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Remembering Timothy Leary

May 31, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Timothy Leary was a respected Harvard psychology professor in the early 60’s when he began a series of experiments with mind-altering drugs like LSD. He was fired in 1963 for using students in his tests then went on to become a guru of the psychedelic 60’s revolution. At sit-ins, love-ins, and marijuana smoke-ins, he crusaded to turn the world on to LSD.

TIMOTHY LEARY: It’s no accident that enormous crowds come out to hear me lecture. Whenever I go to a college, it’s always sold out. It’s not because I’m that clever. It’s because they gave me the good lines in the show–turn on, tune in, drop out.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But not everyone was turned on by Leary’s message of drug-induced ecstasy. Then President Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man alive.”

TIMOTHY LEARY: (January 1996) When Nixon called me that, I was thrilled. The President of the United States, whom many Americans and the rest of the world thought was a crazed, psychotic danger, for him to be calling me that, I, that’s my Nobel Prize, that’s my bumper stick, that’s my trophy on the wall.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Leary was arrested for drug possession dozens of times. He escaped from prison in 1970 and then spent several years on the run in Europe, Africa, and Asia, only to be eventually arrested again and extradited back to the United States. He got out on parole in the late 70’s and found his fame had faded, but he found some success as an author, lecturer and computer whiz. When Leary was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1995, he made his dying a public event and even started a home page on the Internet to chronicle it. True to form, he turned on right up to the end and told us all about it.

REPORTER: Do you still use drugs?

TIMOTHY LEARY: Yes. I prefer illegal drugs to legal drugs.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Leary said he looked forward to dying and called it “the most fascinating part of my life.”

TIMOTHY LEARY: I don’t care if I come back or not. It is my duty as a philosopher to go these strange frontiers and then shout backward, shout back what I’ve learned.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tim Leary was 75. For some thoughts on his life, we’re joined now by Robert Coles, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of many books, including The Moral Life of Children and Drugs and Youth, and by one of our regular essayists, Anne Taylor Fleming. Anne, starting with you, why did Tim Leary want everyone to tune in, turn on, and drop out?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: (Los Angeles) Well, he was kind of the perverse pied piper for my generation, Charlayne. I mean, I remember being in one of those auditoriums in I guess it was 1978 when he came and did his spiel, and I remember thinking even then, um, that, that his message was selfish, somewhat self-destructive, and a little bit thrilling. I mean, here was an adult coming to give you license and saying, hey, you know, get high, drop out. And I think we have to remember the times. I mean, Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was just about to be. The country was in turmoil. And in some ways, Leary’s message was very popular. I mean, lots of people were sort of unbuckling, and, indeed, finding a way out of their own sort of moral pain, but I do remember sitting in that auditorium and, and being really angry, thinking this is an adult person, and it’s a little bit like he’s walking into a day care center with a bottle of vodka, because I didn’t think that a whole lot of people were going to be able to handle the drug. And I think a lot of people weren’t able to.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Bob Coles, what’s your take on that, why he wanted everybody to tune in, turn on, and drop out?

ROBERT COLES, Psychiatrist/Author: (Boston) Well, I think he had an affair with craziness of sorts. Remember, this message proceeded the death of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. He started this in the early 60’s and it’s important to remember that when he was saying this, thousands of other people, including students from his Harvard, their Harvard, were leaving the university and other universities and colleges to go South, to be in the Civil Rights Movement, to work in the Peace Corps and Vista and whatever else that they did that had to do with practical deeds to change this country. And I think the contrast between this kind of 1960’s behavior, beginning right in 1960, itself, when President Kennedy was inaugurated and, and Leary’s behavior and the behavior of those who followed him is important to remember at this moment. LSD was, is, a very, very dangerous drug. This is not frivolous behavior. This is dangerous behavior. This is destructive behavior, and I think the most interesting question of all is: Why we have paid so much attention to him and people like him in the 60’s and to this day.


ROBERT COLES: What is it in our society that has the slightest regard for this kind of person?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me ask you that, Anne. I mean, and how–you indicated how you personally felt about the message and somewhat ambivalent, but how–what’s your answer to that question?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Well, I think one of the distinctions that Mr. Coles just made that I really value is to draw the distinction between what might be seen as the good 60’s and the bad 60’s. With, with Leary, certainly more in my agreement to the bad side–I mean, a lot of good things were going on, so we don’t want to lambast the 60’s while we’re trying to sort out Leary’s legacy. Umm, I think he was one of those geniuses of the media age. I mean, he was hip to all of that very soon. He came along with television again. He was perfect fodder for that. He worked hard at it right up until, as you just pointed out, until the day he died. And he was sort of one of those people like, like I suppose an Andy Warhol, you know, that we create, we inflate, we do all these things for. I must say too that bunches of the young people that I knew in the 60’s were, were skeptical, sufficiently skeptical of Leary even then. And it wasn’t like the whole generation was trooping off like mice behind a pied piper.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But who was he having the impact on then?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Well, I think that the media did an enormous amount of blowing up, and also, you know, you just had that funny quote from Nixon. I mean, he became a real punching bag for the right wing, uh, or centrist right wing, whatever, and for parents who were scared that their kids were all running amuck and acting out and dropping out, and turning on, and doing all of those things. Umm–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Some of them were, though, weren’t they?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Some of them were, sure.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Was it Leary that, I mean, how did he factor into that?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Leary, Leary was on an early swing with drugs. I think that, umm, Robert Coles was right about that. I mean, he started–he did start in the early 60’s, and by the time that a whole bunch of the, of the baby boomers were in college, and remember, facing the draft and facing what Vietnam meant. There was a tendency to want to seek refuge in drugs, and Leary, who can be quite charming, I must admit, he was quite a charismatic speaker, I mean, we can say satanic in a way, but he was very appealing in those crowds. I watched him work them and he was good at it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Bob Coles, who do you think he was appealing to in those days and how much of an effect did he have?

ROBERT COLES: Well, I think frankly he was appealing to a very small segment but influential segment of privileged people on various campuses and off campuses. I think it’s correct to connect him to Andy Warhol and connect him to a certain slim segment of self-indulgent people who have the wherewithal, the political and economic power to behave in this way. The ordinary working people of this country, black, white, whatever, the ordinary people of this country never got involved in this, and they were correctly disturbed by it. I think that frankly, Mr. Leary was Richard Nixon’s best friend. The two of them tied together very beautifully for the purposes of the 1968 election and they–he helped Nixon enormously and Nixon knew it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Did you see anything positive in what he was doing, I mean, the release that Anne Taylor Fleming mentioned earlier, the unbuckling, and also people have mentioned the challenge, the challenging of authority, um, anger at authority?

ROBERT COLES: Not this kind of crazy, inchoate challenging that has no–doesn’t direct itself at the real concrete problems of the country, of race and class, of privilege and poverty, and the disparity in this country between those who have and those who don’t. He addressed none of that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Anne Taylor Fleming, how did the Leary–how has he worn with time? I mean, you know, we saw him practically dying on the Internet. He was trying to re-make himself apparently.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Yeah. I think sillier and sillier really. I mean, it was clear that he was somebody who was grasping for fame right up to the end, I mean, that that’s what he had become the metaphor for. And, remember, he ran around for a while there with Gordon Liddy doing a sort of Frick and Frack act. Umm, it was all sort of pathetic, I thought, over the last 20 odd years. Umm, you know, more people were on to it. Certainly the country has become much more sophisticated about addiction and about drug abuse and about all of those things. I mean, it’s a far different time than it was when he started his, you know, up with drugs rant. So I think–


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I think people were looking a lot more skeptically and hard at him, certainly in these last years.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So briefly, what do you think is the Leary legacy?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: You know, I don’t think too much in the overall scheme of things. I think that, that much more–I probably sound a lot more like Robert Coles in this, but I think that he will seem like a perverse pied piper for in some ways–the wilful, spoiled flank of this generation, not the flank we need to remember that did do some good things. Umm, I suppose that some people will remember him fondly for having seen him flit through their lives and sort of, you know, say some silly, umm, unbuckling things at that point.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Sure. All right, Bob Coles, briefly, what do you think the legacy is?

ROBERT COLES: Sad, dreary, uninteresting, and I wish the late Christopher Lash were here to tell us, to remind us yet again the culture of narcissism in its most perverse form, and we do well to put this aside and get on with the real problems that face America today.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Bob Coles and Anne Taylor Fleming, thank you.