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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Hughes, Harold Everett
(February 10, 1922–October 23, 1996)

–self-proclaimed college dropout and drunk with a jail record who overcame childhood poverty, personal tragedy, and alcoholism to become governor of Iowa, a U.S. senator, and a seminal figure in the crusade to fight alcohol and drug addiction with prevention and rehabilitation—was a product of rural and small-town life who championed the cause of Iowa's cities. Raised as a staunch Republican, Hughes was a key figure in the revitalization of the Democratic Party in Iowa. A charismatic personality and spellbinding speaker, he built political coalitions across partisan, ethnic, geographical, and ideological lines. As a three-term governor, he enacted an unprecedented amount of progressive legislation that had been bottled up for years by rural-dominated legislatures and "led Iowa into the 20th century."As a U.S. senator, he sponsored the first federal programs for the prevention of alcoholism and the rehabilitation of alcoholics and was one of the first members of Congress to call for an end to the Vietnam War. At the height of his national reputation, Hughes resigned from the Senate to become a lay preacher and a leading light in the battle against addiction.

    Hughes was born on a farm near Ida Grove, Iowa. From an early age, he and his older brother Jesse trapped wild animals and sold their hides to supplement the family's meager income. An indifferent student, he attended the State University of Iowa for one year on a football scholarship before leaving to marry Eva Mercer, with whom he had three daughters. He later divorced Eva and remarried to Julianne Holm. Raised in a devoutly Methodist family, he renounced his religion when his brother was killed in a car accident. That and his inability to find steady work plunged Hughes into deep despair and heavy drinking. He served in the army in World War II, fought in Sicily and Italy, won several decorations, and was court-martialed for assaulting an officer. Back home in the fall of 1945, Hughes worked at various temporary jobs and continued to drink heavily. Finally, in 1952 he seriously contemplated suicide by gunshot but experienced a moment of spiritual enlightenment and dedicated himself to spiritual growth and to aiding alcoholics. Becoming manager of a trucking firm, he battled with the state Commerce Commission and organized several independent truckers into the Iowa Better Trucking Bureau. His election to the Commerce Commission in 1958 convinced him that he could best fulfill his mission by holding public office. Backed by urban insurgent Democrats and organized labor, Hughes captured the party's gubernatorial nomination in 1962.

    Hughes burst upon the scene when traditional ethnocultural, partisan politics were being supplanted by a new issue-oriented, candidate-centered version. In the four statewide elections in which he was the Democratic candidate, he ran well ahead of everyone else on the party ticket, both in its triumph of 1964 and its disasters in 1966 and 1968. During his three terms as governor, Hughes shepherded through four constitutional amendments: one providing for legislative reapportionment, one providing for Iowa Supreme Court review of reapportionment, one providing for annual sessions of the General Assembly, and another giving the governor the line item veto. He also successfully championed more state aid to schools, increases in both workers' and unemployment compensation, the abolition of capital punishment, enactment of a state withholding tax, higher income and inheritance taxes for the affluent, four new vocational-technical schools, allowing counties to establish the office of public defender, penal reforms, and stronger guidelines for secondary education. Ironically, his most popular reform was the legalization of liquor by the drink.

    Originally a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, Hughes became one of its most outspoken opponents, a switch that severed his ties to President Lyndon Johnson. The final straw was when Hughes gave the nomination speech for Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention.

    As a U.S. senator from 1969 to 1974, Hughes was generally a strong proponent of retaining and strengthening former president Johnson's Great Society programs and an outspoken critic of the Nixon administration. His greatest achievement as senator was the enactment of the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970, which established the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

    In 1975 he resigned from the Senate because he had come to believe that "I can move more people through a spiritual approach more effectively than I have been able to achieve through the political approach."Styling himself a lay preacher, Hughes established numerous treatment centers and helped found the Society of Americans for Recovery (SOAR), which described itself as "the voice of the nation's grass-roots recovery community."He died in Glendale, Arizona, at the age of 74.
Sources Hughes's papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Additional materials are in the State Archives and Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. The starting points for further information are Harold E. Hughes and Dick Schneider, The Man from Ida Grove: A Senator's Personal Story (1979); and James C. Larew, "A Party Reborn: Harold Hughes and the Iowa Democrats," Palimpsest 59 (1978), 148–61. James C. Larew, A Party Reborn: The Democrats of Iowa, 1950–1974 (1980), places Hughes in the wider context of the Democratic resurgence in the state. See also "Conversation with Senator Harold Hughes," Addiction 92 (February 1997), 137– 49; and Larry L. King, "Harold E. Hughes: Evangelist from the Prairies," Harper's Magazine, March 1969, 50–57.
Contributor: John D. Buenker

Cite as: Buenker, John D. "Hughes, Harold Everett" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017