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.
Well intentioned, yes. But the resolution is a waste of time when so many more issues need attention.
Interestingly, both Kerry and commenters manage to work in their ideological comments in a piece on Lester Hunt. Don’t ever miss those opportunities to stretch, boys!
It is unfortunate that Kerry Drake doesn’t know history. McCarthy may have been a fanatic, but we now know that the CIA had a project code named Venona, that monitored Russian communication with individuals within our government. There were in fact nearly 200 agents of the Russian government, many in the State Department. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indeed guilty of spying for the Russian government, as well as Lauchlin Currie, an economist who advised the White House. Mr. Drake again, underscores his own liberal bias lay comparing 80 million Americans who support MAGA policies as the problem…not liberal policies.
Joe McCarthyism back in 1954 , Kevin McCarthyism in 2023 ( a proxy for MAGA Trumpism ). It’s still McCarthyism either way.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …
Mr Drake a good read keep it up
This must be the first nation that is being laughed at and loathed worldwide where immigrants are flooding its border, and thousands standing in line legally waiting to get in. If those of us here in Wyoming are so backward in our thinking, I wonder why so many people from the coasts are seeking to move here. Urban areas where progressivism has been allowed to develop to its ultimate end are riddled with lawlessness, poverty, drug abuse, homelessness, and young people who see crime as their only possible trade. The public schools are allowing young children to be exposed to drag shows, children in the womb are killed at will, and the aged are euthanized. Family values and religious faith are being replaced by an anything-goes immoral mentality. If I were as disgusted with our backward fears of progressivism and the democratic Republic that the Constitution established as some of you folks are, I would move to Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, or New York where your dreams of a progressive dystopia have already come true.
If you want to be bigoted and discriminate against those who are different looking or think differently from you, perhaps it is you that would think of relocating.
The chicken little “sky is falling” hysteria is just that….hysteria. it’s manufactured by people who are petrified of things changing. The sooner the backwards thinking baby boomers move on, the better we will all be.
The minority opinion of the nationwide minority party comes from those who scream and wail the loudest.
I’ve been baffled by using woke as a noun but….a lawyer for Ron DeSantis who has called Florida a state where “woke goes to die” was required to define “woke” in a court hearing. The lawyer said the term means “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them”.
Go Lester Hunt. Yay for our kind and civil, Mr. Cale Case.
For those interested in summary, I recommend the Wikipedia information regarding the historical times and occurrences Kerry Drake refers to in this commentary. Reading of the events provides an opportunity to review power and its distortion, a lesson in history and the perspective of those decades. Thank you, Kerry.
The simple-minded people of Wyoming are among those destroying the USA, which they claim to love so much as they symbolically stand for the national anthem and wave their flags. Their unfounded fears of progress are contributing to the downfall of a nation that is laughed at and loathed world-wide, as our military bullies anyone that gets in the way of our greedy elites.
What’s most frightening is the debate over democracy. Conservatives don’t want a pure democracy, because it’s very clear that would put an end to their contribution of evil ideas. An uneducated, ignorant electorate is our greatest danger in 2023.
An uneducated, ignorant electorate does not know the difference between a republic and a democracy. Perhaps a failure in public education has born such. God help us in 2023 as the mountain of stupidity is in the way.
One can always hope that Chip will do the right thing but I have seen no evidence of it yet. Oh I think he will put into a committee so he can sit in the back of the room and smile with glee as the people testifying in support of the Bill are the very people he sees as obstacles in creating the Wyoming his imaginary god wants.
As the good book says, you can see whether someone is in christ by the works that they do and I see no evidence of a christian attitude expressing itself from the members of the freedom caucus. Wolves in sheep’s clothing fleecing the flock so they can stick it to you.
Every once in a while I have hope, but if I was a betting man Chip will pick McCarthy over Hunt….maybe we should wonder about Chip?
“If Kirchick’s book has one major impact, it should be that it replaces the “Red Scare” (and Hollywood Blacklist) with the “Lavender Scare,” which began at the same time (around 1950) but “lasted far longer and claim[ed] as many if not more victims”—victims punished not for being Reds but for being gay. As it happens, the White House aide who played a key role in codifying this “full-scale purge” was Robert Cutler, who was gay. Among the several public servants whom the Lavender Scare drove to suicide was Senator Lester Hunt (D-Wy.), who killed himself after the 1953 arrest of his 25-year-old son for soliciting an undercover vice cop.”
Excellent read on putting Lester Hunt in context with times…
Excellent interview and who knew that the Reagan had the gayest administration….that old RINO Reagan…
McCarthyism is alive and well today. How often do we read and hear about progressives referred to as communists or socialists? Woke has become a derogatory label applied freely by people and politicians that long to appeal to supporters of the infamous “freedom caucus,” which by the way is certainly not about liberty.
It is quite remarkable how Senator Case and you folks claim to seek to honor Senator Hunt for his accomplishments, which he rightly deserves, but cannot resist to use it to further your woke agenda. He could have been honored without mentioning any of the politics that ensued, and without trying to show history through the distorted lens of modern times that are irrelevant to the world then. When “Maga” people as you have termed them, traditional folks who try to follow their faith and traditions, who you generalize as being linked to Trump object, you brand them with homophobia. By the time you and your ilk finish, you will have disgraced Senator Hunt’s memory and so far your readers only know him as the guy who killed himself over his homosexual son’s solicitation and arrest, and the extortion that may have resulted, no real mention of what he accomplished. You are exploiting Senator Hunt’s memory to push your agenda.
Wyoming legislators arguing against the word “democracy “? Arguing against describing blackmailing and threatening a revered statesman’s family as evil? Im appalled.
So sad. When you block the teaching of history, it’s true that you’re bound to repeat it. Wyoming is truly the least equal place I have ever lived. Is it any wonder that is #1 in suicide? I bet it must be near 50th in organ donation. If it wasn’t for my dog who loves me or my livestock that needs me, I would join Hunt in a minute. God bless Allen Simpson. Even at his age, I would vote for him as president. I feel like the dark side has completely taken over and humanity no longer exists.
Please hang in there, Ann. We need your voice.
My adult children have surrendered all hope for Wyoming EVER representing their views–I can hardly persuade them to vote. If the good conservatives knew the harm they were causing to the psyche of young idealists, they would hopefully hang their heads in shame. Truly though, Ann, don’t give up. Better to leave Wyoming than planet Earth. I hear Michigan is nice.
Excellent assessment of this sad situation. We are still in the ancient grasp of tribalism and exclusion rather than the democratic and “Republican” ideal of inclusion and tolerance. Can we grow up and evolve? The jury is out.