No, Richard Nixon did not call Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America”

At least there’s no evidence that he did.

Marc Gunther
The Psychedelic Renaissance
4 min readDec 6, 2020

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Here we go again.

Showtime just released My Psychedelic Love Story, an engaging documentary about Joanna Harcourt-Smith, the rich and beautiful young girlfriend of Timothy Leary, who tripped around the world with the irrepressible Leary after he was smuggled out of a a minimum-security prison in California in 1970.

For those of you too young to remember, Leary was a Harvard psychology professor who became a hero of the 1960s counterculture and an evangelist for LSD who exhorted his followers to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

There’s lots more to say about Leary, but best left unsaid is claim that President Richard M. Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America.” There’s no evidence that Nixon ever said it.

Predictably, though, critics and reporters reviewing the film in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Fast Company and The San Francisco Chronicle pulled out the quote as a shorthand way to describe Leary. It’s mentioned a couple of times in the film. It was also cited in The New York Times obituary of Harcourt-Smith, who died in November. The quote also appears in The Times’ obit of Leary, who died in 1996.

But, again, there’s no evidence — other than the 1996 Times obit — that Nixon ever said it.

When I began writing about psychedelics a couple of years ago, I wanted to use the Nixon quote. I figured I’d check it out. I dug around a bit. I couldn’t find an original source.

A Google search for “Timothy Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America’” turns up 27,000 results. Many refer to a 2018 book by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis called The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD. It’s a rollicking read, covering the crazy period during which Leary and Harcourt-Smith traveled through Switzerland, Algeria and Afghanistan, with federal agents in pursuit.

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Marc Gunther
The Psychedelic Renaissance

Reporting on psychedelics, tobacco, philanthropy, animal welfare, etc. Ex-Fortune. Words in The Guardian, NYTimes, WPost, Vox. Baseball fan. Runner.