don’t want that to happen with this book.” Maybe at least with some of this we can talk about the absurdity of life. We’re not suggesting that anything that was happening with Leary or anything that was happening in the nation was funny, but there were some things that were absurd in retrospect, and we wanted to show that. Maybe if we look back at what was happening back then, people would say, “Wow, is it possible some of that’s happening today?” Maybe we should just calm down a little bit and chill out and not be as vigorous in our polarization and our screeching … that’s absurd for me to be saying that as one of our goals. But it was.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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