Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt

Reviewed by Gary Miller

There are two major flaws regarding Rodger McDaniel’s new book, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.

The first negative is no fault of the author. In fact, the author even admits to the absence of some factual information that is not available. Some of the records of Sen. Joe McCarthy are still not available to the public, and some records were destroyed by the FBI (J Edgard Hoover or his staff?) This presented a problem to the author of not being able to tell the entire story.



The second is that there wasn’t much discussion of how Senator Hunt and his wife reacted when their son was arrested for soliciting sex with another male. The author does mention the parents were at the trial and that it was a strain on the family (to the point it caused Sen. Hunt’s suicide), but I wanted more. This was in the 50s. How would parents react when they found out their son had been arrested for this kind of “crime”?

However the positives of the book outweigh the negatives.

The story in the book has needed to be told for several years for many reasons. One is to show the lack of civility in Congress both then and now.

I was asked recently why “dirty politics” works. The author gives a good answer: because “a lazy, ill informed electorate is willing to abdicate its responsibility to the agenda of others.”

Some interesting tidbits from the book:

In 1910 in a town in Illinois, it was against the law to give a political speech on Sunday. A particular candidate came to town, didn’t know about the law, and began to speak. The police informed him of the law. The candidate simply told the police officer he was not giving a campaign speech but was actually giving a sermon. The candidate took advantage of the situation by passing a collection plate.

In the 1920s in Lander, Wyoming, the city was so flush with money they gave teachers at 35% increase to $125 a month.

When Truman was sworn into office of the presidency, it was the first time in history where a president was sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Senator Hunt

Senator Lester Hunt started out his political career by serving on the Lander school board in Wyoming, served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce and also president of the local chapter of the Kiwanis. Dentist by profession, he also became president of the Wyoming Board of Dental Examiners and the Wyoming Dental Association. From there, he served in the state legislature before serving as their governor.

Democratic Governor Lester Hunt decided to run for Senate against a Republican incumbent in a Republican state in 1948. The head of the ticket was Harry S Truman, whom no one thought could win the presidency. Truman took his whistle stop tour to Wyoming to help candidate Hunt. Both Truman and Hunt won Wyoming. Until the 1948 election, Republicans had been in control of both houses of Congress. That election changed and gave the Senate to the Democrats. Truman won campaigning against the “no nothing Congress”. Where is Truman now that we need him?

Vatican

Book goes into more Wyoming history and legislative history of Sen. Hunt than most of us would be interested in and many would skip over. However some issues would be interesting even outside of Wyoming such as the efforts of President Truman, who for the first time, wanted to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican. Today, we accept the fact we have an ambassador to the Vatican, but Sen. Hunt received no letters in support of the president’s proposal.

Health care

Truman was not the first president to talk about national health care, but he did say health care was a national security issue. Even in the late 40’s, the US was one of the last countries to provide health care to its citizens. Truman’s biggest argument for national health care was he felt there was a lack of qualified (i.e. healthy) men to volunteer for the military. He indicated five million men were found unqualified during WWII because of some kind of health issue. Another million and half had to be discharged from the military because of health issues.

Sen Hunt agreed with Truman in theory that national health care was needed, but didn’t agree with the specifics of the president’s plan (sound familiar?). In the words of the author, those in opposition “could not keep a finger in the dike forever”.

Other “socialist” programs

Hunt made a list of government programs at one time considered socialist by conservatives:

Public school system
Women’s suffrage
Income tax
Interstate Commerce Commission
Eight-hour work day
Worker’s compensation
Pure Food and Drug Act
Federal Reserve Act
Minimum Wage
Guarantee of bank deposits
Child labor laws
Securities and Exchange Act
Federal aid to highways
Rural Electrification Administration
Soil Conservation Service

I am sure you and I could name more such as health care for all, Medicare, civil rights.

Lavender menace

During this time period (late 40s early 50s), there was actually a serious proposal to keep information on “homosexuals and perverts of all types”. There was a congressional committee called “Subcommittee to Investigate the Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government”. Bureau heads were required to attend seminars on “Perversion among government workers”. The State Department released their 
“Problem of Homosexuals and Sex Perverts in the Department of State”. Department of State informed Congress “moral degenerates are fleeing the State Department at the rate of one or two each week”. It is estimated 10,000 individuals lost their jobs because of this witch-hunt against gays.

President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order having to do with security clearances for government employment, which specifically listed “sexual perversion” as a condition for firing federal employees. (I wonder if there were any a place which gave a definition of “perversion”).

Lafayette Park

Many gay men all over the country are aware of Lafayette Park in Washington DC as a place to meet other gays. Gay men also know this has been a placed where one could get mugged for simply for being a “faggot” and also known as a place for police entrapment. Most men, who have gone or go to Lafayette Park looking for sex, are usually married heterosexual men looking for certain kinds of sexual activity that they are not able to receive at home.

This has been the case for decades. According to the author, even as far back as the 1890s, Lafayette Park was the destination point of an annual event where hundreds of gay African American men dressed in drag.

Lester Hunt Jr.

So many men were arrested during that time period, Lester Hunt Jr, was one of them.

Lester Hunt Jr attended the Quaker school Swarthmore College. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. After he graduated, he accepted a teaching job in Mexico City and in Cuba. He decided to go into the ministry and enrolled at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge. He dropped out of seminary when he was arrested and convicted.

Lester Hunt Jr was not elected official and a little bit further to the left politically than his father. He had the luxury of speaking out on liberal issues more than his father did. This did not go unnoticed by Sen. Joe McCarthy. Lester Hunt Jr voted for Truman in 1948 for practical reasons, but his heart was with Henry Wallace.

McCarthy’s witch hunt against Communists is well known, but his witch hunt against gays is not as well known. So this was a time when we had Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy Cohn (McCarthy’s right hand man) waging a war against gay people as they themselves had homosexual feelings and acted on them. Hoover traveled with his companion Clyde Tolson for decades. Hoover dressed in drag on many occasions. Several men have indicated they had sex with McCarthy and Cohn died of AIDS.

Lester Hunt was arrested and spent a night in jail too embarrassed to call his parents to bail him out. After Lester Hunt Jr’s arrest and conviction, Sen. Hunt had to make a decision whether to run for re-election to the Senate. Would his son’s arrest have an impact on his re-election? Every poll taken, even with questions regarding his son’s arrest, indicated Democrat Sen. Hunt would win Republican Wyoming in a re-election bid. The Senate was tied with the same number of Democrats as Republicans. If Hunt did not win re-election, the Republicans would probably gain control of the Senate.

Several Republican Senators, including Joe McCarthy, made it very clear to Sen. Hunt that should he run for re-election they would make sure ever voter in Wyoming knew about his son.

Hunt decided to bow out of his re-election race at the last moment sighting health problems, except no one knew of any health problems. The Senator refused to talk about “health issues”. Another factor may have been when their home had been broken into and ransacked.

He and his wife had sat in the courtroom during their son’s trial. It was obvious it took quite a toll on both of them.

Sen. Hunt took his life in 1954. His wife died in 1990. Now in his 80s, Lester Hunt Jr. lives with his wife in Chicago.

Gary Miller is a freelance writer, a long time Sacramento area activist and is a member of the Roseville City School Board.

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