A controversial issue that dogged Richard Nixon in his 1960 and 1962 political campaigns was a loan that one of magnate Howard Hughes’ companies made to Nixon’s brother, Donald. The loan was so that Donald could expand his business, and Nixon’s mother, Hannah, put up a piece of her property as collateral. There were allegations that Nixon as Vice-President gave Howard Hughes governmental or political favors in exchange for the Hughes Tool Company’s loan to Donald.
Aitken does not believe that Nixon gave Hughes any governmental or political favors, even though Aitken does acknowledge that Hughes may have been making the loan in order to get more influence with Vice-President Nixon. Aitken notes that Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s investigation into the matter uncovered no misdeeds on the part of the Nixons. Aitken also states that the notion that Hughes gave Donald the loan in exchange for favors from the government presumes that Vice-President Nixon had more power over certain government offices than he had. Aitken observes that the affair turned out to be a catastrophe, since Donald failed in his businesses, so “the resulting embarrassment all round destroyed any prospects for influence peddling” (page 287). Moreover, Aitken appears to buy Richard Nixon’s story that he (Richard Nixon) was surprised by the loan and encouraged Donald (to no avail) to give back the money.
Stephen Ambrose also gives Nixon the benefit of a doubt. As I said in this post about volume 1 of Ambrose’s biography of Nixon: “Another scandal concerned Nixon’s brother Donald, who received money from business magnate Howard Hughes when his (meaning Donald’s) restaurant was in trouble. There was speculation that Hughes was doing this to get governmental favors from Richard Nixon when he was Vice-President, but Ambrose, as he considers Eisenhower Administration documents, sees no evidence for this.”
I have read other books that say differently. I think particularly of the works of Fawn Brodie, Anthony Summers, and Don Fulsom. Brodie refers to the account of Noah Dietrich, who was the executive Vice-President of the Hughes Tool Company, and who related that Richard Nixon requested help from Hughes through Washington lobbyist Frank Waters. Dietrich told his story after he had become estranged from Howard Hughes.
Brodie states that the loan was made in a roundabout way to hide Howard Hughes’ name: it went from Dietrich to a Canadian branch of the Hughes Tool Company to Waters, whose name would be on the loan, and then the check was “made out to Hannah Nixon”, who “then loaned $165,000 to Donald and used the remaining $40,000 to pay off a loan she had made jointly with him” (page 437 of Brodie’s Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character).
Brodie, Summers, and Fulsom all contend that Hughes may have gotten a governmental favor in return for the loan. The Internal Revenue Service had been denying Howard Hughes’ request that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute be tax exempt, but the IRS changed its mind a few months after Donald Nixon received the loan. Fulsom’s telling of the story calls the Howard Hughes Medical Institute “Hughes’s then shady ‘medical institute'” (page 87 of Nixon’s Darkest Secrets).
Fulsom actually goes a step farther than Brodie. Fulsom refers to people who claim that the money didn’t even go to Donald, but rather to Richard. One of these people was C. Arnholt Smith, a friend of Nixon, and the other was “veteran California reporter Frank McCullough” (page 162). Smith said that he thought the loan was intended to help Richard Nixon when Nixon was “a relatively poor man” (Smith’s words, quoted on page 162), and Fulsom notes that Nixon soon thereafter put down $75,000 on a new house in Washington, D.C., before he sold his “old home” (page 162). And McCullough said that Hughes himself told him that the money was for Richard, not Donald, and that it had a political intent. Incidentally, this sort of accusation was around in 1962, for Nixon accused his opponents of claiming that he himself received some of the money from the Hughes loan.
At the same time, Fulsom earlier in the book states that Donald was an annoyance to Nixon on account of Donald’s mischief, such that Nixon as President “bugged Don’s phones and put a full-time Secret Service tail on him” (page 88). Does Fulsom see the Hughes loan as an example of such embarrassing mischief, only later in the book to entertain another possibility (that the loan was for Richard, not Donald)?
One other issue that I want to mention: What about the land that Hannah Nixon put up as collateral? Brodie calls it a “vacant lot” (page 435), whereas Richard depicted Hannah as sacrificing a piece of lucrative property, as putting up “practically everything she had” (Nixon’s words, quoted on page 300 of Aitken). Obviously, Richard puts Hannah in more of a sympathetic light!