An interview with Steven L. Davis, co-author of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD.
On September 13, 1970, Timothy Leary escaped from a low security California prison by pulling himself on a high wire over a 12 foot chain linked fence topped with barbed wire. He was ferreted underground by the radical Weather Underground who helped him escape America. He ended up in Algeria with an exiled chapter of the Black Panther Party lead by Eldridge Cleaver.
All MONDO readers probably know this, but I thought I’d set the scene a bit.
While I was a participant in the late 1960s counterculture — to the extent that a high school student in a smallish town could be — I wasn’t particularly obsessed with Leary. I enjoyed reading his occasional piece in the underground press, but Abbie Hoffman was more my thing. Until the escape. After that, I developed a lifelong interest in his action adventure episode and how it impacted on his philosophical ideas.
That’s why I was excited to learn of the publication of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD by Bill Minutaglio and Steve Davis. The book doesn’t disappoint. The narrative is in present tense and fast forward. It’s a ripping yarn that bounces back and forth between Leary’s life on the lam and President Richard Nixon’s own personal delirium as he copes with the Vietnam war, extreme rebellion in the streets of America and his own obsession with capturing Leary.
For those MONDO readers, who have followed Leary’s philosophical musings over the years, this period is kind of the last phase of Tim’s cosmic hippieishness. He comes across as deep into mysticism; consulting the i Ching and the Tarot for strategic decisions and so forth. In some ways, his intellectual credibility would rely on things he wrote before this time and after it. And yet, I think he gained a lot, in terms of sophistication and insight from the experience, that showed up in his later writing.
I interviewed Steve Davis about the book via email
R.U. There are a number of things that are illuminated for Leary fanatics (as many Mondo readers are) by your book. One of them is the degree to which many of the ultra-radicals of that crazy period in the early 1970s were not really Tim’s friends. Particularly the lawyer, Michael Kennedy. What can you tell us about this “alliance”?
Steve Davis: Well, you can see this alliance of “dope and dynamite,” as Michael Kennedy enjoyed calling it, play out throughout the book. In some sense both Tim and the radical left were using each other for their own purposes. For Tim, of course, the revolutionary outlaws provided the means for his escape from prison – something he wanted desperately. But then of course once he climbed over the prison fence he entered a blind maze of new prisons – and as you say, these people did not have Timothy Leary’s best interests in mind, from the Weather Undeground demanding his rhetorical fealty to their vision of a violent revolution to Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers demanding that Tim renounce LSD and join them in calling for Death to the Fascists. On and on it went. Tim had to keep shape-shifting to save his own skin. He basically became a pawn of both the far left and the far right (Nixon and his cronies) during this era – and of course when everything ended and he looked back on it, he realized that the law-and-order struggles between the far left and the far right were two sides of the same coin. I think the experience made him suspicious of any alliance after that. Hell, it would do the same to any of us! Read more “Timothy Leary’s Great-ish Escape”