Rodger McDaniel — a lawyer who served 10 years in the Wyoming state legislature before entering seminary and becoming a Presbyterian pastor — says in the acknowledgements to Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt, “Honestly, I never so much wanted to write a book, as I wanted to tell this story.” And what a story it is.
The US Senate website describes the bare outline of the story like this:
In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s politics of fear victimized many people. Chief among them was Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. Hunt had come to the Senate in 1949, a liberal Democrat from a traditionally Republican state.
Thirty years earlier, Lester Hunt had started out as a small-town dentist. He abandoned dentistry in 1932 as an indirect consequence of his son’s broken leg, for which he had contributed multiple bone grafts. Hunt found that the results of that surgery made it painful for him to stand beside a dentist’s chair for extended periods. His statewide network of contacts, pleasing personality, and limitless energy inspired him to enter Wyoming politics on the rising tide of the New Deal. After six years in the governor’s mansion, he entered the U.S. Senate
Hunt quickly crossed swords with Wisconsin’s Joe McCarthy. Disgusted with McCarthy’s witch-hunting tactics, Hunt publicly branded him “an opportunist,” “a liar,” and a “drunk.” McCarthy privately vowed to get even. . . .
Fifty-five years ago, on June 8, 1954, Lester Hunt surprised supporters by announcing that he would not seek a second Senate term. Behind his decision was one of the foulest attempts at blackmail in modern political history. His son, long recovered from his broken leg, had been convicted a year earlier for soliciting an undercover policeman in Lafayette Square. Two of Joe McCarthy’s Senate Republican confederates informed Hunt that if he did not leave the Senate when his term ended that year, the conviction would become a major campaign issue. Hunt feared a vicious contest that would add to his son’s torments and jeopardize Senate Democrats’ chances of picking up the two seats necessary to regain majority control in 1955. Days later, he entered the Russell Building on a quiet Saturday morning, with a .22 caliber Winchester rifle partially obscured under his coat. In a seemingly buoyant mood, he exchanged pleasantries with an unquestioning Capitol police officer and went to his third-floor office. Minutes later, alone, Hunt pulled the trigger.
Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins fills in the gaps of this outline in vivid detail.
In the foreword by Wyoming’s retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson — a family friend of the Hunts — gives us a glimpse of why this book needed to be written and this story told. Says Simpson: “There is much handwringing going on today regarding incivility in public dialogue. We pine nostalgically for a time when politics was more civil, less nasty, and more decent. . . [But] dirty tricks and the outrageous smears didn’t just begin in this generation.” After noting ugly allegations made against John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and the epic Blaine versus Cleveland nastiness of 1884, Simpson puts the story of what was done to Lester Hunt in 1954 into perspective, calling it “beyond anything even the toughest, meanest, most negative politicians would have recognized as being acceptable.”
Let the record show that Alan Simpson is well-known for his sometimes over-the-top descriptions and characterizations of politicians and their activities. As McDaniel documents, however, in this case Simpson is merely being accurate.
Simpson goes on:
Parts of the story of Lester Hunt’s suicide have been told before, but Rodger’s book adds vital and important facts to the historical record of that tragedy. More importantly, this book tells the story not only of Hunt’s death but also of his life. One cannot fully gauge the venom in those who drove him to voluntarily end his life unless you also know how Hunt lived, his commitment to family, to Wyoming and to the nation.
Lester Hunt’s story is also about the real dangers of demagoguery. . . .
Homophobia was then, and cruelly and unfortunately continues to be, a convenient launching pad for some of the worst kinds of stereotyping and political opportunism. That aspect of McCarthyism is a critical element of the suicide of Lester Hunt. . .
This story must be read and its lessons heeded. It is a parable exposing the risks inherent in a democracy when personal power becomes more important than the good of our country. It teaches that even in politics, the boundary lines matter and the crossing of them “reaps the whirlwind.”
I’ve lived in Wyoming as well as in DC, and have crossed paths with a fair number of politicians, including the late Senator Paul Simon who was a family friend. Hunt’s story drew me in repeatedly, in very personal ways, as places and friends came to mind in the vivid descriptions of Hunt and his day. Hunt wrestled with the same issues that politicians do today, like health care reform, immigration, and conflicts between state and national party interests. McDaniel does not paint an idealized portrait of Hunt, but rather an honest one of a man who took positions on the issues of his day as he saw things at the time. Politicians know that they will be forced to make sometimes difficult decisions with many competing forces clamoring for their votes. Sometimes, as McDaniel documents, those competing forces operate with the tools of blackmail, bribery, character assassination, and extortion.
By the end of the book, three words kept going through my head: It gets better.
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank was outed as a gay man in 1985, and despite calls for his resignation, he weathered an ethics investigation and was repeatedly reelected by his constituents.
It gets better.
In 1957, Joe McCarthy died and Wisconsin elected William Proxmire as his successor. In 1989, Proxmire was succeeded by Herb Kohl, who retired in 2012. Last November, Tammy Baldwin — an open lesbian — was elected to succeed Kohl. Think about that: Tammy Baldwin now sits in the seat once held by Joe McCarthy.
It gets better.
I just wish that someone had said those words to Lester Hunt before he went into his Senate office one Saturday morning, took his rifle in his hands, and pulled the trigger. Instead, he became “one more casualty in Joe McCarthy’s war on democracy.”
Thanks, Rodger, for this book, and welcome to the FDL Book Salon.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]