Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins

Jun 6 2013 12:09AM

Matthew’s Place interview with Rodger McDaniel, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins – The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.

Jason Marsden: Roger McDaniel, Thank you for speaking with Matthewsplace.com. This is Jason Marsden with the Matthew Shepard Foundation staff, and we’re very pleased to have you do an interview with us for our LGBT and allied youth resources site.

You are the author of a recently released nonfiction work, “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins – The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.”

Thanks again for speaking with us.


Rodger McDaniel: Well, the pleasure is mine. I’m glad to be with you.


JM: You and I know each other from our past lives in Wyoming politics. It turns out we also have shared an interest in Lester Hunt’s story. Do you want to maybe set the stage a little bit about who Lester Hunt was and how he became something of a unique historical figure in Wyoming.


RM: Lester Hunt was one of the big players in Wyoming politics in the twentieth century. He was born in Illinois and as a child lived in rural Illinois came to Wyoming as a teenager, recruited to play baseball for Lander professional baseball team. They had just lost their best pitcher who was signed by the Chicago White Sox. (They) needed a new pitcher. Somebody told them about this kid out in Central Illinois, and they found Lester Hunt and brought him back to Wyoming. He came to Lander to play baseball and fell in love with a local gal named Nathelle Higby. A few years later, they were married. After the First World War, Lester Hunt finished dental school, and then came back to Lander to practice dentistry until he was elected to the legislature in 1932.

And he spent the next 22 years of his life in public service. First, as a state legislator, (and) then a Secretary of State. He was the governor during World War II, and then went to the U. S. Senate in 1949 until his death in 1954.


JM: And to the extent that that Hunt is remembered today and unfortunately not nearly so much as his accomplishments deserve, it is through the lens of the McCarthy Era. We all hope and pray that they’re teaching what the McCarthy Era was all about and that people are familiar with that, but if you can set the stage a little bit and perhaps the element of it that is involving gay and lesbian people that is less well known than the other aspects of McCarthyism.


RM: Well, that’s true. When I was in high school and in college, the gist of the teaching about the McCarthy Era dealt with what we know as the “Red Scare” and focused on McCarthy’s search for Communists in government. When you dig a little deeper, what you find is that it was homosexuals who suffered a great deal more than anyone else from the McCarthy witchhunts. He was not able to prove a great deal of his assertions about Communists, but interestingly, in an effort to defend itself from McCarthy the State Department said they had discharged 91 people. McCarthy and his adherence thought they were Communists.

The State Department assured them that no they weren’t Communists, they were homosexuals. It was at that point that Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and McCarthy and few others conflated the issue of homosexuals in government with what they were claiming to be security risks and developed some really bizarre arguments, including one where they alleged that Adolf Hitler had assembled a list of American homosexuals with the goal of compromising their loyalty. Then after the war, that list had fallen into the hands of Joseph Stalin who was busily recruiting American homosexuals to become spies for the Soviet Union, (they claimed). Through a series of congressional hearings they created what one writer has called the “Lavender Scare,” which was a focus on removing homosexuals from government. In the process over the next few years, leading up to a Lester Hunt’s death, thousands of men and women who were or were rumored to be homosexual were driven out of federal government jobs and their lives destroyed.


JM: Alright, and this is an aspect of the LGBT rights struggle in American history that is really not very well remembered even by those who are part of the movement now. There was to this extent not only employment discrimination but hounding, possibly is the word, of gay and lesbian people in the 1950s.


RM: I spent some time in researching this book at the GLBT historical society in San Francisco because I wanted to get a sense of attitudes toward homosexuals before McCarthy and then during McCarthy’s years, and it was quite an education. What I found is that in large measure before Joe McCarthy came along, particularly in America’s larger cities, homosexuals achieved a level of tolerance and even acceptance that surprised me. In Washington, D.C., for example, homosexuals had a vibrant social life, very little job discrimination, policeman left them alone, and then along comes McCarthy and completely turns it upside down almost overnight.

Homosexuals become targets of law enforcement, of employers, the congress and the American public because McCarthy was so successful in convincing people at a time when their fears were aroused by the Soviet threat that homosexuals were a threat to the national security.


JM: It might be an interesting question really — which fear was greater: were people more afraid that our culture is being infiltrated by a fifth column of some sort or were they afraid of McCarthy and the power that he had to drag people’s names through the dirt, through the headlines, and, you know, shake them loose not only from government employment but the polite society in general. This seem to be what Senator Hunt particularly objected to when he started focusing on this curious part of the Constitution that essentially says if you’re a member of congress, anything you say on the floor of the congress you can’t be sued for libel or slander for saying any of those things. It seems that Senator Hunt and Senator McCarthy didn’t really get along particularly well from the start, but when Senator Hunt pointed to this constitutional provision suggested it should be repealed, this is sort of taken its a declaration of war by Joe McCarthy. Things seem to have escalated pretty severely from that point forward.


RM: What’s interesting is that McCarthy and Hunt crossed swords almost from the day that Hunt arrived in Washington. McCarthy was elected to the senate in 1946 and Lester two years later, and one of the first assignments that Lester got was to be a part of a three-senator committee investigating Nazi war crimes at the Battle of the Bulge.

Joe McCarthy was not a member of that committee, but he insinuated himself into all of their hearings. Ironically taking the side of the Nazi and claiming that American military officers had obtained confessions from Nazis through force and coercion, perhaps even torture, and so Lester Hunt’s first introduction to this guy…must have really been something for this quiet, mild mannered fellow from Wyoming fresh in Washington, running up against this loud McCarthy who would say do anything to get a headline.

So from the beginning Hunt experienced McCarthy as a bully. Before too long he was in open warfare with McCarthy. He called McCarthy a liar, a drunk, said he used the big lie technique, and then as you said, he’d try to change the federal law so that citizens who has been slandered and their lives are ruined by Joe McCarthy could actually file libel and slander suits against him. So by 1953, there was a pretty much open warfare between the two of them.


JM: So around about this time, the senate is very narrowly divided. There’s one seat difference between the parties, and something happened that enmeshes Lester Hunt and his family sort of in the web of McCarthy, Bridges, Welker, and that crowd in the Senate I guess. Describe what took place and how this to begin the tragic unfolding of the end of the Senator’s life.


RM: To put it in context, there are a couple of things that happened. One is that a senate elevator operator reported to Lester Hunt that he overheard a conversation on the elevator in which Joe McCarthy told someone else that he intended to quote “get Lester Hunt” because of Hunt’s son’s involvement in anti-McCarty protests. Young Lester Hunt had been active in college protests against McCarthy and had found himself in the newspaper saying things about Joe McCarthy that were unpleasant, and that had come to McCarthy’s attention. The second thing is that the Senate had just concluded hearings on what they called “Perverts in the Federal Government” and had gone into these hearings with the assumption that homosexuals were security risks, and of course, in their final report they reached that conclusion without any supporting evidence. In the process, the senate committee urged the District of Columbia Police Force to be more vigorous about arresting homosexuals, so they could be identified as government employees and fired from their government jobs. The District of Columbia Police Force created what they call the “Pervert Elimination Squad,” which was a large group of undercover officers who combed the streets, the bars, the restaurants, and the parks looking for homosexuals to arrest. And it was in that environment, on the night of June 9th, 1953, that young Lester Hunt, Jr. walked into Lafayette Park, made eye contact with one of these undercover officers and was then subsequently arrested for soliciting sex from him.

That began the process of what I call in the book “the longest year of Senator Lester Hunt’s life.”


JM: So, essentially, the police’s past practice would’ve been sort of keep this quiet, talk to the suspect’s family and let it be dealt with in that way. It sort of unfolds that way to some to some extent, and then McCarthy’s friends in the senate, Styles Bridges and Herman Welker from Idaho get wind of this arrest having taken place. They sort of sense, it seems, an opportunity to get some leverage over Lester Hunt, Sr. and muscle him out of running for reelection. (Then) presumably get that senate seat back for the Republican Party in the subsequent elections. And it seems like Senator Lester Hunt is reluctant to knuckle under to this pressure and plans to run for reelection. At some point in 1954, the heat gets turned up on him, and he very suddenly announces that he will, indeed, retire, not seek reelection, and things service spiral downhill very quickly from there.


RM: First, as you said the charges were dismissed. Welker and Bridges…Bridges was a very big player; he was No. 3 in line to succeed to the presidency. He was the Senate President pro tem, chairman of the appropriations committee when the Republicans had the majority, so he was a big player. When he focused on Hunt, there was a one seat difference in the Senate, and so all that stood between the Republicans in the majority was this Democrat out in Republican Wyoming. So if they could force him to resign, the Republican governor in Wyoming would appoint a Republican and the senate would have the majority. The threats, at first, didn’t work. In fact, the included the fact that over the Christmas holidays while the Hunts were back in Wyoming, someone broke into their Washington home and ransacked it looking for something. You can imagine what that does to you and your wife psychologically when that happens. So by the spring of 1954, Hunt is wondering whether or not to seek reelection, but he decides he will. In April, he announces he’s a candidate for reelection. The threats continue. Welker and Bridges tell Hunt that they have printed 25,000 flyers with the picture of his son on them, and they are going to put one in every mailbox in Wyoming if he doesn’t resign. Still, he refuses, and then something really interesting happens. I found in the files of the Eisenhower Library, a memorandum supporting the story that Senator Hunt told his friend Leslie Miller the former Wyoming governor the week before he died, and that was that late in May of 1954, someone from the White House with the authority of President Eisenhower went to Senator Hunt and said, “Look, if you’ll resign from the Senate and agree to never run for the Senate again, the president will appoint you to a six-year term as chairman of the Tariff Commission.” Now, this was a significant job back then. It paid more than a senator made; it required senate confirmation, and it was a presidential appointment. Hunt, at first, wanted to take the job because he was tired of the threats and tired of all the pressure. He saw that as a way out of all of this stress. But his wife, his staff and his friend, Leslie Miller, said to him, “You know you really can’t do that. How would you explain that to your supporters back home that you got this big job and the Republicans got control of the Senate?” So ultimately, he told the White House that he would not take the job, and a few days later he took his life.


JM: He was not alone in his family in committing suicide, which is another aspect of the situation you explore briefly in the book. Without professing any clinical experience in the study of suicide you point to the number studies about predisposition to taking one’s own life, but one is left with the inescapable conclusion had this man not been subjected to McCarty’s bullying and the prospect of his son being labeled a homosexual, which is unthinkable in this era 60 years ago, that…he surely would have lived out his natural life or at least not committed suicide in the manner that he did.

But, of course, we’re left to wonder as those who survive victims of suicide usually are, what really he was thinking, and what really he expected to come of this tragic decision he made.


RM: I spent months going through his papers that are on file with the American Heritage Center at University of Wyoming, reading his diaries, his letters, and his speeches, and right up until for the day before his death, he was sending two friends optimistic letter saying, “Nathelle and I are anxious to get back to Lander and life out the rest of our lives and look for new opportunities.” In fact, one of those letters was sent the day before he died, and you get the sense that he had weathered the storm and made peace with the fact that he was not going to be able to run for reelection and the reasons. But something happens the day before he kills himself; Albert Camus has written about suicide. One of the things that he said is that when you when you look at the last days of someone who voluntarily takes their life, look at the last encounter they had with someone who says something unpleasant or threatening to them, and Camus said you’ll then find the answer.

The day before Lester Hunt took his life Joe McCarthy held a press conference and announced that he intended to open an investigation against a Democratic member of the senate whom he said was involved in taking a bribe. Now, when all of the trouble started with Welker and Bridges making their threats they had charged that the detective who agreed to dismiss the charge had been paid a $2,000 bribe in order to take that action. They had continued to make that allegation, and I think there’s little question but that Hunt heard that, was convinced that McCarthy was talking about him, and that in spite of the fact that he had announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection that all of this was not going to go away. Now it was going to be dragged through McCarthy-esque senate hearings aimed at proving that he and his son were involved in bribing a police detective. That was less than 24 hours before he actually killed himself. You know when you when you weigh all the evidence, look at the fact that his brother had killed himself and all of those other things, I was left with the conclusion that there just is no question but his political enemies hounded to him to death.


JM: And to be clear, your research seems pretty conclusive that not only did Senator Hunt not bribe this detective, but quite the contrary, these influential members of the Senate used to undue pressure on that detective to get the police department to reverse their typical practices and persecute Lester Hunt, Jr. in a manner that other people arrested for these kinds of these morals offenses, as they called them, completely contrary to the typical operation of the Washington, D.C., Police Department. This accusation of a bribe was a power play to not only…you know, they weren’t satisfied to get rid of Lester Hunt as a member of the senate. They wanted to assassinate his character and make sure that he was left absolutely bereft of influence and comfort in his retirement.


RM: In the final analysis, there’s the great irony in this story. The men who claimed that homosexuals were security risks because they could be blackmailed – were themselves the blackmailers. They use this event to perpetrate the most-vile political blackmail in American history. That’s the great irony of their conduct and their behavior.


JM: In the wake, of course, of Senator Hunt’s suicide, journalists, a few of them anyway, Drew Pearson, in particular, knew what was going on here. They read this transparently as what it was – what we now from the modern era, the senate historians office, everyone else, Alan Drury, who wrote that interesting fictionalization of the case. We all read it at the same way that the top inside journalists of the day read it, and sort of out of the doth protest too much file, Styles Bridges and company went ballistic in their denials that they had anything to do with this whatsoever. Which from this historical remove reads as just an absurd lie on its face.


RM: Bridges and Welker had the chutzpah to speak at Senator Hunt’s memorial service about what a wonderful man he had been and what a credit he had been to the U.S. Senate — just an amazing theater.


JM: Sort of a Shakespearean element of the Roman histories here at work.  This was appalling to those close to Senator Hunt one of whom wrote an absolutely blistering letter to Senator Welker sort of laying the cards on the table making it clear that he knew exactly what had gone on. This paper survived and was amongst was it Senator’s Welker’s papers that you retrieved this scathing letter from?


RM: Actually, it was in Senator Hunt’s papers and also I found the same copy in Senator Bridges papers because the writer had copied it to Bridges as well.


JM: So in the aftermath of this case, sort of, already a bit in progress, but greatly accelerating pretty quickly thereafter, Joe McCarthy is toast politically within a year’s time after this, and you, sort of from the remove of history, point to this as a turning point when America woke up to what was going on with McCarthyism and very quickly just turned their back on it completely.


RM: Alan Drury, who wrote “Advise and Consent,” was a United Press International reporter who was covering the Senate, he knew the entire story about the blackmail. Interestingly, instead of writing the nonfiction version he wrote the fictional version which is “Advise and Consent” and if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you remember that closing scene where the senator in “Advise and Consent” who has perpetrated the blackmail about a homosexual encounter of up one of his colleagues, that senator is shunned by the senate. They tell him he can stay around if he wants to or he can resign. Either way, they’re not going have anything to do with him anymore, and as I was researching the book I watched that movie again and it struck me that in the end everybody in the senate knew exactly why Lester Hunt was dead. He was a particularly popular and well-liked member of the club.

It was within a matter of several weeks after that that McCarthy was finally censured, his years brought to an end. You know, McCarthy was on his way down after the Army McCarthy Hearings anyway, but I can’t help but believe that Lester Hunt’s colleagues looked at McCarthy in a new way and that Hunt’s suicide helped hasten the end of McCarthy’s power.


JM: You know, the Matthew Shepard Foundation is very interested in how bullying works and how people defeat it ultimately through their own individual action, and one is left the impression that there wasn’t anyone in the United States Senate the didn’t feel like but for the grace of God it could have been them. Who would McCarthy strike down next with what irresponsible and untrue charges and how widely would they believed, and what happened to the to their families and to their historical legacies. If you have to think that once it comes that hauntingly close to home that anyone feels that they can be similarly victimized, and are that much more motivated to put an end to it.


RM: Lester Hunt was not the first one to take his or her own life because of McCarthy, but Lester Hunt was one of them. And that was different.


JM: Well, it’s an interesting time in American history — within the living memory of some of our elders. Many of us can’t imagine living in a country like that now, and yet at the same time in half the states, you can be fired for being gay right now today with very little legal recourse. Certainly within certain social and religious circles in this country that the idea of being seen publicly as being gay is still considered have tremendous stigma around it, and of course, we were all mortified to have to continue to hear about the suicides of people young and old who are unable to deal with in some cases the way they’re treated as result of being gay or lesbian or transgendered or merely being perceived as such.

What struck me in reading this book, and I couldn’t put it down because I care so much about Wyoming politics and history. I’ve always been fond of our sort of forgotten statesman Lester Hunt. But one is left with this powerful feeling that it’s not as much has changed since then as you might think at first blush. You and I spoke a little earlier in the week about one of the sad legacies of this is that Senator Hunt’s surviving family members felt that they really couldn’t talk about this at all. They couldn’t countenance being written about by journalists or historians at all. In so doing, not only was Senator Hunt’s death was sort of covered up but in a way his life, his career, and his accomplishments were covered up as well.


RM: Yeah, isn’t that the sad part. When you wrote your story it was probably 50 years after his death. Up until that point, one Wyoming historian Rick Ewig had written briefly about it, and T.A. Larson, Dr. Larson, who wrote the textbook that is used throughout Wyoming high schools and colleges barely mentioned the suicide. In large measure, that stigma just continued to haunt the family and benefited those who caused Senator Hunt’s death because it wasn’t told during their lifetime. A guy like Styles Bridges left this world and had buildings and highways named after him when, in fact, his legacy should’ve been entirely different. But that’s why I wanted to write this book and tell the story. Wyoming and certainly other places, as well, have this flirtation intolerance. In Wyoming, we struggle with that a great deal; that struggle continues and maybe it gets a little better, very slowly.

But I wanted Wyoming to face exactly what it is that intolerance has cost them. Some of that went on in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death – some of that introspection. But we’ve got a long ways to go in this state and in many other places around the country. I think the only way we get there is much the same way that we did in the battle for civil rights for African-Americans and that is to face up to what it is that intolerance and bigotry actually cost.


JM: Well said. Well, Roger McDaniel – former and distinguished former Wyoming legislator, former nominee for the United States Senate who just about got there once upon a time, ordained minister, civil servant and now published author – thank you very much for speaking to Matthew’s Place about this sadly overlooked story in American history.

I hope very much that the book refocuses Wyoming’s attention and perhaps, to some extent national attention on this this case – demonstrating just so vividly the cost of bullying and discrimination. Hopefully, it will seem as time passes to be more remote unlikely to repeat itself, but as you say, we all have an awful lot of work to do to get to the future like that.


RM: I want to thank you and the (Matthew Shepard) Foundation for the work you do, and together, I think we’ll find that place in American culture where justice will be achieved. Maybe we’re closer than we think.


JM: Let’s hope so. The book again is “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins – The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt” and our guest is Roger McDaniel the author. Thanks again, Roger; we very much appreciate it.


RM: Thank you.