Peter Shelton

The Education of a Philanthropist

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on September 16, 2009

Twice last week I heard radio interviews with investigative journalist Max Blumenthal on his book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. And twice I heard him mention the name Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., as a reclusive, Tourette’s-afflicted “funding angel” of the Christian far-right.

The last time I saw Howard Ahmanson, he was hiding under a polished table in the foyer of his family’s mansion. He was eleven. Or maybe ten. It was his birthday party, and he refused his mother’s entreaties to come out and greet Mr. Shelton, who had come to take me home.

We all knew that Howard was a little strange. Teachers gave him a lot of slack. They let him pace the back of the classroom rather than insist he take his seat. He paced with a forward tilt as if pressing into a wind, one hand behind his back and the other one up to his mouth where his front teeth wore a permanent dent in his index finger. The fist in the small of his back beat a rhythm in time with his over-urgent steps.

We all got very good at imitating Howard’s walk. He was eminently teasable. His skin was deathly pale and baby soft, as if he’d never been outside. This was Southern California in the 1950s, and everybody else in sixth grade had a beach tan. Now and then the teacher would throw a question Howard’s way, and he would stop pacing long enough to deliver an encyclopedic, savant-worthy answer. We had no idea where this knowledge came from.

Howard dropped into our public-school world for just a year or two at the end of elementary school. I don’t know why his parents decided to place him with the rabble. Perhaps it had to do with the divorce Wikipedia says they were going through then. At any rate, they could afford the private education he evidently received before and after this dubious experiment.

Howard’s dad was Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Sr., financier founder of Home Savings and Loan. By the time he died in 1968, when Howard was 18, he was able to leave his only son $300 million, making him probably the richest teenager in America. At the time I knew him, the Ahmansons lived on the manicured tip of Harbor Island, on Newport Bay. The big draw at the birthday party—I was invited I guess because I teased Howard less than some of the other kids—was a miniature electric car you could drive on paved paths around the grounds.

Orphaned at 18 with a fortune he had no idea what to do with (and no way to live up to his father’s imposing example), Howard, according to author Blumenthal, went really crazy. The tics and stammering from his Tourette’s Syndrome worsened. He was institutionalized for two years. Eventually he pulled himself back to the world, if not to reality, with the help of one R.J. Rushdoony, a soothing (apparently) father figure and radical right-wing theologian.

Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructivism aimed for a complete church takeover of the federal government. It was to be “reconstructed” by the literal application of all 613 laws described in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. Rushdoony’s writings pay special attention to punishments, including the death penalty. The long list of sins warranting execution included: disobedient children, unchaste women, apostates, blasphemers, astrologers, adulterers, and anyone who engaged in “sodomy or homosexuality.”

Howard found a comforting structure in Rushdoony’s world view. And Rushdoony in turn taught Howard how and where to spend his money. Howard gave a million dollars to last year’s successful Proposition 8 campaign in California, the one that banned gay marriage. He denies through his wife (because of the Tourette’s Howard doesn’t speak to the press) that he funded magazine articles saying gays should be stoned to death.

He has given $2.8 million to the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a group dedicated to scientifically “proving” Intelligent Design. His own private, secretive Fieldstead and Company supports right-wing causes and candidates across the country. He told the Orange County Register in 1985 that, “My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives.”

Let me say right here that if sixth-grade teasing caused this aberrant development in Howard’s mind, then I’m sorry. We would all, I’m sure, take it back if we could. But I’m being flippant. Surely, Howard was drawn in by the Right’s “culture of personal crisis.” He craved, Blumenthal thinks, “a transcendent dictatorial order.”

In Republican Gomorrah, Blumenthal quotes from a favorite book of President Dwight Eisenhower (of the now-defunct “Big Tent” GOP), Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

The one time I remember Howard happy with himself, with his own actions and their effect, was a day when the classroom television set wouldn’t work. It was time to tune into our Spanish lesson with “Señora Miller,” but the screen wouldn’t reveal a thing beyond a fierce, steel-wool buzz. Howard was pacing the perimeter as usual, and just when our teacher was about to give up her fiddling, he approached from the side and smacked the machine, hard, with his fist.

There, suddenly, was Señora Miller: “Como esta usted? Muy bien, gracias.” And there was Howard, grinning, not biting his finger for once, bouncing on his toes with glee.


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