Sunday, July 16, 2023

Weirder than fiction (1986)

Book Review from issue 2 of the World Socialist Review

"Citizen Hughes" by Michael Drosnin, published by Bantam, $4.50, is a classic account of power gone mad.

The author deals mostly with the last decade of Hughes life most of which was spent as a recluse in a blacked-out penthouse in Las Vegas. Drosnin's work is detailed, readable and presents a graphic account of an emaciated, meglomaniac, junky using wealth and power to satisfy his personal whims (such as buying a TV station so he could watch whatever program he wanted, when he wanted) and petty malice; and does not, like some writers, lapse into snivelling, moralizing, suggestions about preventing such men using power recklessly. Drosnin does in fact, portray Hughes as very much a product and a symptom of his times.

From his penthouse lair, the crazy billionaire sought increasingly greater power. It wasn't enough to buy one Las Vegas hotel, he bought all Las Vegas — mafia? — small fry. It wasn't enough to buy Vegas, he bought Nevada; but, it still wasn't enough, the greedy bugger, wanted all 50 states.

There was one sure way to go about it, first — buy the president: however, here things didn't exactly go to plan. Poor old L.B.J., holed up in the White House, afraid to show his face on the street, in case it got shot off, had enough problems — no deal. Nixon took Hughes' money, and with immense gratitude repaid him by testing A Bombs in Nevada and by dumping hundreds of tonnes of nerve gas in the sea off Paradise, Bahamas, while Hughes was involved in negotiations with view to purchasing Paradise.

Dicky boy didn't have the last laugh: it is the author's contention that Watergate was a result of Hughes-Nixon machinations. Larry O'Brien, ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was an employee of Hughes, (how come, is a fascinating story, but I ain't telling you everything here) and as such, might know a heck of a lot about Nixon that he didn't want the whole world knowing. Hence, the screwball burglary aimed at getting info, to 'neutralize' O'Brien, and the whole colossal cock-up of a comic opera, called Watergate.

As symptomatic of Capitalism, Hughes is shown as a man of great contradictions. His company manufactured nuclear weapons, but he fought to prevent them being tested, because of his fear of contamination, even to the ludicrous extent of identifying himself with the peace movement.

His fear of contamination was so great that every document handed to him had to be sterilized first, and his aides, who handled it were required to wash their hands several times in a manner prescribed by him. Yet he never washed, cut his hair, and nails or had the bed sheets changed or washed. His room was never cleaned: there were mountains of dust and used Kleenex everywhere: his hair was lodgings for every flea in Vegas, but boy! gotta watch those germs!

Hughes considered himself anti-establishment, (don't get your eyes checked — you read it correctly), his image of himself was a corporate John Wayne cum Darryl Zanuck — a board room swashbuckler, bucking and swashling all politicians, executives, Capitalists etc., who stood in his way.

Like any Capitalist, he would have liked to have had everything his own way — subservient politicians, a docile working class and no government interference or taxation: and came as close as anyone can to achieving that unblessed state of affairs.

Details are given of which politicians he bought, how much they were paid and how they earned it, by killing or delaying certain bills in senate and congress and which legislation beneficial to Hughes they had forced through, and which illegal takeover deals they had turned a blind eye to.

All books on Hughes will necessarily have the same broad, general thrust — the power of money. It is clearly shown in this one how political office is bought and how Hubert Humphrey failed to become president because he didn't have the loot. The reader is treated to a tear-jerky scene of poor Huby sitting helpless in a stalled, rented bus, broke, weeping tears of anger and frustration as he hears the private Kennedy jet roar overhead, carrying his well-healed opponent to victory in the West Virginia primary in 1960. Humphrey eventually became a Hughes man because he needed — guess what? He didn't beat Nixon in 1968 because Nixon had a lot more of Hughes money.

How the richest man in America was able to evade paying personal income tax for seventeen years, makes fascinating reading, (no kidding), and that ain't all: Hughes Tool, the holding company for his entire empire, avoided corporate income tax for three years. Like other so-called philanthropists, Ford, Rockerfeller, Carnegie, Hughes discovered a way to get great acclaim from the working class for hoarding his wealth and evading taxes, he created a foundation — The Howard Hughes Medical Institute. When legislation was about to be introduced to tax medical foundations, Hughes paid so much in bribes to ensure they would be exempt, one wonders if it wouldn't be cheaper to pay the damn taxes in the first place.

Drosnin gives several examples of how Hughes would become caught in web of his own making, a typical one being when he tried to corner the market on helicopters during the Viet Nam war. He quoted the U.S. government a ridiculously low price to get their orders, which, not surprisingly, he did. He immediately tripled the price, but when various people from congress and senate started asking, "what's going on here?" Howie baby, just as quickly, went back to his original price and lost $90,000,000 dollars.

One event which is of no profound significance, but does underline the sheer lunacy of Capitalism is when Hughes chief gofer, Bob Mahew, was in Miami, planning with the Mafia and C.I.A. an attempted assassination of Fidel Castro. Mafia boss Sam Giancana, wanted to leave Miami for Las Vegas because he'd heard his girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire, was having an affair there with comedian Dan Rowan. To keep Giancana in Miami, Mayhew sent a C.I.A. operative to bug Rowan's room. A hotel maid caught the guy, playing with his wires, and called in the F.B.I.

Drosnin sometimes takes his reader along a certain line of thought, but stops short of drawing a conclusion, as if to invite each reader to draw his. Such a case is the killing of Bobby Kennedy: was there a connection with Hughes? One must figure it out for one's self.

Whatever the answer, one thing's for sure, Hughes, his henchmen, political joe-boys and other sundry partners in crime, saw the Kennedys exactly for what they are, (the same thing as most of our folk heroes), glorified hoodlums. It's too bad the working class, as a whole, can't see through them.

In his treatment of people working for him , Hughes was a jerk. He liked to create hostile situations where there was no premise for any and constantly feed his antagonists anger while he put on an innocent, hurt act. Too much space is given to this nonsensical drivel, but if you like listening to little old ladies argue you'll love it.

The author claims that much of his book is in fact, an autobiography because it was culled from Hughes secret papers, which were stolen from his Los Angeles headquarters in June, 1974.

It is the author's contention that either Hughes or his executives acting on their own volition, were responsible for the break-in, possibly because three days previously the Securities and Exchange Commission had subpoenaed all documents relating to Hughes take-over of Air West. Nothing was more threatening to the billionaire since it was one of his more illegal than usual business deals. The Hughes people, unlike Nixon's crowd, enlisted the aid of a guy who was no plumber (and is referred to only as the 'pro'), who, on completion of the job swiped the papers for himself and tried to sell them back to Hughes cronies. They tried to find the pro, but lost interest after they S.E.C. did. Our friend the pro, stuck with his papers, bricked them up in a wall for a few years before giving them to Drosnin.

The author, who I assume, is no socialist, (I'm sure the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, who he worked for, as a reporter, don't make a habit of employing socialists), does not draw socialist conclusions, but his epitaph for Hughes is deeper than he could have imagined, "he was an American folk hero, a man who lived first the dream, then the nightmare — in that sense, perhaps the single most representative American of the twentieth century."
Ray Rawlings