2006.01.25 A tribute to Howard Hughes

Written by David Green.

By JEFF PICKELL

Some say he was the last of a dying breed—the evil, stark-raving, megalomaniacal lunatic billionaire. He was never too afraid to be afraid of a non-existent threat, never too poor to dump millions of dollars into the liquidation thereof, and never too sane to realize just how crazy he was to feel threatened in the first place.

Take, for instance, nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. Plenty of millionaires today are against the testing of nuclear weapons, but that’s mostly because they’re against nuclear proliferation. Howard Hughes, on the other hand, was against nuclear testing because he was afraid of “the contamination” the distant detonation would rain down on the Las Vegas hotel he was holed up in.

Lesser maniac billionaires, when faced with the non-threat of contamination from an explosion hundreds of miles away, would’ve folded. They would have packed up their years and years worth of unread newspapers and their meticulously labeled jars of urine and found a new penthouse to hide in. But Howard Hughes was not your garden variety madman.

He had vested interests in Las Vegas, like his own TV station, which he demanded stay on 24 hours a day so he would have something to watch when the other broadcasts ended. And his various mistresses, which he kept stationed around the city but refused to let anywhere near him.

So, no, moving just would not do. Hughes was convinced the Department of Defense just had to find somewhere else to test their little bombs. And he approached presidents Johnson and Nixon with $1 million bribes to that effect.

As legend has it, after reading Hughes’ memo, Nixon said “Just who in the hell does Howard Hughes think he is?”

Legend also has it that it was the only bribe Nixon ever declined, and that alone speaks volumes of Hughes’ self-serving psychosis.

Hughes came from the golden age of evil billionaires, when William Randolph Hearst owned the media, and Kennedys were bought and sold like toy soldiers. These men didn’t care about the money. These men weren’t in the game for any kind of material gain. No. These men were evil, and they were hellbent on world domination, plain and simple. It is my belief that, somewhere along the line, evil billionaires forgot this purpose.

Now, instead of concocting devious schemes that amount to hair brained stabs at power, billionaires are concerned with finances, throwing around terms like “maximizing profit” and “marketing to the target consumers” and “swindling the pants off our stockholders.”

And they’ve gotten sloppy. Take the Enron execs. Do you think Howard Hughes would’ve gotten caught with his pants down like they did? Of course he would’ve, and he did, but the difference is, Hughes was addicted to so many pharmaceuticals that he knew he wouldn’t survive detox, so he fled the country and lived the rest of his life on the lam. Like a true evil billionaire, for Hughes, the drugs were always more important than the money.

It almost puts shame in my heart to pick up an issue of Time Magazine and see Bill Gates, the richest man on the planet, named Man of the Year. I like to think of April 1976, when Hughes himself was on the cover of that magazine, dressed only in a robe, clinging, with hands full of Kleenex, to the burly man carrying him. They say he squandered $150 million in his final five years alone.

Of course, the Time cover was an artist’s interpretation—Hughes was too far gone by this point to even consider letting himself be photographed, but you could still see it in his eyes, that nostalgic, cancerous glimmer that said “I’d buy all the air in the world if only the government would let me.”

I’m going to avoid moralizing—it’s not in the best interest of evil, but I will ask this of you: next time you hear tell of Ted Turner buying a million square acres of Montana land for horseback riding, or of Rupert Murdoch pandering to Communist China, or of Michael Jackson’s addiction to plastic surgery, remember the cowardly, compulsive son of a tool baron who started it all—Howard Hughes.

– Jan. 25, 2006
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