Today’s American politics aren’t much different from those of the mid-1950s.
Then, we had the scourge of U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), who conned millions into thinking he was a hero trying to rid the U.S. government of such dire “national security threats” as Communists, gays, lesbians and free-thinking political opponents.
Today, McCarthyism has been replaced with the MAGA movement started by former President Donald Trump. It blames transgender citizens, anti-racist activists, untold numbers of books and any view of American history in which the good (white) guys (men) don’t come across as infallible for all manner of unconscionable ills, both real and imagined.
And just like in the McCarthy era, there’s once again far too little civility and courage in politics. Too many stand by as whole swaths of our communities are accused in absentia and dehumanized with bombastic rhetoric and inflammatory labels. Too few stand up to the bullies doing so.
But in Wyoming, former U.S. Sen. Lester C. Hunt’s life epitomized what public service is supposed to be about: trying to make people’s lives better.
Unfortunately, Hunt’s life was tragically cut short by suicide in his Senate office on June 19, 1954, after a blackmail attempt orchestrated by McCarthy and carried out by two of his Republican Senate henchmen. They tried to exploit a politically difficult family problem: Hunt’s son, Buddy, was arrested for soliciting a same-sex act from an undercover policeman.
McCarthy knew getting Hunt — a popular Democrat — out of the Senate could allow Republicans to take back the chamber’s majority. The two parties were locked in a 48-48 tie, so if Hunt resigned to protect his son, that would leave Wyoming’s GOP governor to appoint a Republican replacement.
The methodology may be novel, but the “ends justify the means,” ethos and the “it’s more important to gain control of the Senate than to have a qualified candidate reflecting our values,” devil’s bargain will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to the 2022 elections.
U.S. Sens. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and Herman Welker of Idaho threatened to mail 25,000 fliers to Wyoming residents about the incident and “out” Buddy Hunt as gay, unless his father dropped out of the Senate race. Hunt struggled with the decision, initially saying no, then fabricating a story that he wouldn’t run because of health problems.
Wyoming, which has the nation’s highest rate of suicide per capita, could benefit today from an honest discussion about why Hunt took his life. That’s especially true after the Wyoming House voted to establish a trust fund for a statewide suicide prevention crisis line, but left it without a cent. There’s still time for the Senate to rectify that egregious mistake.
The Hunt scandal was not well known in Wyoming until 2013, when former state legislator Rodger McDaniel wrote, “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins.”
“Friends had already contributed thousands of dollars,” McDaniel wrote. “But he knew that continuing to campaign exposed his wife and son to an ordeal he could not willingly permit them to suffer.”
This session, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), whose parents were friends of the Hunt family, sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 2 – Recognizing the service of Lester C. Hunt.
Normally, bipartisan resolutions honoring revered Wyomingites sail to passage without controversy. But SJ 2’s fate has me concerned, because it also calls for members of the Legislature to honor Hunt by rededicating “ourselves to democracy, civility, decency and truth.” That may prove a bridge too far for a body that’s so fond of disinformation and mudslinging. The resolution made it out of the Senate on a 20-10 vote, but a bloc of the most far-right members all voted against it.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus has even more hard-line anti-progressives in the House, with a contingent of 26 representatives. If they take the same position as their Senate counterparts, it could be a close vote to get the resolution to the governor’s desk.
Hunt is one of the most popular politicians in the Equality State’s history. He served as secretary of state for eight years and was twice elected governor, before resigning to run for the U.S. Senate. Hunt won by an overwhelming margin in 1948.
Two GOP state senators tried to kill the effort to honor Hunt this session for two different — albeit bizarre and embarrassing — reasons.
After Case presented his resolution to the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, member Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) objected.
Hutchings isn’t convinced McCarthy’s homophobia was responsible for the suicide of a senator who would have breezed to re-election if he wasn’t being blackmailed, hinting instead that perhaps Hunt wasn’t resilient enough. Hutchings told the committee she’s been the victim of bullying and death threats made by people who believed false accusations about her, but “I thank God that as a young black kid I was used to bullying and I developed a resistance to it and like you said not everybody does.”
She told Case the bill pointed the finger without considering both sides of the story. “You put in little jabs,” she charged, looking directly at Case. “And it’s like, ‘ooh, we know a story,’ but we don’t know the whole story, really.”
Hutchings didn’t call it “fake news,” but she might as well have. She said about “the dark part” of the tale, “We’re just assuming, because the media said so. Maybe it didn’t.”
Case, to his credit, was much more diplomatic to his colleague than I could have been at that moment.
“I can kind of understand how we want to tone things down, and somehow say that both sides had reason to act the way they did, but the official history doesn’t allow for that,” Case said. “This was a terrible time. Thousands of lives were ruined, the tactics were reprehensible. I understand there are two sides to every story; of course there is. But I’m going to stand with Lester Hunt.”
Senate Majority Floor Leader Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) took issue with the bill for its mention of democracy.
“I cannot support, nor will I vote for, anything that says I will rededicate myself to a democracy, when in fact this country was never supposed to be a democracy,” Hicks said, insisting all references to “democracy” be changed to “republic.”
Case, obviously tired of such nonsense, pushed back.
“In this case we’re saying we respect the people, ‘We the people,’” Case said. “Do you think that’s what was happening in 1954? It wasn’t. Our commitment to each other, our commitment to our government, and our commitment to our ‘demos,’ our people, remains unchanged.”
Hicks altered his argument, a stall tactic that failed. “It’s not clear what kind of a democracy we’re talking about here,” Hicks said. “Is it a representative democracy, or a pure democracy?”
Hutchings tried to remove a statement from an official who said what happened to Hunt “passed all boundaries of decency and exposed an evil side of politics.”
“I look at this as an obscure commentary from a random senator, which in essence lacks civility and does not add to the memorial,” Hutchings said.
Who was that random, uncivil senator? [drum roll, please] … Why, it’s the former three-term Republican Senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson!
The reaction in the chamber was a combination of horror and amusement. People seemed to struggle with how to respond to such a clueless description.
“The concern that that language is offensive, ironically, sounds a bit ‘wokey.’ Right?” said Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne). “I mean I don’t understand what is offensive about the truth of the statement of how Lester Hunt was treated, and our [former] United States senator acknowledging that Senator Hunt was treated with evil.”
House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) hasn’t yet assigned the resolution to a committee. But his call at the start of the session for civility and decorum bodes well for the resolution to get a fair hearing.
If SJ 2 passes out of committee, what happens next depends on Majority Floor Leader Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), a Freedom Caucus member who controls the body’s agenda. It’s not too early to send him a message that ideology needs to be put aside. Wyomingites deserve to learn how a dishonest, dysfunctional political system silenced their honorable U.S. senator.
Nearly 70 years after Hunt’s death, it’s time to finally recognize his contributions to Wyoming and the nation.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.