John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

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All this talk about Mark Felt and Watergate reminds me of an interesting book I read earlier in the year.

Seeing The Aviator convinced me that learning more about the life of Howard Hughes might be worthwhile, so I checked out a copy of Michael Drosnin's Citizen Hughes at the library. It wasn't quite the book I wanted; I was more interested in an in-depth examination of the period covered in The Aviator, but Citizen Hughes picks up more or less where the movie left off, and covers his crazy recluse period. Nevertheless, it was still pretty interesting, because while I've always known Hughes was a crazy recluse—I remember when he was still alive, and as my brother has said, back in those days it would have been easy to believe that his first name was "reclusive billionaire"—I didn't appreciate just how crazy he was. Citizen Hughes gets that across amazingly well. There's one chapter in particular that stands out in that regard, dealing with the efforts of his right-hand man, Robert Maheu, to organize a party to celebrate the opening of the Landmark Hotel and Casino even while Hughes refused to approve the guest list, menu, or even a date for the party. It's quite amusing.

Anyway, back to Watergate. Drosnin makes a reasonably strong argument that the Watergate break-in was prompted by Nixon's fear that Howard Hughes was in a position to derail his re-election campaign.

First, some historical context. During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Nixon was caught up in a scandal over a loan Hughes had made to Nixon's brother in the 1950s, while RMN was Eisenhower's vice-president. There may or may not have been anything particularly shady about the loan, but given that Hughes was one of the largest defense contractors in the country, it certainly gave the appearance that Hughes was trying to curry favor with the VP. (Which, duh, he was.) Nixon eventually came to believe that the Hughes loan scandal, which broke very late in the campaign, had been the reason he lost that election to John Kennedy.

When Nixon ran again for the Presidency in 1968, Hughes, eager to have a President in his pocket, gave Nixon (via his friend Bebe Rebozo) $100,000 in cash as a "campaign contribution." (That is, a bribe.) Then, in 1972, the Democratic Party hired Larry O'Brien to run the Democratic National Committee. O'Brien was a Washington insider, and former key political adviser to President Kennedy… and Howard Hughes's chief Washington lobbyist. Nixon, deeply paranoid and still angry over the 1960 scandal, was convinced that O'Brien, as one of Hughes's top advisers, knew all about the $100,000 "contribution" and was poised to expose the deal. And so, the thinking goes, Nixon approved the burglary of O'Brien's office at the Watergate, to find out what he knew about the 100 grand.

This theory didn't originate with Drosnin; certain Nixon aides mentioned the Hughes/O'Brien link as a motive for the break-in at the time, and early drafts of the report of the Senate Watergate Committee included a section detailing the Hughes connection. But that section of the report was excised from the final version of the report; Drosnin suggests that it was because most of the Senators on the committee had received similar contributions from Hughes at some point in their career.

So what does all this have to do with Mark Felt and Deep Throat? Nothing, really, but I never claimed it did. It's just an interesting story.

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