In 1952, on a Midwest winter night, a man sat at his kitchen table next to an empty whiskey bottle. He stared at a closet down the hall, where he knew his loaded shotgun was stored. He had lost everything valuable to him—his wife, his children, his trucking business, and the respect of the small Iowa community where he had grown up. The man mumbled out loud, “I have even lost all hope.”
Harold Hughes took the shotgun from the closet and headed for the bathroom. He lay down in the bathtub so that in death he would not create even more of a mess than his life had created.
Hughes was driven to this point of despair by alcohol addiction. He thought of all the times he had tried not to take that first drink as he lay there with the shotgun on his chest, pointed at his head. A religious man, he asked for forgiveness for taking his own life. He also prayed one last time to God, asking for a power greater than himself to show him the way out of this slavery to the bottle. As he ended his prayer, he began to squeeze the trigger. Hughes later would describe the next moment as a warm, overwhelming bright light that blinded him. He was not sure if he was dead or alive. But he was alive. And again he spoke aloud, but more clearly this time. “I will never be a slave again, and I will never take another drink,” he said, and he did not. Little did he or anyone else understand that this moment represented the beginning of a huge change, not just for this man, but for every alcoholic and addict in America.
Move to public service
Harold Hughes then dedicated his life to others with addictive diseases and never wavered from that dedication over the next 40-plus years. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that year and became an active member and advocate. He went on 12-Step calls at any time of the day or night. A woman called him for help with her husband, and Hughes drove across Iowa and took her husband to a noon meeting in Des Moines.
Hughes helped start new meetings in a number of neighboring states as well as in his home state. He became well known for his dedication and hard work. He applied for work as a truck driver, but because of his reputation and knowledge he was selected for a management position in a trucking company. In 1956 Hughes started the Iowa Better Trucking Bureau and learned a little about politics. Eventually he was elected to the State Commerce Commission, where he served for four years. Many around him urged him to get into politics. He was intrigued by the thought that he could be in a position of power to help those in need. In a heavily Republican area, and having grown up Republican, he switched parties and ran for governor of Iowa as a Democrat in 1962. He defeated a well-liked incumbent, attributing his win to honesty and openness. Hughes continued to attend AA during his tenure as governor from 1963 to 1969. He became famous for adjourning a committee meeting to attend an AA meeting, inviting those politicians who he felt would benefit as well. While Hughes was governor, the state adopted a new system of alcohol control. Recognizing that some people can drink while others cannot, the new system monitored sales closely but appeared fairer to all.
As governor, Hughes also implemented a system of addiction treatment in his state and advocated acceptance of alcoholism as a disease. When questioned by the state Senate about the cost of his plan, he simply replied, “I am trying to reach alcoholics before they hit bottom and cost us much more in our state hospitals.” The funding passed without much debate after the governor’s testimony.
Hughes’ alcoholism became a campaign issue during the 1964 election. His opponent claimed Hughes had had a relapse in 1954, and to say that he had been sober since 1952 was dishonest. Hughes simply stated, “I am an alcoholic and will be until I die. I ask God to help me never touch a drop in the future; I don’t worry about the past.” He won by a landslide, and no politician ever brought up his alcoholism again.
Going to Washington
Having gained some measure of national exposure through these campaigns, Hughes became well known to the national Democratic establishment. The 1966 elections saw many Democratic losses, but Hughes survived. This impressed his friend Robert Kennedy, who encouraged Hughes to run for national office.
In 1968, with Vietnam dragging down the Democrats, Hughes decided to run for a vacated Senate seat in Iowa that was thought to be a sure win for the Republicans. Hughes won an extremely close election and was now thrust into the national political arena.
Sen. Hughes did not appear comfortable in the Washington scene. He would visit drug and alcohol treatment centers instead of fundraising events. The press seemed confused by his talk of raising the spiritual awareness of America. Despite this, he decided that he was going to make things better for alcoholics while he had a chance.
His timing could not have been better. Recent court decisions had established alcoholism as a disease. The senator wanted to pass legislation that codified the disease concept in a model federal law that states could follow. He gathered experts on addiction for a meeting in Washington. He said to them:
“Help me design legislation that will provide for research on the causes of addiction. I want this legislation to set the standard for states to pass similar laws that will help lift alcoholics out of jails and into treatment facilities or hospitals.”