(This post started out to be about something else, and now, given the way it ended up, I’m not sure whether it belongs here or not. You can skip it if you want.)
In his 1968 campaign for president, Richard Nixon’s domestic agenda was all about law and order—code for putting uppity minorities and hippie kids back in their place. But by early December 1969, Nixon had experienced a change of heart, or so he said, when he hosted the Governors’ Conference on Narcotics and Drugs. Forty of the nation’s governors attended, and Nixon told them he wanted a “campaign of education” on the problems caused by drug abuse instead of stiff penalties. Nixon noted that drug abuse was not just a “ghetto” phenomenon anymore, and that use was growing among upper middle-class children. Savvy politician that he was, he may have decided that an education campaign would be more palatable to that segment of the public than tossing their kids in jail. In any case, he was not abandoning a law-enforcement approach entirely. He intended to ask Congress to make searches of suspected drug users’ property easier. Despite its abundant reasonable rhetoric, Nixon’s speech was not entirely without hyperbole: he warned that unchecked drug use would destroy American civilization.
Factoids about this conference surface on rock history websites every year in December, and they’re almost universally wrong. The conference was not held “to determine the causes of the generation gap.” The middle-aged white men in attendance would not have cared much about the causes of the gap, only that it existed, and that something needed to be done about the consequences of it. I have not been able to verify the contention that Nixon, Agnew, top-ranking administration officials, and the governors “watched films of simulated LSD freak-outs and listened to hours of anti-establishment hard rock music.” But no conference is ever without its audio-visual presentations, even in 1969, so perhaps they saw something like it.
The governors did hear from TV personality Art Linkletter, who blamed the recent death of his daughter on her LSD use. He told the governors that the older generation must help get kids “turned on to life” instead of “turned on to drugs.” He blamed people he called “missionaries” for making drugs attractive, including LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, whom Linkletter called “a poisonous and evil man.”
Linkletter also warned governors that young people were trying lots of different things not normally considered drugs. They’re smoking crushed aspirin, he said, and injecting themselves with mayonnaise and peanut butter. Seriously: mayonnaise and peanut butter. Rumors about the psychedelic properties of banana peels had been circulating for a couple of years by this time, so it’s no wonder that panicky adults gave credence to every goofy rumor about similar grocery store pharmaceuticals.
In 1969, even as the attendees met, the culture they were trying to curb churned on. Easy Rider was a hit at the box office, featuring casual drug use and a soundtrack including Fraternity of Man’s fabled “Don’t Bogart Me” (but also Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher,” critical of those who sell the hard stuff). Stoners were well-served by the top albums of the day, including Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin II, and the first Santana album, not to mention the works of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and other frequently enjoyed with chemical enhancement. The campaign of education Nixon touted would have to compete with very attractive “missionaries,” and was almost certainly destined to fail.
The 1969 conference wasn’t a one-shot flirtation with the drug issue. Nixon and Agnew spent more time on young people and drugs than any of their predecessors, and the issue would continue to boil throughout the first Nixon term. In 1971, Agnew gave a speech in which he criticized the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” among other songs, for its drug content. That same year, the Illinois Crime Commission generated a famous list of drug-oriented songs, and the FCC threatened the licenses of radio stations daring to play them. But Nixon’s focus on drugs waned in his second term, preoccupied as he was by other things.
Here’s a fabulous 1967 anti-drug film, the sort of thing you might have seen in a high-school health class back then, in which a young girl tries LSD and suffers terrible consequences involving fashion and meat.