Uncovering the Truth

Citizen Hughes By Michael Drosnin Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 532 pp.; $18.95

FOR FOUR YEARS, he never left his blacked-out penthouse high above Las Vegas. He lived amid heaps of dusty trash. He changed his bedsheets on a semi-annual basis. He was emaciated--120 pounds stretched over a six-foot, four-inch frame. He was addicted to codeine, often shooting himself up five or six times a day with a filthy needle. His fingernails grew to be a foot long.

This was Howard R. Hughes, the richest and most powerful man in America.

At various times, Hughes owned, a Las Vegas television station, several casinos, Hughes Aircraft, Aircraft, Hughes Tool, TWA, and--according to Michael Drosnin, author of Citizen Hughes--Paul Laxalt, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon.

Citizen Hughes is the story of how all this happened.

Drosnin's prime sources are some 10,000 secret documents which were stolen from Hughes' Los Angeles headquarters on June 5, 1974, including about 3000 of the hand-written memos through which Hughes conducted all of his business. After the L.A. Police Department, the FBI and the CIA gave up their investigation of the crime, Drosnin, by winning the friendship of the burglar who led the heist, finally got his hands on the billionaire's dirty laundry. And for seven years, Drosnin lived underground as "Michael Howard," poring over the revealing documents, interviewing dozens of sources, and assembling the chronicle of, as he puts it. "How Howard Hughes tried to buy America."

Above all else, Citizen Hughes is first-class investigative reporting. It is studded with names, dates, facts and intrigue. Not really a biography--Drosnin's treatment of Hughes's life before the 1960s is definitely too skimpy--Citizen Hughes explores how power in America can be bought, sold and abused. Again and again, Drosnin quotes liberally from the memos, the only surviving glimpses into the thought and feeling of the mad billionaire behind this operation.

JUST AFTER 2 a.m. on June 6, 1968, Hughes was awake--his days always began around sundown and ended well into the morning--and watching television, his main contact with the outside world. Only one television station was on, the CBS-affiliated Channel S. Hughes owned it. Frank Mankiewicz came on to announce that Robert F. Kennedy '48 had died.

Hughes immediately grabbed for his yellow legal pad and scratched out a memo to Robert A. Maheu, a former FBI agent who served as his executive slave.

'I hate to be quick on the draw, but I see here an opportunity that may not happen again in a lifetime. I dont [sic] 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 anti-trust 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 1976.'

It was this fateful memo, in which Hughes told Maheu of his wish to get the whole Kennedy organization in his pocket, that would ultimately lead to the Watergate break-in and Nixon's fall in disgrace.

As Drosnin explains it. Hughes first hired Democratic Party official Larry O'Brien to be one of his Washington operatives. Later Hughes made a secret $100,000 donation to Nixon through his confidante. Bebe Rebozo Put simply, he paranoid Nixon--afraid that O'Brien would reveal the Nixon-Hughes connection - arranged for burglars to read the Democratic Party's Watergate headquarters and find dirt on O'Brien which could be used to keep him silent.

Along the way. Drosnin presents countless other vignettes of Hughes gone amok: his Ted-Turner style July 1968 attempt to take over ABC which he ultimately gave up because it would have required him to leave his penthouse and make a personal appearance before the Federal Communications Commission; his frantic efforts under both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon to stop nuclear testing in Nevada and his offers of multimillion-dollar bribes to both if they would: the transfusions of pure Mormon blood he regularly purchased from Salt Lake City because they made him feel so good; his Thanksgiving 1970 top-secret "escape" from Nevada to the Bahamas, whence he conducted his operations until his condeine-ravaged, 94-pound body gave out on April 5, 1976.

AS MUCH AS it is a story of greed and political perversion, Citizen Hughes is also the story of an American-style Mr. Kurtz, of whom Joseph Conrad said, "Everything belonged to him--but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."

[Hughes] was surrounded only by filth and disorder. Mountains of old newspapers, brittle with age, spread in an ever-widening semicircle on the floor around his bed ... [mixed with] rolls of blueprints, maps, TV Guides, aviation magazines, and various unidentifiable objects. A narrow path had been cleared from his bed to the bathroom, but the tide of trash overran even that, topped off by numberless wads of used Kleenex1