IN THE SUMMER of 1974 burglars broke into Howard Hughes' Romaine Street offices in Los Angeles and carried away a great portion of his informal archives -- a collection of Hughes' personal, business and financial papers.

The burglars tried to force a million-dollar ransom from the Hughes organization for the return of these papers, but the negotiations quickly fell through.

Then, enter Michael Drosnin, a free-lance magazine writer and a former reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He tells us that two years later he tracked down the No. 1 burglar and persuaded him to turn over three steamer trunks jammed with "nearly ten thousand previously hidden internal documents of the Hughes empire, including more than three thousand pages of the billionaire's own handwritten memoranda." He does not say what deal, if any , he had to strike to obtain the documents which once carried a million-dollar price tag.

Judging from the quality of the material printed here, I should imagine the new price was rather modest. Don't get me wrong. The several dozen handwritten memos -- photo copies of which are interspersed throughout Citizen Hughes -- are indeed interesting. They convey a feeling of Hughes' physical presence that typeface just can't achieve, and there is a sneaky sort of fun in getting to read these private ramblings that the always drugged and increasingly psychotic old boy never thought would see the light of day (the light of day being something that Hughes avoided at all costs). Coupled with Drosnin's considerable talents as a witty raconteur, the memos add glister to some of the high points in the Hughes legend.

Most of the ones used by Drosnin were written in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Hughes was investing an estimated $200 million in Las Vegas, buying up casinos and motels, playing what Drosnin calls his "Monopoly game" on the gambling strip. They show that Hughes, though short on luxuries, wallowed in ironies.

THERE HE LAY in his sunless ninth-floor penthouse (the windows were blacked out), naked, his 6 foot 4 inch frame covered with just over 100 pounds of filthy flesh. His mostly rotten teeth, which he never brushed, were hanging from his gums. His hair, rarely shampooed, hung halfway down his back and his beard fell halfway down his chest. His fingernails and toenails were so long they took a corkscrew turn at the end. Because he seldom bathed, he had an extremely foul odor. The sheets were changed not daily or weekly or monthly, but seasonally.

Nevertheless, Hughes had his standards of decorum and sanitation. Of sorts. One April night in 1968 he picked up his ever-present legal-size yellow pad and dashed off a note to his chief of staff, Robert Maheu, complaining that "I saw something on TV that litterally (sic) and actually made me nauseated and I still am! I saw a show on NBC in which the biggest ugliest negro you ever saw in your life was covered -- litterally covered from head to foot with vaseline almost 1/4 of an inch thick. It made you sick just to look at this man." Then, horrors, "this repulsive gob of grease came close to this clean carefully dressed white woman . . . opened his mouth as wide as possible and kissed this woman in a way that would have been cut out of any movie even if the people involved had both been of the same race."

Hughes told Maheu that he had contemplated "making a protest to some congressional committee over this," but then he had discovered that what he was watching was a segment of a prize-winning play, The Great White Hope, being shown at the Tony awards ceremony, which made it "even more shocking, but I suppose one should approach it with caution."

If Hughes was somewhat biased in his acceptance of filth, he was equally biased in his acceptance of violence. Sole owner of one of the country's leading defense companies, he was perfectly willing to let the military blow up the rest of the world but he did not want it mucking around in his own backyard. He reminded Maheu in a memo that he hadn't come to Nevada "only to be molested by some stupid . . . earthquakes." That is, atomic testing. He hated it. When his penthouse swayed from a blast, he became so furious that he cursed "the country's intense preoccupation with the military" (a preoccupation from which his companies reaped a billion dollars every year) and threatened to join the peaceniks. He proposed that Maheu offer million-dollar bribes first to Lyndon Johnson and then to Richard Nixon, if they would move the testing to Alaska, but apparently Maheu didn't make the offers.

ENTERTAINING as many of the memos ar can't help wondering if the burglar didn't hold out on Drosnin. In their splendid Hughes biography, Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes, which came out in 1978, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele wrote that the stolen archives were believed to contain complicated schemes for cheating on taxes, lists of federal agents who could be bought, and reports of underhanded dealing with a variety of government agencies. Indeed, the Hughes archives were reputed to be overflowing with the conniving, crookedness, and craziness of a half century in the life of America's richest and most flamboyant airman.

Apparently either Barlett and Steele greatly overestimated the value of the cache, or Drosnin has been shortchanged, or much of the material is so fragmentary and cryptic that it is impossible to piece together.

Drosnin himself seems to concede the lack of specifics while insisting that in mass the material reeks of something, admittedly vague but surely important, that the memos alone are "at once a cold-blooded tale of an entire nation's corruption and an intimate journal of one man's descent into madness. The great secret that Howard Hughes had kept hidden was not this or that scandal, not this payoff or that shady deal, but something far more sweeping and far more frightening -- the true nature of power in America."

That's a beautiful piece of hyperbole, but it can't compensate for lack of evidence. If the memos published in this book reveal "the true nature of power in America," then power in America approaches something very close to impotence. In social affairs, Hughes' power was fairly shown when he got tired of not seeing the late-night movies he wanted to see on the local TV station and did what we would all like to do: he bought it. And then, while the rest of his empire managed to get by without his direction, he settled down for a while to running the minutiae of the station -- the commercials ("what about elinating the Adjusta-Bed cure-all commercials?") and especially the all-night movies ("please substitute Las Vegas Story and Sealed Cargo in place of Gang War and Great Jewel Robbery"). Indeed, sometimes he exerted his power in such a way as to leave the station with too few pictures to fill the night ("Outside of Hired Gun I don't see anything I would watch").

AS FOR political power, he did get some wonderful tax breaks from Congress and the antitrust laws were mangled for him, but he fell ridiculously short of being the kingmaker he lusted to be. Drosnin clearly seems to suggest that Hughes controlled Paul Laxalt when he was governor of Nevada ("It was not enough to own Laxalt") but even if that were the case it would be pretty small pumpkins.

After Robert Kennedy's assassination, Hughes dashed off a memo to Maheu ordering him to "hire Bob Kennedy's entire organization" to help put Laxalt in the White House "so that we would never have to worry about a jerky little thing like this anti- trust problem -- not in 100 years," but instead of the entire organization they wound up only with Lawrence O'Brien, briefly, as a Washington lobbyist and consultant.

He also ordered Maheu to load up with money and "I mean in a really big and definite way" for Hubert Humphrey's 1968 campaign, but instead of funneling the million or two that might have put Humphrey into the White House he gave only a measly $100,000.

In addition to being a relative piker, Hughes gave signs of being just plain ignorant, or naive. For all his blustering talk about buying politicians, Hughes -- and Maheu, too, for that matter -- seems to have had little experience at the game of political bribery. In the fight to stop atomic testing in Nevada, Hughes gave Maheu significantly imprecise instructions: "I think you should try to determine who is the real, honest-to- God, bagman at the White House," and then apparently assuming that this new idea of bribing somebody in the White House would shock and offend the hireling, Hughes added, "And please don't be frightened away by the enormity of the thought . . . Now, I don't know whom you have to approach, but there is somebody, take my word for it."

Why, they almost sound like two babes in the woods.