After Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt took his own life in 1954, the details surrounding his death were largely kept from public view, thereby obscuring his legacy of public service. A resolution now before the Wyoming Legislature is intended to set the record straight and to catalyze today’s lawmakers to emulate the late senator’s compassion, integrity and civility.
“I thought, ‘Is there a way that we could honor that man, and maybe at the same time, pledge to make government better?’” said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 2 – Recognizing the service of Lester C. Hunt.
The resolution details Hunt’s life, including the spot on Lander’s semi-professional baseball team that brought him to Wyoming, and his political popularity exemplified by an undefeated election record as a Democrat for state representative, secretary of state and governor, before heading to Congress. But more than anything the resolution celebrates his courage in the face of a charismatic demagogue. Hunt was one of a select few in Congress to publicly criticize Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin for his baseless denunciations and fear-mongering.
The resolution also calls on lawmakers to commit to several of the ideals Hunt embodied such as cooperation and diligence “in battling against injustices, inequities, discriminative conditions and intolerant practices that can lead to suicide.”
“The Wyoming Legislature remembers and joins with the people of Wyoming and all our nation to rededicate ourselves to democracy, civility, decency and truth,” the legislation states.
The resolution comes on the heels of several years of declining statehouse civility and an increasing volume of hot-button bills. Lawmakers have largely heeded legislative leadership’s call for decorum this session, even during heated debates. But roughly five more weeks of difficult conversations await them as hundreds of bills — some aimed at social wedge issues and some which stand to impact vulnerable populations, such as transgender youth — must be decided on. Case is hoping the resolution will set a lasting tone.
“Maybe that’s the most important message,” Case said. “If we don’t make the [legislative] process better and less acidic, if we don’t have more respect for our colleagues of all viewpoints, then we could tip over into that abyss that happened” with McCarthyism.
Hunt died on a Saturday morning in 1954. That Monday Congress was suspended to make room for services in Washington D.C. By Wednesday, Hunt’s body crossed the continent, lain in state in Wyoming’s State Capitol building and was buried in Cheyenne’s Beth El Cemetery.
At the time, newspapers largely omitted the events that preceded Hunt’s death, Rodger McDaniel told WyoFile. McDaniel — a legislator from 1971 to 1980 and former director of the Department of Family Services — wrote the 2013 book, “Dying for Joe McCarthy‘s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.” Per McDaniel’s book, and the official history of the U.S. Senate, the previously hidden truth emerged: Hunt decided to end his life after being blackmailed by McCarthy.
Hunt’s son, Buddy, had been arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in DC’s Lafayette Park. Gay people were often targeted by police at the time, according to McDaniel, in part because McCarthy insisted same-sex attraction was a security risk — ironically because it exposed people to the threat of blackmail.
After Buddy was tried and convicted, McCarthy and his cronies — U.S. Sens. Herman Welker (R-Idaho) and Styles Bridges (R-New Hampshire) — told Hunt that if he sought re-election they would distribute fliers to every Wyoming mailbox detailing the story. While Buddy’s conviction was public information by its very nature, the tale hadn’t really traveled back to Wyoming. Hunt was expected to easily win another term, thereby preserving the Democratic majority in the Senate, but he abruptly withdrew from the race following McCarthy’s threats.
He took his own life days later.
“It was dirty politics,” McDaniel said. “With these guys saying, ‘This is our chance to reverse control of the Senate from one party to the other,’ and they were willing to do whatever it took, say whatever it took.”
It was a chance to flip a seat and to silence Hunt’s courage. In response to McCarthy’s frequent, unsubstantiated attacks on individuals for disloyalty or subversion, Hunt introduced legislation to permit private citizens to sue members of Congress for libel.
It was “one of the foulest attempts at blackmail in modern political history,” according to the official history of the U.S. Senate. “Later in 1954, still reeling from the shock of Hunt’s death and McCarthy’s brutal tactics, senators voted overwhelmingly to censure the Wisconsin senator,” the entry states.
But in the years that followed, McCarthy’s secret blackmail was dashed from Wyoming’s history books — quite literally. T.A. Larson attempted to set the record straight in 1966 with his first edition of History of Wyoming. But when he shared his manuscript with Hunt’s widow, Nathelle, she hired a powerful attorney and threatened to sue if he published the complete story. Larson complied and kept things to “on June 19, 1954, Senator Lester Hunt, overwhelmed by political and personal problems, committed suicide.”
Nathelle “spent the remainder of her life trying to make sure this story didn’t get told,” McDaniel said. “She didn’t want her son dragged through it again.”
Mostly relying on records from the American Heritage Center to write his book, McDaniel came across Larson’s original manuscript, including what had been left on the cutting-room floor regarding Hunt. And so McDaniel succeeded where Larson had not and published a more complete historical account of the late senator — and did so with the blessing and encouragement of Buddy.
“It was gratifying when the book was published,” McDaniel said. “[Buddy] called me and thanked me for telling the true story.”
The story had even been kept from Buddy.
“He lived most of his life believing that his father killed himself because he thought his son was homosexual,” McDaniel said. “He had no idea that there had been blackmail.”
In 1933, years before arriving in D.C., Hunt got his start in politics as a member of the Wyoming Legislature, representing Fremont County. As a lawmaker, “he earned a reputation for doing his homework and making his case eloquently and persuasively,” according to McDaniel. He had been a dentist in Lander before entering politics, but was forced to leave the profession after a bone graft made it difficult to stand for long periods of time. He’d undergone the surgery to help a 4-year-old Buddy who suffered from bone cysts and needed the transplant. Before holding office Hunt served as a lieutenant in the United States Army Dental Corps. He also served in the Army Reserve until his death.
After one statehouse term, Hunt was elected to secretary of state, where he served for eight years. During that time, Hunt obtained the state’s copyright to the now ubiquitous mark of the bucking horse and rider. As governor from 1943 to 1949, Hunt oversaw the creation of a retirement system for teachers while also attempting to create a similar system for state employees along with expanded health benefits. In the U.S. Senate, Hunt advocated for the expansion of social security and low-cost health and dental insurance policies.
“He was a Democrat, afterall,” Case told the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.
Case’s committee presentation of the bill was emotional, moving him repeatedly to tears. When you look back at what happened to Hunt, Case said, it’s a poignant combination of family dynamics, small town Wyoming, dirty politics and the stigmas of suicide and homosexuality.
“And to have this man thread this needle the best he can, and then in the end, it was too much for him” Case said. “There’s a breaking point for all of us.”
It’s possible to draw comparisons between the politics and the dynamics of Hunt’s last days and now. As Case presented his bill, lawmakers down the hall were debating whether to bar classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The day before, the House stripped long-term funding from the 988 suicide lifeline. In 2018, leadership chose not to uphold the Legislature’s policy protecting employees and lawmakers from discrimination based on sexual-orientation or gender-identity.
“I could overdraw parallels between then and now, but I want to let people draw their own parallels,” Case said. “I want people to make up their own mind and decide this bill’s worth voting for.”
So far, lawmakers have decided just that, though some with trepidation.
“The parts that I don’t like, Senator, are the parts that are kind of, ‘we’re choosing one side over the other,’” Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) told Case during the committee meeting. Hutchings also opposed “the little jabs” she felt had been inserted into the bill, including a section where former U.S. Senator for Wyoming Alan Simpson is quoted as saying what happened to Hunt, “passed all boundaries of decency and exposed an evil side of politics.”
“I can understand that we want to tone things down,” Case responded. “And maybe try to say somehow that both sides had reason to act the way they did, but the official history doesn’t allow for that.”
Hunt wasn’t perfect though, Case added, pointing to a eugenics bill he brought to the Legislature in 1933 to sterilize the mentally handicapped at any of the state’s institutions. Later in life, Hunt expressed deep regret about the bill, Case said. Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) also pointed to Hunt’s involvement as a wartime governor with the Heart Mountain Internment Camp.
Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) was the only dissenting vote heard in the chamber on first reading. “This smacks of [the Black Lives Matter] movement,” Kolb said. “I’m not gonna rewrite history. I’m not gonna shame somebody back in the day for whatever they’ve done because they did it in that period of time.”
Hutchings unsuccessfully brought an amendment on second reading to strip the bill of Simpson’s comments.
Case may not be willing to make direct comparisons, but McDaniel is.
“It has the potential to cause at least a few people to think through the extreme polarization,” McDaniel said. “It raises the extreme politics of a time past, which resulted in a suicide. But in doing that, maybe it’s subtle enough that people don’t realize that it’s a mirror, not a window.”
On third reading in the Senate, the bill gained some opposition but not enough to stop its passage. Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) opposed the bill on account of its word choice.
“I cannot support nor will I vote for anything that says I will rededicate ourselves to democracy, when in fact, this country was never supposed to be a democracy,” Hicks said.
This resolution is about “a man who gave everything. And we’re going to quibble over one word,” Case said.
In another section of the bill, Hicks brought a successful amendment to change the word “democracy” to a “republican form of government,” which Case thought was a suitable compromise.
The Senate voted 20-10 with one excused to pass the bill. Sens. Hicks, Hutchings, Kolb, Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), Evie Brennan (R-Cheyenne), Tim French (R-Powell), Bob Ide (R-Casper), Dan Laursen (R-Powell), Tim Salazar (R-Riverton) and Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) voted against it.
The resolution now goes to the House for consideration.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct T.A. Larson’s name. —Ed.