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Trump a Lot Like Howard Hughes

Thursday, 27 August 2015 08:52 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Writing of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the Financial Times on Aug. 19, Slate Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg concluded that the tycoon candidate’s point of comparison is “less to any present or past American politician than to [former Prime Minister and billionaire press lord-playboy] Silvio Berlusconi.”

Not so. To find a forerunner of Candidate Trump, one need not look overseas to Berlusconi but back in the history of this country to 1947 and the movement to draft Howard Hughes for president.

Howard Hughes?

Portrayed on the big screen by Leonardo DeCaprio and in a made-for-TV movie by Tommy Lee Jones, aircraft magnate Hughes is primarily recalled today for his bizarre final years as a bearded, never-photographed hermit whose entourage shielded him in hotels from Las Vegas to the Bahamas.

But in 1947, Americans saw quite a different Hughes in newsreels and the new invention called television: handsome, dashing, a record-breaking aviator who was frequently seen squiring beautiful actresses such as Jane Russell, Katherine Hepburn, and Ava Gardner.

Like Trump, he had taken a small fortune started by his father (the Houston-based Hughes Tool Company) and developed it into a multimillion dollar enterprise. At age 41, the president of Hughes Aircraft and owner of TransWorld Airlines was considered the richest of all Americans.

Through live radio broadcasts and the first-ever televised Senate hearings,America was spellbound in 1947 watching Hughes testify as a witness by a special Senate committee investigating defense procurement in World War II.

Charged by Sen. Owen Brewster, R.-Maine, with receiving $40 million in government grants to build an aircraft that he never delivered, Hughes — very much like Trump dealing with moderators and fellow candidates in the Fox News debate, without regard to title or privilege — yielded no ground and hit back hard.

Hughes defended his H-4 Hercules flying boat (nicknamed the “Spruce Goose”), declaring “I have put the sweat of my life into this thing.”

When Committee Chairman Homer Ferguson, R.-Mich., asked him to again produce his public relations man John Meyer for questioning, Hughes replied: “I don’t think I will.”

“Nobody kicks around in this country without acquiring a reputation, good or bad,” he told the committee, “I’m supposed to be capricious, a playboy, eccentric, but I don’t believe I have the reputation as a liar.”

The standing-room-crowd in the hearing room cheered and, as biographer Richard Hack wrote, “Cheers were heard from the Chesapeake to the San Francisco Bay.”

After six days, the committee was adjourned and never returned. But much as the Fox News debate yielded some dynamic poll numbers for Trump, the Senate hearings yielded surprising news on the political front for star witness Hughes.

“In less than a week, 1,000 Hughes for President clubs had formed in major cities,” wrote Donald Bartlett and James B. Steele in “Howard Hughes: The Untold Story,” “The Brooklyn branch had more than 500 members.”

Letters to the editor demonstrated the passion Americans suddenly felt for a tycoon who addressed no issues but simply spoke his mind.

“Like Franklin D, Roosevelt, Hughes is a man who knows how to make Republicans say ‘uncle,’” Fred Erhard wrote to the El Paso Eagle on Aug. 18, 1947. “Sure! He was blessed with a small fortune when he became 21 years old, but look what he did with it . . . No one has ever treated workers better than Howard Hughes. His labor relations record will prove it, The Democrats would do well if they put Howard Hughes in the next election.”

Promoting Hughes as a Democrat was assuming a lot. As biographers Bartlett and Steele explained, “Hughes was apolitical. Noah Dietrich worked for Hughes for more than thirty years and never knew whether his boss considered himself a Republican or a Democrat. Hughes never once voted in his entire life.”

In what is a major criticism of Trump today, the same biographers pointed out that “the political issues on which [Hughes] staked out a position . . . were confined to those that directly affected him or his companies.”

Bob Maheu, a former FBI agent who was head of Hughes’ operations in the 1960s (although he never met his boss face-to-face), often spoke of the billionaire giving money to politicians in both major parties.

“Bob used to recall how Hughes supported both sides, just as Trump did, because he wanted to make sure he was relevant,” Palm Beach Gardens attorney Larry Casey, who worked closely with Maheu in the 1990s, told me, “He contributed to make sure people in office would take his calls. And remember, there were no reporting requirements in the 1950s and ’60s, so you’re talking about spreading around a lot of cash.”

When Hughes learned of the grass-roots effort to run him for president, he pulled the plug on it and explained to reporters: “I think I’ve seen just about enough of Washington.”

For now, at least, Donald Trump feels differently.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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To find a forerunner of Candidate Trump, one need only look to Howard Hughes.
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Thursday, 27 August 2015 08:52 AM
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