Part 1 is an account of Hughes’s descent into madness and self-isolation—with an overwhelming dread of contamination that was to rule the rest of his life
He was a man of simple tastes. All Howard Robard Hughes ever wanted was money, power and sex. He amassed huge quantities of his first two indulgences-and the women whom the flamboyant aviation engineer, pilot and movie producer attracted form a pantheon of Hollywood goddesses. His exploits from the early 1930s to the 1950s alone guaranteed that the six-foot, four-inch Texas billionaire would endure as an eternal legend. But the most fascinating phase of his life was still to come.
Illustration by Gary McLaughlin
By the mid-1950s Hughes had become a paramount eccentric. In bizarre contrast to his earlier career, he turned into an almost total recluse, surrounded by guards, moving furtively from one country to another and hiding in luxury hotel suites until he died in 1976 at the age of 70. (From March to September, 1972, he lived in a penthouse in the Bayshore Inn in Vancouver.)
And his lusts —especially for power—became obsessions. He eventually convinced himself that he could buy anything or anyone —including the United States of America and two of its presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. As author Michael Drosnin chronicles in his new book, Citizen Hughes, the mystery man’s activities ultimately led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.
Drosnin, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, based his research on more than 3,000 pages of Hughes’s own handwritten memos, all authenticated by graphologists and by the man to whom most of them had been sent: Hughes’s former chief aide, Robert Maheu. The memos’ history, fittingly, is also the stuff of legend: safecrackers stole them from Hughes’s Hollywood headquarters in 1974 and then, in 1977, one of them gave a large number of originals to Drosnin and let him copy the rest. Maclean ’s has obtained exclusive first Canadian rights to excerpt Citizen Hughes.
A huge gargoyle of a blackamoor, horribly greased and dripping filth, had violated his sanctum sanc torum, slipping past the locked doors, the armed sentry and the phalanx of Mormons through the one unguarded opening. Howard Hughes. sick with
fear and revulsion, cried out in the night, writing to his chief of staff Robert Maheu: “I hate to disturb you this late,” he wrote in a shaken scrawl, “but I just saw something on TV that litterally [sic] and actually physically made me nauseated and I still am!
“I saw a show on NBC in which the biggest ugliest Negro you ever saw in your life was covered—litterally covered from head to foot with vaseline almost 1/4 of an inch thick. It made you sick just to look at this man. ... He walked over next to an immaculately dressed white woman—sort of an English noblewoman type. So, after a minute or two of talk this man grabbed this woman, opened his mouth as wide as possible and kissed this woman in a way that would have been cut out of any movie even if the people involved had both been of the same race.”
The “Negro” was, in fact, James Earl Jones playing prizefighter Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope.
That realization did nothing to still the billionaire’s sense of outrage. “Bob,” he concluded, “I don’t care if this was the re-enactment of the Last Supper, that first scene is going to cause some comment.”
Of all of Hughes’s phobias and obsessions, few were more virulent than his fear and loathing of blacks. Hughes himself attributed his prejudice and paranoia to a traumatic event in his youth. “I was born and lived my first 20 years in Houston, Texas,” he explained. “I lived right in the middle of one race riot in which the Negroes committed atrocities to equal any in Vietnam.” In fact, when Hughes was only 11 there had been a dramatic explosion of black rage in his rigidly segregated hometown. On the night of Aug. 23,1917, more than 100 soldiers from an all-black infantry battalion stationed near the city seized rifles and marched on Houston to avenge the beating of a black officer by white policemen. Sixteen whites were killed in the three-hour uprising.
Undoubtedly that night did have a real impact on young Howard. However, half a century later, the well-guarded recluse was besieged not by armed mobs but by phantoms of his own creation. Actually, it was his terror of blacks that had driven Hughes to take a first decisive step into total seclusion. After their marriage, Hughes and Jean Peters lived in separate bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, seeing each other only for marathon movie-watching trysts at night. They met each evening for their own “Late-Late Show” at Goldwyn Studios until Hughes discovered that his screening room there had been used to show rushes of Porgy and Bess to its all-black cast. He never set foot in that theatre again.
Nor did he ever again invite Jean to watch movies. Instead, Hughes moved alone to Nosseck’s Projection Studio on Sunset Boulevard, set up house there, kept his new location secret from his wife and told her he was in the hospital with an “undiagnosed disease.” It was half-true. For it was in the three months Hughes spent alone at Nosseck’s that things first turned really weird.
At all first the he while spent his compulsively time talking cleaning to bankers the and telephone lawyers, with Kleenex or endlessly arranging and rearranging a half-dozen Kleenex boxes into various geometric designs. For several weeks he wore the same white shirt and tan slacks. Then one day he stripped off his rancid clothes, went about naked, stopped talking to bankers and lawyers and ordered his aides to maintain strict silence. Finally, Hughes issued a blanket decree: “Don’t try to get me for anything. Wait until I call you. I don’t want any messages handed to me.” Now he was set. He remained at the studio in silent seclusion until the late summer of 1958, when he suddenly moved back to his bungalow—and there had a complete nervous breakdown.
Blacks may have precipitated the move that cut him off from his wife and left him alone with his madness, but blacks were not the real threat. The real threat was “contamination.” The most dangerous was invisible. Germs. Hughes set up bivouac in five pink bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and from his headquarters, Bungalow 4, commanded his troops in the germ-warfare campaign. With germs, as with blacks, there had been childhood traumas. Both his parents had died suddenly, unexpectedly, his mother when he was 16, his father when he was 18. But his long-standing terror of bacteria was by now irrational. And it dominated his entire life.
Hughes cut off all human contact—everyone was a dangerous carrier—except for his clean-living elite Mormon guard. The few who dealt with him personally, or handled anything he was to handle, first had to engage in a 30-minute purification ritual called “processing”—“wash four distinct and separate times, using lots of lather each time from individual bars of soap”—and then don white cotton gloves. Hughes demanded that everything his Mormons delivered to him with their gloved, processed hands also had to be wrapped in Kleenex or paper towels, “insulation” to protect him from “contamination.”
Seated naked in a white leather chair in the “germ-free zone” of his darkened bungalow, its windows sealed shut with masking tape, the billionaire began to dictate a complete “Procedures Manual,” a series of meticulously detailed memos codifying such rules as the number of layers of tissues required in handling particular items, such as the clothes he now almost never wore. “Mr. Hughes would like you to bring a box of shirts, a box of trousers and a box of shoes,” began one typical “Operating Memorandum” titled “Taking Clothing to H.R.H.” “He wants you to obtain a brand new knife, never used, to open a new box of Kleenex using the knife to open the slot.”
“After the box is open you are to take the little tag and the first piece of Kleenex and destroy them; then using two fingers of the left hand and two fingers of the right hand take each piece of Kleenex out of the box and place it on an unopened newspaper and repeat this until approximately 50 sheets are neatly stacked. You then have a paddle for one hand. You are then to make another for the other hand, making a total of two paddles of Kleenex to use in handling these three boxes. Mr. Hughes wanted you to remember to keep your head at a 45-degree angle from the various things you would touch, such as the Kleenex box itself, the knife, the Kleenex paddles. The thing to be careful of during the operation is not to breath upon the various items.”
Hughes himself, of course, could never be touched. Not by naked or even of gloved and scrubbed hands. On Not those by rare occasions when contact was necessary, as with a wake-up ritual he devised, full insulation was required: “Call Roy and have him come up to the house and awaken H.R.H. at 10:15 a.m. sharp if H.R.H. is not awake by that time. With 8 thicknesses of Kleenex he is to pinch H.R.H.’s toes until he awakens, increasing the pressure each time.” His Mormons, themselves reduced to sterile instruments, obediently followed every mad detail of their master’s hygienic rituals, never questioning their missions even as they waded through the filth and debris of his bedroom, picking their way through the piles of newspapers and dirty Kleenex, treading carefully so as not to stir up the dust.
Hughes could not bear to part with anything that was his. Not his dust, not his junk, not his hair, not his fingernails, not his sweat, not his urine, not his feces. His hair and beard went uncut for years while highly paid barbers stood on standby; he stopped trimming his nails when he somehow “lost” his favorite clippers in the debris of his lair; soon he began to store his urine in capped jars kept first in his Bel Air garage and later in his Las Vegas bedroom; and he was so chronically constipated, so unable to let go of his bodily wastes, that he once spent 26 consecutive hours sitting on the toilet without results.
Nor could he let go of his wife. He kept Jean a safe distance away in Bungalow 19, out of the combat zone, and barely saw her at all for three years. He tried to keep her from going anywhere, to trap her in her rooms, always finding reasons to delay her planned excursions. When he had to let her loose, his men always escorted her, following detailed written instructions in which Jean was often code-named “Major Bertrandez.” One such memo—“Handling Major Bertrandez for Theater”—ordered: “If necessary to open the doors entering the theater or closing the doors, do so with the feet, not the hands. If it is necessary or common procedure to enter the theater with her to lower the seat for her, do so with Kleenex.”
Any sign that Jean was sick, that she had become contaminated, had to be reported immediately to Hughes, and she had to be prevented from seeing any doctors but his own, and never before he had been consulted: “If the situation is critical enough, then it is permissible to let a doctor call her on the telephone. Under no circumstances should she be allowed to go see a doctor either at an office, a hospital or any place else, until H.R.H. has talked to her first.
“The doctor will be cautioned to give her only such information that might be required for immediate relief of pain, or immediate medication, if required. This is to be done only if the immediate effect on the disease would be impaired by a delay. It is assumed that there will be some conversation over the telephone if all other efforts to delay EVERYTHING until H.R.H. available fail, but the doctor must be instructed, not told but instructed, to tell her nothing more than what medicine she should take to prevent further expansion of the ailment. The doctor should avoid giving her a diagnosis of any kind, or indicate the treatment required on an extended basis. Only the very immediate treatment should be offered.”
Jane Russell in Hughes's "The Outlaw"
Hughes himself would make the ultimate diagnosis and decide the course of treatment. “H.R.H. could use the fact that there is to be further treatment, or the fact that she doesn’t know what the specific ailment is, as a basis of telling her something which might break her of the smoking habit, get her to eat more regularly, or any number of things that would be for her own good. This could not be accomplished if the doctor were to inform her completely. After the first contact between the doctor and Mrs. Hughes, you’ll have to watch to see that she doesn’t get the doctor back. If the doctor is at home, his wife should be asked to answer the telephone and say that the doctor is out. The doctor should report back the complete conversation between himself and Mrs. Hughes.”
Contaminated women had always been a special problem. Once, years earlier, Hughes had burned all his clothes, everything he owned—suits, shirts, ties, socks, overcoats, even all his towels and rugs—after he heard a rumor that an actress he once dated had a venereal disease. Now he didn’t have any clothes to burn, nor did he see any women. In fact, Hughes may well have gone into seclusion largely to escape his new wife. He began to withdraw almost as soon as they got married. Clearly he could not share his life, could not handle the intimacy. But it was more than that. Hughes actually seemed to be afraid of “The Major.” The troubles he had in a simultaneous affair with a teenage mistress, more fetchingly code-named “The Party,” suggests there was an even deeper reason.
All the while he courted Jean, Hughes was seeing his teen angel on the side. She was the last of the harem. Barely 16 when he plucked her out of a local beauty contest, she remained on standby even after his marriage, stashed in a carefully decontaminated hideaway at Coldwater Canyon, under guard and under surveillance. Hughes brought her to his bungalows only once, to celebrate his 53rd birthday on Christmas Eve, 1958, his last extramarital fling. It seems to have been less than a complete success. As months went by without another date, “The Party” cursed and browbeat Hughes unmercifully. The guards bugging her phone heard her tirades. “You dirty old son of a bitch,” she screamed. “You never come to see me. I’ll bet you can’t even get it up anymore, you impotent old slob!”
Impotent. The playboy hero of The Carpetbaggers, known for his string of starlets, may have been driven into seclusion by his fear of women, as desperate to escape his wife—and hide his impotence—as to escape the germs and the blacks and all his other nameless terrors. Soon he would flee her forever, move to Las Vegas alone, and spend the rest of his life surrounded by male nursemaids.
But he would never find sanctuary from “contamination.”
Part 2 describes how Hughes, holed up in a Las Vegas hotel penthouse, terrified of nuclear tests in the desert, attempted to halt the blasts through appeals to Gov. Paul Laxalt and how he eventually mounted a high-pressure campaign that reached the White House and Lyndon Johnson.
It was already well into the evening of a very bad day when Howard Hughes finally reached for his afternoon newspaper, carefully extracting the middle copy from a pile of three, thus avoiding contamination from the two exposed editions. The headline hit him without warning: “History’s Mightiest A-Blast Near Vegas.” “This is the last straw,” he scribbled in a rush of fear and anger. “I just this minute read that they are going to shoot off the largest nuclear explosion ever detonated in the U.S. And right here at the Vegas Test Site. I want you to call the Gov. at once and the Senators and Congressman,” Hughes ordered his chief of staff, Robert Maheu. “If they do not cancel this one extra large explosion, I am going direct to the President in a personal appeal and demand that the entire test program be moved____”
It was Tuesday, April 16, 1968. The bomb was set to be detonated in 10 days. Firing off memo after memo to Maheu, Hughes ordered him “to bring to bear on the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] the very strongest, all-out concerted effort you can organize, in a final fight to the very last ditch. I want you to burn up all of your blue chip stamps, all the favors you have coming, and every other last little bit of pressure you can bring together in one intense, extreme, final drive,” he continued.
Then came an unexpected breakthrough. Maheu told his boss: “We have gotten word to the vice-president and he will attempt to accomplish a 90-day delay.” Hubert Humphrey, soon to announce his candidacy for president and, as usual, short of funds, was only too happy to be of service. Moreover, Gov. Paul Laxalt was prepared to join Humphrey in calling for the moratorium. “I have just completed an hour’s conference here with the governor,” Maheu explained. “He agrees with us 100 per cent—particularly since you have made it clear that all the study and research could still continue in Nevada—with the exception of the blasts per se.”
“Bob, I leave this whole campaign in your hands,” replied Hughes. “I am sure you should personally go to the White House after we have obtained the 90-day delay and endeavor to sell the President on a permanent policy. I am sure H.H.H.,” he continued, with a chummy reference to the cooperative vice-president, “would be glad to go with you and set up the appointment. You have gotten a lot of publicity as my sole representative in important matters and I definitely feel you would be more willingly accepted at the White House than anyone else I know of.”
Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling soon j oined the “Boxcar” (code name for the nuclear testing program) protest, as did longtime nuclear foe Barry Commoner. “We’re making a lot of progress,” Maheu reported to the penthouse. “Today the vice-president requested data which is already on its way to his office. We have the State of Utah up in arms and their effects will be felt in Washington starting tomorrow. We are beginning to receive the data (wires from scientists) which Gov. Laxalt requested. He now wants [California] Gov. [Ronald] Reagan to join in our efforts.” The sense of triumph, however, was short-lived. Maheu, having gathered the support of 30 “prominent scientists,” publicly announced his peace plan the next week. It drew an immediate and complete rebuff from the AEC.
“Boxcar,” the government agency declared, was a “weapons-related experiment, designed to improve the nation’s nuclear armament capacity”—specifically, to develop a warhead for the then-envisioned antiballistic missile (ABM) system. A moratorium was out of the question. The AEC’S national-defence claim hurt Hughes with his more traditional allies, and only days before the scheduled blast vital political support disappeared. First Nevada’s two United States senators, Howard Cannon and Alan Bible, deserted. Finally, even Laxalt announced his neutrality.
It was time for direct action. Sovereign to sovereign. “Mr. President,” wrote Hughes, taking his appeal to Lyndon Johnson, “you may not remember it, but years ago when you were in the Senate, you and I were acquainted, not intimately, but enough so that you would have recognized my name. So, when you became President, I was strongly tempted to communicate with you, as one occasion after another developed in which I urgently needed your help .... However, I decided you were too busy for me to disturb you for anything with a purely selfish purpose.
“Now, something has occurred that only you can alter from its present course. Based upon my personal promise that independent scientists and technicians have definite evidence, and can obtain more, demonstrating the risk and uncertainty to the health of the citizens of southern Nevada, if the nuclear explosion is detonated tomorrow morning, will you grant even a brief postponement of this explosion to permit my representatives to lay before whomever you designate the urgent, impelling reasons why we feel a 90-day postponement is needed?” The four-page letter had taken Hughes all night and half the day to write and rewrite. The blast was now less than 24 hours away.
Washington attorney Thomas Finney—law partner of Johnson’s newly appointed secretary of defence, Clark Clifford—hand-delivered Hughes’s impassioned plea to the President’s office. Johnson had just returned from getting a haircut and was about to change into tails for a state dinner honoring the King of Norway, when the letter finally reached him early the evening of April 25.
The President was in a foul mood. His day had been a disaster. Arthur Goldberg had suddenly quit as UN ambassador in a bitter confrontation over Johnson’s war policy, no one else wanted the job, and George Ball had to be bludgeoned
into accepting it. Hanoi was threatening to abandon the stalled peace talks, antiwar demonstrators were converging on New York for a march the next day, militant students had just seized several buildings at Columbia, top administration officials were defecting to support Bobby Kennedy, and with all these pressing problems, surrounded by traitors and turmoil, the President had to spend half his time playing host to King Olav, who arrived that morning for a state visit. (“He’s the dumbest king I’ve ever met,” complained L.B.J., adding with sour impatience, “I didn’t know they made kings that dumb.”)
So when Johnson picked up the billionaire’s letter, his first reaction was blind outrage. “Who the — does Howard Hughes think he is?!” the President bellowed, seeing the desperate plea to halt the bomb test as yet another challenge to his power. Beleaguered as he was, Johnson did not ignore the bomb plea, nor did he take it lightly. In a move without precedent, he withheld approval of the scheduled blast, secretly alerting the AEC to await his final go-ahead.
The President’s mood swing was dramatic. Although still more than a bit irritated that any private citizen would presume to dictate national defence policy, Johnson was also fascinated, even flattered by the hidden billionaire’s direct approach. He proudly displayed the letter to several White House aides, more like a kid who had just obtained a celebrity’s autograph than a President who had been petitioned to halt a nuclear test. Moreover, the President was clearly impressed by what he considered the surprisingly logical and forceful case the reputedly eccentric financier had made. “He may be wrong,” Johnson told his chief speech writer, Harry McPherson, “but he sure as hell isn’t a loony.”
Back at the penthouse, the naked recluse was confident he had made the right move. “My letter to the President was a masterpiece,” he exulted. “Also when I started focusing my memory on the relationship I had about 8 years ago with Johnson, I came up Swith some very solid memories.” Solid memories. To Hughes that could mean only one thing: hard cash. And, indeed, the two Texans had once had what Hughes would later describe as a “hard cash, adult” relationship. Hughes had not only backed Johnson’s first serious White House bid eight years earlier (when he had lost the Democratic nomination to their mutual enemy John F. Kennedy), but had secretly supported Johnson for at least two decades, right from the beginning of his rise to power as a freshman senator.
In his leaner years as a raw-boned young congressman, Johnson was a regular visitor at the Houston headquarters of the Hughes Tool Company, where he befriended the absentee owner’s top executive, Noah Dietrich. His big Stetson hat in hand, Johnson asked for free use of company billboards for his first Senate race. Dietrich refused, preferring to use them to promote a Hughes sideline, Grand Prize Beer. After an 87-vote victory in his second try for the Senate in 1948, however, “Landslide Lyndon” seemed a better investment. His triumph—marred by charges of ballot stuffing-happened to coincide with Hughes’s first big plunge into buying national power, and Johnson soon joined numerous other politicians already on the Hughes payroll. “Lyndon was taken care of annually,” recalled Dietrich. “On the basis of contributing to the former campaign, the present campaign, and the anticipated campaign, why, we could legally give him $5,000 a year.”
Johnson was then a newly elected senator with no campaigns to run for another six years, but as his longtime aide, Bobby Baker, later noted, “he was always on the look-out for an odd nickel or dime.” Hardly yet a national figure, as a member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee he nonetheless soon became known for his uncanny ability to land military contracts for his defence-industry backers. Hughes, although only three years older than Johnson, was already a national legend, but he was just then emerging as a major defence contractor. Tainted by the “Spruce Goose” hearings a year earlier, and in need of well-placed friends, he sent Johnson $5,000 a year for at least four years, at a time when a senator’s salary was only $12,500. The money came from a Hughes Canadian subsidiary, the Hughes Tool Co. (Canada) Ltd. in Calgary, especially set up to bypass a ban on political contributions from domestic corporations.
Now, as President, Johnson took personal charge of the bomb controversy and mobilized half the White House staff to deal with Hughes. National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg and the President’s science director, Donald Hornig, were instructed to report on the substantive issues in the letter. Marvin Watson, his second-in-command, Jim Jones, and Harry McPherson were assigned to co-ordinate the project and draft a reply to Hughes. Johnson returned from the King Olav dinner shortly before midnight to find their reports waiting. Rostow reassured Johnson that the planned bomb test was entirely safe and under control.
Hours later, just minutes before the blast, still undecided, Johnson received a final bomb report from his top science adviser, Hornig. “There is still time to act in the next 15 to 20 minutes,” Hornig informed the President. But, joining Rostow, he urged Johnson not to halt the scheduled blast. “A complete cancellation seems inadvisable,” his message read. “The test will furnish a calibration point for the ABM warhead, and is needed for that purpose and as a proof test for a Polaris warhead. I recommend that we do not change the test plans.”
That made it unanimous. The President could not, against the strongly worded advice of all his experts—against the entire national defence establishment—cancel a major nuclear weapons test at the demand of one private citizen, even Hughes. Johnson decided to detonate the bomb.
Two weeks later a double envelope, the inner one marked “Personal & Confidential to Mr. Hughes,” arrived at the Desert Inn. Inside was a two-page message from Lyndon
Johnson. The entire tone was respectful and reassuring. To Hughes, however, the President’s letter was a deliberate slap in the face. Not only had Johnson failed to stop “Boxcar,” not only had he refused to move all future blasts elsewhere, but he had kept Hughes waiting two weeks for a reply. The billionaire was enraged.
“I think you should try to determine who is the real, honest-to-God bagman at the White House,” he urged Maheu. “And please don’t be frightened by the enormity of the thought. I have known for a number of years that this particular Democratic administration is just as crooked as it can be. Now, I don’t know whom you have to approach, but there is somebody, take my word for it.” Finally, in a casual postscript to a somewhat chilling memo, Hughes took the true measure of the man he had tried to reach by honest reason. “P.S. One thing I should have told you, in connection with my assumption that the Pres, may have waited the two weeks to hear from me on some kind of a hard-cash, adult, basis. I should tell you that I have done this kind of business with him before. So, he wears no awe-inspiring robe of virtue with me ....
“Now,” concluded Hughes, in a classic expression of free-enterprise morality, “I think there is a market-place, somewhere, where the things we want can be bought or sold, and I urge that instead of spending any more time begging for a free hand-out, we find the right place, and the right people and buy what we want.”
Part 3 outlines the way in which Hughes put Larry O'Brien on his payroll at the same time that O'Brien was Democratic National Committee chairman. O'Brien could be helpful in Hughes's difficulties over antitrust legislation.
Emaciated, practically skeletal with only 120 pounds stretched out over his six-foot, four-inch frame, and hardly a speck of color about him anywhere, not even in his lips, Howard Hughes seemed not merely dead but already in decay. Only the long gray hair that trailed halfway down his back, the thin, scraggly beard that reached midway onto his sunken chest, and the hideously long nails that extended several inches in grotesque yellowed corkscrews from his fingers and toes seemed still to be growing, still showing signs of life. That, and his eyes. Sometimes they looked dead, blank. But other times they gleamed from their deep-sunk sockets with surprising, almost frightening intensity.
Many of his teeth were rotting black stumps, some just dangling loose from his puffy, whitened, pus-filled gums. A tumor was beginning to emerge from the side of his head, a reddened lump protruding through sparse strands of gray hair. He had bedsores festering all down his back, some so severe that eventually one shoulder blade—the bare bone—would poke through his parchment-like skin. And then there were the needle marks. The telltale tracks ran the full length of both his thin arms, scarred his thighs and clustered horribly around his groin.
Howard Hughes was an addict. A billionaire junkie. He was shooting up massive amounts of codeine, routinely “skinpopping” more than 20 grains daily, sometimes three or four times that much, regularly taking doses thought lethal. He had been hooked for two decades, ever since a 1946 plane crash, when his doctor prescribed morphine to ease the pain of what everyone thought would be his final hours. As he instead recovered, the doctors substituted codeine, and through the years Hughes demanded ever-larger doses, finally setting up a byzantine illegal supply operation, getting prescriptions filled under assumed names at various Los Angeles drugstores.
There were other drugs, and the codeine was not the worst of them. Hughes was also gobbling massive quantities of tranquillizers, up to 200 milligrams of Valium and Librium at a single shot, 10 times the normal dose. And when he wasn’t shooting codeine, he was swallowing fistfuls of Empirin #4, a prescription compound containing codeine, Aspirin, caffeine and a synthetic pain-killer called phenacetin. It was not the codeine but the phenacetin that was doing the real damage, ravaging his already shrunken kidneys. Eventually it would kill him.
On June 6, 1968, Howard Hughes, in his Las Vegas penthouse, watched on TV a red-eyed Frank Mankiewicz walk slump-shouldered into the floodlit hospital lobby to confirm everybody’s worst fears. The press secretary bowed his head for a moment, then read a brief statement: “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today. He was 42 years old.”
Hughes began to scrawl a fevered memo to Maheu. “I hate to be quick on the draw,” wrote Hughes, “but I see here an opportunity that may not happen again in a lifetime. I don’t aspire to be President, but I do want political strength.... I have wanted this for a long time, but somehow it has always evaded me. I mean the kind of an organization so that we would never have to worry about a jerky little thing like this antitrust problem—not in 100 years. And I mean the kind of a set up that, if we wanted to, could put Gov. Laxalt in the White House in 1972 or 76.
“Anyway, it seems to me that the very people we need have just fallen smack into our hands. Also, if we approach them quickly and skillfully, they should be as anxious to find a haven with us as we are to obtain them....
So, in consideration of my own nervous system, will you please move like lightning on this deal—first, to report to me whom you think we want, of Kennedy’s people, and second contact such people with absolutely no delay the minute I confirm your recommendation.”
Maheu failed to fully grasp the magnitude of his new mission. “Bob,” wrote Hughes impatiently, “I thought you would understand. I want us to hire Bob Kennedy’s entire organization—with certain exceptions, of course, I am not sure we want [Pierre] Salinger and a few others. However, here is an entire integrated group, used to getting things done over all obstacles. They are used to having the Kennedy money behind them and we can equal that. This group was trained by John Kennedy and his backer, and then moved over to R.F.K. when John died. It is a natural for us. I am not looking for political favors from them. I expect you to pick our candidate and soon. I repeat, I don’t want an alliance with the Kennedy group, I want to put them on the payroll.”
Maheu understood. And he delivered. Not the entire Kennedy team, but its leader, Bobby’s campaign manager, Larry O’Brien. After 16 years in service to the Kennedys, from Jack’s first Senate race to Bobby’s last campaign, Larry O’Brien was suddenly left without a job, without a patron, with no idea how to support his family or what to do next. He was sitting home in Washington when Maheu called. Maheu later reported to the penthouse: “Larry O’Brien—he is coming here on Wednesday next for a conference as per our request after the assassination of Senator Kennedy. He is prepared to talk employment and has received a commitment (without any obligation whatsoever) from the four or five key men in the Kennedy camp that they will not become obligated until they hear from him.”
The leader of the Irish Mafia arrived in Las Vegas on the Fourth of July. He was put up in style at the Desert Inn and had the run of the town, compliments of Hughes, but he never met his would-be boss in the room upstairs.
Maheu told O’Brien that Hughes had a problem: he did not think that his “good works” were sufficiently appreciated by the American people. Over the next two days Maheu mentioned some of the good works in which Hughes was now engaged. First, there was his stalled Monopoly game of acquiring casinos in Las Vegas. Then, his legal battle over TWA and taxes. And that very weekend, he hatched a plot to take over Air West and launched his sudden raid to seize control of the American Broadcasting Corp. (ABC). That particular act of munificence required immediate attention. According to Maheu, O’Brien was quite encouraging about the ABC raid. “He feels that we have no insoluble conditions before the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and/or the Dept, of Justice,” Maheu reported to Hughes.
Hughes was eager to put O’Brien right to work. Indeed, he wanted to send him right into the Oval Office. “It seems to me, Bob, there is a comparatively easy way to get an immediate answer to the network decision,” he wrote. “I think such an answer should be obtainable by Mr. O’Brien marching in and collaring Johnson and saying: ‘Look, my friend, my client Mr. Hughes has initiated the machinery to acquire control of ABC.’ ”
O’Brien met with Maheu for a second round of talks in Washington at the end of July. In their meeting at the Madison Hotel, he gave O’Brien the $25,000 Hughes had promised Bobby Kennedy just before the assassination. O’Brien passed on the cash-filled manila envelope to Kennedy’s brother-in-law Steve Smith, who gratefully accepted Hughes’s unusual expression of condolences. And at that same Washington meeting, Maheu and O’Brien came to terms. Hughes would become a client of the newly formed O’Brien Associates, and its proprietor, Larry O’Brien, would get $15,000 a month, $500 a day, for at least two years, a $360,000 secret contract. Hughes had done it. He had captured the leader of the Kennedy gang, hired its top gun.
O’Brien Associates opened for business on Oct. 1,1969, just in time to help rewire national tax legislation for its chief client, Howard Hughes. The Tax Reform Act of 1969 was the most sweeping overhaul of the country’s revenue system in history, and it posed a real problem for Hughes and the billionaire’s big charity—the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Like the other great philanthropists—Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie—Hughes had discovered a way to get great public acclaim for hoarding his wealth and evading his taxes. He created a foundation. But Rep. Wright Patman, the Texas populist who had been using his power as chairman of the House Banking Committee to push a congressional investigation of the foundation game, discovered that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute had only one real beneficiary: Howard Hughes. In the 15 years since its founding, the institute had given only $6 million to medical researchers and kicked back amost $24 million to the billionaire.
Into the breach stepped Larry O’Brien. “I am thoroughly knowledgeable of the affinity which has existed for years between Patman and O’Brien,” Maheu reported to the penthouse philanthropist. “In addition, I accidently found out last night that Dick Danner (Richard Danner, a longtime Nixon associate who handled dealings between Hughes and the White House through Nixon’s closest friend, Bebé Rebozo) and Patman have been close friends for many years. Unless you advise me to the contrary, it is my intention to coordinate among Danner and O’Brien a program which perhaps could get Patman off our backs.”
By the time the tax bill emerged from that Senate committee, it had a special loophole. One tailored just for Hughes. Now hidden in the 225-page law was a single sentence that exempted “medical research organizations” —namely the Hughes institute. Richard Nixon had not done quite so well. On Dec. 30, 1969, after threatening a veto, he bitterly signed into law a tax reform act that eliminated the deduction for his private papers. The repeal was retroactive to July. Nixon had missed the cutoff date. He had blown the chance for his big tax break. Or so it seemed.
But on April 10,1970, there was another signing ceremony in the Oval Office. On that day, the President signed his 1969 income tax returns. He claimed a charitable deduction of $576,000 for his papers and attached a deed showing that they had been donated to the National Archives in March, 1969, four months before the new deadline. That whopping writeoff allowed Nixon to escape virtually all of his taxes while he was President. In 1970 he paid $792.81. In 1971 he paid $873.03. In 1972 he paid $4,298. There was only one problem. It was all a fraud, one his own lawyers would later call “the Presidential Papers Caper.” Nixon had backdated the deed on his papers, cheated on his taxes and evaded $467,000 he owed the Internal Revenue Service (1RS).
By the time the President backdated his deed, Larry O’Brien had once more become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. For the next year he would serve Howard Hughes and the Democrats simultaneously, and Nixon’s concern about the Hughes-O’Brien relationship would become an absolute obsession.
Part 4 chronicles how Hughes, never a partisan, supported Richard Nixon through his checkered career, giving him loans and campaign contributions—and expecting performance in return.
In Richard Nixon, Howard Hughes had at last what he had always wanted— a debtor in the Oval Office. “I am determined to elect a president of our choosing this year and one who will be deeply indebted, and who will recognize his indebtedness,” Hughes had declared early in the 1968 campaign. “Since I am willing to go beyond all limitations on this, I think we should be able to select a candidate and a party who knows the facts of political life. If
we select Nixon, he I know for sure knows the facts of life.” Theirs was a special relationship. It stretched back more than two decades, had survived multiple crises, and still endured. Hughes had supported Nixon in every bid for office since his first congressional race in 1946 and would continue to back him to the end. In addition to campaign funds, he provided large sums for the personal use of the President and his family. The known bequests—the few made openly and the hidden payoffs later discovered—eventually totaled more than half a million dollars. More than a financial angel,
Hughes was a virtual fairy godfather in Nixon’s faltering rise to power. In 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower was ready to find a new running mate, Hughes ordered a covert operation to crush the “Dump Nixon” movement, sending Maheu to infiltrate the enemy camp and concoct a spurious pro-Nixon poll.
Yet the billionaire’s largesse may have cost Nixon his first bid for the presidency when a scandal erupted in the closing days of the 1960 campaign over a never-repaid $205,000 Hughes “loan.” Nixon had personally requested the money four years earlier, shortly after he was re-elected vice-president, ostensibly to bail out his brother Donald’s failing business —a chain of restaurants featuring “Nixonburgers.” The cash came from Hughes’s Canadian operations and was transferred through a cutout to the vice-president’s aged mother, Hannah, who passed it on to her bankrupt son. The name Hughes appeared nowhere on the loan agreement, and none of the Nixons was responsible for repayment. Their only collateral was a vacant lot in Whittier, Calif., once the site of the Nixon family home. It had an assessed value of $13,000.
Hughes was pleased to play the friendly pawnbroker. “I want the Nixons to have the money,” he told his reluctant business manager, Noah Dietrich. “Let ’em have it.” Nonetheless uneasy about the secret deal, Dietrich flew to Washington in a futile attempt to dissuade the vicepresident. “About the loan to Donald,” he cautioned Nixon, “Hughes has authorized it, and Donald can have it, but if this becomes public it could mean the end of your political career.” Nixon, unfazed, responded self-righteously.
“Mr. Dietrich,” he reportedly said, “I have to put my relatives ahead of my career.” Donald’s fast-food enterprise soon collapsed despite the easy credit, and Hughes never did get back his money. Still, he apparently came out well ahead. Less than three months after he so generously aided the needy Nixons, the 1RS officially recognized his philanthropic status. It declared the Howard Hughes Medical Institute a tax-exempt charity.
The “Hughes loan scandal” hit the headlines in the final weeks of the closely contested 1960 election. Nixon was certain it cost him the presidency. Hughes had become a haunting symbol of Nixon’s greed and corruption, apparently driving him out of politics forever. In 1968, however, Nixon was staging a startling comeback. And both he and Hughes were ready to deal again. “I want you to go see Nixon as my special confidential emissary,” Hughes instructed Maheu. “I feel there is a really valid possibility of a Republican victory this year. If that could be realized under our sponsorship and supervision every inch of the way then we would be ready to follow with Laxalt as our next candidate.”
Nixon was also eager to renew their ill-fated relationship. Of course, Nixon could not reach Hughes directly. Nobody could. In fact, despite their long relationship, the two men had never actually met. Their dealings had always been through intermediaries, and this time Nixon wanted as much insulation as possible.
That spring, Nixon huddled with his closest friend, Rebozo, and the man who had introduced them to each other 20 years earlier, Richard Danner. Nixon and Rebozo ran through an apparently well-rehearsed script, designed to manoeuvre Danner into handling the dangerous contact with Hughes. Nixon personally asked Danner to find out if the Hughes money was available. Hughes had approved a $100,000 contribution—$50,000 for the campaign, $50,000 for the candidate. Maheu secured the cash. Rebozo was ready to take delivery.
But what followed was a clash of fear and greed, a comic opera of missed connections, with confused intermediaries stumbling over each other while the two prime movers remained offstage. Maheu was now left with a bundle of cash, but no one to pass it and
no one to receive it. He decided to cut through all the confusion and deliver the money himself, directly to Richard Nixon. He had already made a formal contribution to Nixon’s campaign, $50,000 in checks passed openly through Nevada Governor Paul Laxalt. Now, with the election over, Nixon victorious and the promised secret cash still undelivered, Maheu once more turned to Laxalt. Early in December they flew together in a private Hughes jet to Palm Springs, where Nixon was due to attend a Republican governors’ conference. Laxalt, however, failed to arrange a meeting. Nixon, apparently still nervous about accepting Hughes’s money, at least about accepting it personally, sent word that his schedule prohibited a meeting with Maheu.
One week later, Maheu was down in the Bahamas, conferring with representatives of the incoming administration, and there are indications that he at least tried to pass the money again. A cashier at the Sands casino noted on a $50,000 withdrawal slip dated Dec. 5,1968: “The money was given to Bob Maheu. I was told he was to give this to President Nixon on Maheu’s trip to the Bahamas.”
So much money was gathered from so many sources—$50,000 from Hughes’s personal bank account early in September, another $50,000 from the account “for Nixon’s deficit” in December, the disputed $50,000 from the Sands a few days later, yet another $50,000 from Hughes’s account in June, 1969, and $50,000 more from the cashier’s cage at the Silver Slipper in October, 1970—that it is impossible to determine how much money actually reached Nixon. But it is certain that $100,000 in secret cash, two bundles of $100 bills from Howard Hughes—still undelivered by the November election, still undelivered by the January inauguration—finally found its way to Rebozo’s safe-deposit box.
In March, 1969, however, less than two months after the inauguration, Hughes expressed his pained disappointment in the new President. “The news just reported that Nixon will go ahead with the ABM,” he wrote Maheu, full of dismay. “Bob, this is an awful mistake.”
Building the ABM meant big money for Hughes the defence contractor, but it also meant more big bomb blasts in Nevada, the nuclear nightmare Hughes thought had ended with the election of a man who “knows the facts of life.” Hughes sent along a 12-page meticulously drafted and closely reasoned appeal to Nixon that he drop his support of the ABM. The President passed the memo to [National Security Adviser] Henry Kissinger. On July 16, 1969, Nixon huddled with his national security adviser. That morning in the Oval Office, the president told Kissinger to go see Hughes.
Kissinger returned to his White House basement office angry and incredulous. He told his deputy, Alexander Haig, that Nixon had just ordered him to give the billionaire a private top-secret briefing, not only on the ABM but also on the general strategic threat, on the balance of nuclear power —and, as a final outrage, to solicit Hughes’s own views on defence policy. “Henry was not particularly impressed with the thought of it,” Haig later recalled. “He was rather cynical about it, somewhat skeptical, wondered whether this sort of activity was the right thing to do.” Others who overheard Kissinger’s tirade say he questioned both the President’s motives and his mental health. “He’s out of his mind,” yelled Kissinger. “He can’t sell this! I can’t hold private peace talks with Howard Hughes.”
Hughes, too, was upset. The prospect of Kissinger’s visit terrified him. He simply could not deal with an outsider, not even Kissinger, not even by telephone. “Re the ABM,” he scrawled to Maheu. “I urge you thank the President profusely for his offer to send Kissinger, but tell him I do not consider that this is necessary and I do not think it would advance the situation. Bob, to have this man here could only embarrass me. Please, regardless of how you do it, kill off this trip in some way.”
By August, 1969, Nixon was not only trying to figure out why Hughes was so opposed to the nuclear tests—very much a mystery to the President, because he couldn’t see the profit in it—but he was also clearly seeking some solid facts about Hughes himself and the true nature of his shadowy empire. Nixon was determined to get the inside story on the Vegas recluse. He plotted a daring and devious manoeuvre.
He invited Hughes to a state dinner in honor of the first astronauts who walked on the moon—knowing full well that the billionaire had not appeared in public for more than a decade—and used that invitation as a pretext to run a routine “name check” on his hidden benefactor through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
J. Edgar Hoover personally reported back to the President on Aug. 13, the day of the big dinner. His report was truly astounding. Howard Hughes, said the FBI director, was “a ruthless, unscrupulous individual who at times acted like a ‘screwball paranoiac’ to the extent that he, Hughes, might be capable of anything, including murder.” Hoover’s warning must have come as a shock to Nixon but that was nothing compared to the shock about to hit Hughes. On Sept. 10,1969, Maheu called Hughes from Vancouver with disturbing news: the AEC was about to announce a new Nevada blast, and an especially big one.
“I wish you would tell Mr. Nixon thru Mr. Rebozo that this is the most outrageous and shocking breach of faith and attempted deception I ever heard of any highly reputed government like the United States attempting to perpetrate against one of their own citizens,” Hughes wrote, furious now that the full extent of Nixon’s betrayal hit him.
Maheu absorbed the diatribe, then went directly with Danner to see Rebozo. Danner handed Rebozo a manila envelope, saying, “Here’s the $50,000, first installment.”
Rebozo opened the envelope, shook out the bundles of cash, and counted them. He marked “H.H.” on the corner of the envelope, then took the money into another room. When he returned, the three men went out to dinner.
Whether Hughes knew that his money had gone to Rebozo, whether he was hoping that it would buy him a nuclear accord with Nixon and approved the delivery despite his anger, is unclear. The billionaire continued to plot the antibomb campaign on his bedside legal pads in Las Vegas, and Rebozo stashed the Hughes money in a safe-deposit box at the bank he owned in Key Biscayne, where it came to haunt Richard Nixon. It was the terrible guilty secret whose feared discovery would drive him to self-destruction—the tell-tale heart of Watergate.
Part 5 describes how Richard Nixon, fearful that Larry O'Brien knew about illegal contributions made to his campaign by Hughes, pressured his staff into finding out more about the Democratic National Committee chairman. The result: Watergate.
It was on Jan. 14,1971. Richard Nixon retreat at and San brooding Clemente, with had plotting his just friend emerged his Bébé Rebozo. “It would seem that the time is approaching when Larry O’Brien is held accountable for his retainer with Hughes,” declared Nixon, going on the attack, dictating a message to his chief of staff, Robert Haldeman. “Bébé has some information on this, although it is, of course, not solid. But there is no question that one of Hughes’s people did have O’Brien on a very heavy retainer for ‘services rendered’ in the past. Perhaps [Charles] Colson should check on this.” It was not the money O’Brien got from Hughes that really obsessed Nixon. It was his own Hughes money, hidden away in Bébé Rebozo’s safe-deposit box. Throughout his presidency Nixon had heard that tell-tale heart beating, had grown increasingly fearful that others could also hear it, that soon they would discover the $100,000 payoff Richard Danner had delivered to Rebozo, that again he would be ruined by an ugly Hughes scandal, that it would cost him the White House as it had once before.
Nixon never got over that 1960 defeat. His narrow loss to J.F.K. still haunted him, and he still blamed that loss on the Hughes “loan” scandal—the never-repaid $205,000 his brother had received from the billionaire. Yet Nixon had taken more Hughes money. And now, with the Hughes empire split by a bitter power struggle with the defection of chief Hughes aide Robert Maheu, Nixon was certain his terrible guilty secret was about to come spilling out. That very morning, before leaving the western White House, the President had seen a Los Angeles Times report that Maheu planned to subpoena his former boss for a $50-million lawsuit. Even if the recluse himself failed to appear, secret Hughes memos impounded by the Nevada court were likely to surface. Indeed, the dreaded syndicated Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson already claimed to have seen some.
The more Nixon brooded, the more terrified he grew, and the more he focused on Larry O’Brien. He was getting away with it. The hated leader of the Kennedy gang, the man who had beaten him in 1960 by exploiting the Hughes loan scandal, was himself getting $15,000 a month from the billionaire while he served as unpaid chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He wanted to unmask O’Brien as a secret Hughes lobbyist because the President thought that O’Brien had somehow learned from his hidden masters all about the secret Hughes cash in Bébé’s little box. Nixon could not tell that to Haldeman. None of the President’s men knew about the money. Only Rebozo shared that secret. So, instead, Nixon ordered Haldeman to get O’Brien.
“We’re going to nail O’Brien on this, one way or the other,” the President told him back in Washington the next day. He called Haldeman into the Oval Office and said, “O’Brien’s not going to get away with it, Bob. We’re going to get proof of his relationship with Hughes—and just what he’s doing for the money.” It was the beginning of a desperate covert campaign. One that would end with Nixon’s burglars caught looking for Hughes’s secrets inside O’Brien’s office—at the Watergate.
Colson was excited. Nixon’s bullyboy had j ust heard some incredible news. Larry O’Brien was out. Howard Hughes had a new man in Washington, Robert Foster Bennett. He was a solid Republican and, best of all, Bob Bennett and Chuck Colson were old buddies. “I’m sure I need not explain the political implications of having Hughes’s affairs handled here in Washington by a close friend,” crowed Colson, spreading the good word through the White House. “This move could signal quite a shift in terms of the politics and money that Hughes represents.” Like the rest of Nixon’s gang, Colson was unaware that the President already had a private pipeline to the billionaire, that he wasn’t looking for a new way to get Hughes’s money but for some way to hide the cash already in hand.
The President, however, remained fixated on O’Brien. His ouster changed nothing. Nixon still wanted him nailed. Haldeman had not assigned that mission to his rival Colson, as Nixon had suggested. Instead he had given the O’Brien assignment to a new recruit, an ambitious young White House counsel, John Dean. But Dean was getting nowhere. He called Bébé Rebozo, but Rebozo only repeated what he had already told Nixon. Nothing really solid. And the President’s pal added a disturbing note: “He [Rebozo] requested that if any action is taken with regard to Hughes that he be notified because of his familiarity with the delicacy of the relationships as a result of his own dealings with the Hughes people.” Puzzled and a bit nervous, Dean turned to a White House investigator, Jack Caulfield. The street-wise ex-policeman did smell trouble. Digging for dirt on O’Brien, he was coming up instead with dirt on Nixon. He tried to warn Dean off the case. “The revelation that an O’Brien-Mahew [sic] relationship exists poses significant hazards in any attempt to make O’Brien accountable to the Hughes retainer,” cautioned Caulfield. “Mahew’s controversial activities and contacts in both Democratic and Republican circles suggests the possibility that forced embarrassment of O’Brien in this matter might well shake loose Republican skeletons from the closet. Mayhew apparently forwarded Hughes’s political contributions, personally, to both parties over the last 10 years. Former FBI agent Dick Danner had been an aide to Mayhew. Danner professes a friendship with Bébé Rebozo.
“As one gets closer to Mayhew’s dealings, it becomes evident that his tentacles touch many extremely sensitive areas of government, each one of which is fraught with potential for Jack Anderson-type exposure. There is a serious risk here for a counter-scandal if we move precipitously.”
All the President’s men were now queasy about the Hughes probe but the President himself only pushed harder. All his worst fears about O’Brien had been confirmed. If O’Brien indeed knew about the Hughes-Nixon dealings, then he certainly had to be neutralized.
Jack Anderson’s column appeared on Aug. 6,1971: “Howard Hughes directed his former factotum Robert Maheu to help Richard Nixon win the presidency ‘under our sponsorship and supervision,’ ” Anderson reported. “Maheu allegedly siphoned off $100,000 from the Silver Slipper, a Hughes gambling emporium, for Nixon’s campaign. The money was delivered by Richard Danner, a Hughes exec, to Bébé Rebozo, a Nixon confidant.” Nixon’s worst nightmare had come true. The Hughes payoff was out in the open.
Rebozo immediately called Danner, angrily demanding to know how Anderson found out. Danner’s answer was the final blow. Anderson had called him for comment, and said, “Don’t deny it, because I have seen the memo describing this in detail.” Maheu had showed it to him. Anderson had documentary evidence. There was no way out. Still, he had called the payoff a “campaign contribution.” Obviously a trick. Nixon waited in horror for the full story to explode.
And nothing happened. Nothing that day, nothing that week, nothing that entire month. The story was simply ignored.
But it was not Rebozo, not Anderson, not Maheu who triggered the final series of events that led to Nixon’s downfall. It was Clifford Irving. Off in Ibiza, the expatriate novelist had been following the lurid story of the struggle for control of the secret Hughes empire. He decided that the billionaire was either dead or disabled—certainly in no shape to make a public appearance—and that gave him an idea. He would concoct his own epic and present it to the world as the autobiography of Howard Hughes.
The coup was announced on Dec. 7, 1971, by McGrawHill. It became an immediate worldwide sensation. The Hughes organization branded it a hoax, but with the billionaire himself unseen and silent, that only added to the hoopla. And nowhere did the book arouse more intense interest than at the White House. Haldeman told Colson and Dean to find out what was in the manuscript. Haldeman started getting FBI reports on the Irving affair directly from J. Edgar Hoover, and finally the White House managed to obtain a copy of the still-secret manuscript from a source at McGraw-Hill.
It came as quite a shock. Irving claimed that Hughes had passed $400,000 to Nixon when the latter was vice-president in return for fixing the TWA case. It was an inspired guess, the $400,000 figure probably not far off the mark. (Counting the $205,000 “loaned” to Donald, the cost of Maheu’s covert action to crush the “Dump Nixon” movement in 1956, and unreported campaign contributions, including the “all-out support” Hughes secretly gave Nixon in 1960, Irving’s claim of $400,000 was probably just about right. And nobody knew about most of that money. Except Hughes.) To Nixon it must have looked as if Irving had the real story.
On Friday, Jan. 7,1972, Howard Hughes would break more than 15 years of public silence and speak to the world. It was 6:45 p.m. when the recluse finally reached for his telephone and prepared to meet the press. A month had passed since Irving made him the unseen centre of global attention, and now the mystery man himself was about to speak. Three thousand miles away, at the other end of the line, seven carefully selected reporters waited expectantly in a Hollywood hotel. The disembodied voice quickly disposed of Irving: “I don’t know him. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of a few days ago when this thing first came to my attention.”
All the while his paranoia over Hughes mounted, the President had been pushing his men to set up a covert intelligence operation for his 1972 re-election campaign.
Nixon already had a secret police force operating out of the White House basement, but that gang, the Plumbers, handled “national security leaks.” What the President now wanted was a team targeted on the Democrats. The failure of his staff to nail Larry O’Brien showed the need for some real professionals.
To lead the new gang, Nixon’s campaign manager, Attorney General John Mitchell, chose a former FBI agent, G. Gordon Liddy. A gun fanatic who liked to watch old Nazi propaganda films, Liddy had already made his bones as a Plumber, staging a breakin at the offices of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon papers. Liddy reported for work at the Committee for the Re-election of the President on Dec. 8, 1971, the day after Irving’s book was first announced. And now, as Liddy prepared his espionage plan, the fallout from the Irving affair brought Nixon’s paranoia to full boil.
More and more the pressure focused on Larry O’Brien. Late in February, Jack Anderson revealed that Nixon had killed an antitrust suit against International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in return for a donation of $400,000 to the Republican convention. It was O’Brien who first made the accusation months earlier, and Nixon believed that he was somehow behind the Anderson exposé. If the two of them could make this much trouble over ITT, imagine what they could do with the Hughes $100,000.
Day after day O’Brien kept the ITT scandal in the headlines, and an enraged Nixon turned to Chuck Colson. “One day we will get them,” he would say. “We’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist—right, Chuck, right?” And Colson would reply, “Yes, sir, we’ll get them.” A few weeks later, on March 30, John Mitchell approved Liddy’s espionage plan. And he also approved the first target—O’Brien’s office at the Watergate.
The first break-in was a great success. On Memorial Day weekend a team led by Liddy and E. Howard Hunt entered Democratic National Committee headquarters, bugged O’Brien’s telephone, photographed papers from his desk and made a clean getaway. But the O’Brien bug never worked, and Mitchell ordered Liddy back in. None of the burglars was ever told the true purpose of the break-in—no one ever told them about the Hughes connection—but this time Jeb Magruder did tell Liddy to photograph O’Brien’s “shit file” on Nixon, to find out what dirt he had on the President.
At 2:30 Saturday morning, June 17,1972, the police rushed in and broke up the second attempt at a third-rate burglary.
On phone hearing calls of to the Colson, break-in at Nixon one point made so a agitated frantic series that he of threw an ashtray across the room. On his first day back in Washington, Nixon finally revealed his terror to Haldeman as well. The tape of their June 20 Oval Office conversation was later erased, creating the famous ISV2minute gap. But according to Haldeman, it was in this talk that Nixon himself revealed the Hughes connection to Watergate. The following account of their meeting is Haldeman’s reconstruction.
“On that DNC break-in, have you heard that anyone in the White House is involved?” Nixon asked his chief of staff. “No one,” replied Haldeman.
“Well, I’m worried about Colson,” confessed Nixon. “Colson can talk about the President, if he cracks. You know I was on Colson’s tail for months to nail Larry O’Brien on the Hughes deal. Colson told me he was going to get the information I wanted one way or the other. And that was O’Brien’s office they were bugging, wasn’t it?”
The President was scared. “I hate things like this. We’re not in control. Well, we’ll just have to hang tough.”
From Citizen Hughes by Michael Drosnin. Copyright © 1985 by Michael Drosnin. Excerpted by arrangement with Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. Published in Canada by Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, ltd. Distributed by the los Angeles Times Syndicate.