About Lester Callaway Hunt
Lester Callaway Hunt (July 8, 1892 – June 19, 1954) was a Democratic politician and dentist from the state of Wyoming. He served as the 19th Governor of Wyoming from 1943 to 1949 and as United States Senator from January 3, 1949 until his suicide on June 19, 1954.
Hunt was born in Isabel, Illinois. He visited Wyoming for the first time as semi-professional baseball player. He graduated from Wesleyan University and then worked as a railroad switchman to put himself through dental school at St. Louis University. After graduating from dental school in 1917, he moved to Lander, Wyoming and established a dental practice. He joined the United States Army Dental Corps when the United States entered World War I, serving from 1917 to 1919 as a lieutenant. After postgraduate study at Northwestern in 1920, Hunt resumed his practice in Lander. He was president of the Wyoming State Dental Society and began his career in government as president of the Wyoming State Board of Dental Examiners from 1924 to 1928.
Hunt was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives from Fremont County in 1933. He served two four-year terms as Wyoming Secretary of State from 1935 to 1943. He commissioned muralist Allen Tupper True to design the Bucking Horse and Rider that has appeared on Wyoming license plates since that time. While serving as Secretary of State, Hunt personally claimed the copyright in the Wyoming Guidebook, a Works Project Administration publication, after the Governor and legislature failed to act to preserve Wyoming's intellectual property. Hunt endorsed all quarterly royalty checks of $3.50 and turned them over to the state treasurer.
He became the first person elected to 2 consecutive 4-year terms as governor, serving from 1943 to 1949. He faced hostile majorities in both houses of the legislature throughout his years as governor. The principal legislative accomplishment of his first term was the enactment of a retirement system for teachers. He repeatedly proposed a retirement system for state workers in his second term without success. During his first term, Republican U.S. Senator Edward V. Robertson charged that the Japanese citizens interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, were leading pampered lives and hoarding supplies. The Denver Post wrote an expose backing his complaints. Hunt dismissed that as a "political story" and said that "food stuffs cannot be brought into a city to feed 13,500 people in a wheel barrow and it would not be good business to bring it in every day." He toured the camp and said the internees' "living standard was, to my way of thinking, rather disgraceful." At the end of the war he wrote to the War Relocation Authority that "We do not want a single one of these evacuees to remain in Wyoming."
When President Roosevelt issued an executive order on March 16, 1943, creating Jackson Hole National Monument, Hunt joined in mobilizing opposition and said he would use state police to remove any federal official who tried to exert authority in the Monument's lands. Congress refused to fund the Monument until 1950, when Wyoming's two U.S. Senators, Joseph C. O'Mahoney and Hunt, reached a compromise with the Truman administration. It merged most of the Monument's lands into Grand Teton National Park, provided compensation for lost revenue, and protected local property owners.
Hunt was a Wyoming delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1940, 1944, and 1948. He chaired the National Governors Association in 1948.
Hunt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948 to a term beginning January 3, 1949, defeating incumbent Republican E.V. Robertson by an overwhelming margin. His political positions combined fiscal conservatism and opposition to big government with support for public housing and increased federal aid to education. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter enemy of Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his criticism of McCarthy's tactics marked him as a prime target in the 1954 election. For example, he campaigned for a law to restrict Congressional immunity by allowing individuals to sue members of Congress for slanderous statements. He called for reform of Senate rules: "If situations confront the Congress in which it can no longer control its members by the rules of society, justice and fair play, then Congress has, I feel, a moral obligation to take drastic steps to remedy those situations."
In 1949 he recommended that the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Dental Association (ADA) consider endorsing a plan for the federal government to offer health insurance policies with low deductibles, to cover "medical, surgical, hospital, laboratory, nursing and dental services." He told an ADA convention that "We cannot preserve the freedom of the practice of dentistry and medicine, we cannot keep dentistry and medicine uncontrolled and unregimented by the Federal Government, we cannot maintain our American free and independent practice in the health services by simply denouncing socialization or by a stand-pat opposition."
He served on the Senate Crime Investigating Committee, known as the Kefauver Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee. He backed foreign aid programs and supported a call for disarmament designed to demonstrate that Russia's peace proposals were not serious.
Following Eisenhower's landslide victory in the 1952 election, Hunt announced that he felt obliged to support the Administrations legislative proposals wherever possible. He cited complete agreement with plans for agricultural subsidies, the expansion of Social Security, the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission, and the abolition of segregation in the District of Columbia.
Son's arrest and Hunt's suicide
On June 9, 1953, Hunt's 20-year-old son and namesake, president of the student body at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, was arrested for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square. It was his first offense, which police normally handled quietly as a matter for the offender's family to address. According to Drew Pearson's Washington Merry-Go-Round column published months later, Republican Senators Styles Bridges, chairman of the Republican Campaign Committee, and Herman Welker had threatened Hunt that if he did not immediately retire from the Senate and agree not to seek his seat in the 1954 election, they would see that his son was prosecuted and would widely publicize his son's arrest. Hunt took no action. On July 3, the conservative Washington Times-Herald reported the arrest. The Republican Senators threatened Inspector Roy Blick of the Morals Division of the Washington Police Department with the loss of his job for failing to prosecute Hunt Jr. Hunt's son was prosecuted, and Senator Hunt attended the trial. On October 7, 1953, Hunt Jr. paid a fine for soliciting a plainclothes policeman "for lewd and immoral purposes." His attorney wanted to appeal but said his client preferred "to avoid any further publicity." Hunt's resignation would have allowed Wyoming's Republican governor to appoint a Republican to fill the remainder of Hunt's term and to run as an incumbent in the 1954 election.
In December 1953 Hunt told journalist Pearson that he would not stand for re-election if the opposition used his son's arrest against him, but he feared publicity about the threats against him as well, believing that his wife could not bear it. Hunt announced his intention to run for re-election on April 15, 1954. A poll taken on April 5, 1954, gave Hunt 54.5% of the vote, with the nearest opponent at 19.3%. In May 1954, as a member of the Senate's "liberal bloc," he proposed rules for Senate committees designed to eliminate some of Senator McCarthy's tactics. At the end of the month, Senator Bridges renewed his threat to publicize Hunt Jr.'s offense to Wyoming voters. On June 8, 1954, following medical examinations at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Hunt wrote to the chair of the Wyoming Democratic party, citing health concerns: "I shall never again be a candidate for an elective office." He did not resign from the Senate.
On June 19, he shot himself at his desk in his Senate office, using a rifle he apparently brought from home, and died a few hours later in Casualty Hospital. The New York Times reported that he acted "in apparent despondency over his health" and left four sealed notes.
Just one day before Hunt's suicide, Senator McCarthy had accused an unnamed Senator of "just plain wrong doing". After Hunt's suicide, McCarthy's Senate ally, Karl Mundt of South Dakota denied that McCarthy was referring to Hunt.
The day after Hunt's suicide, Pearson published his charges about how Republican Senators had threatened Hunt, but described Hunt's motives as complex: "Two weeks ago he went to the hospital for a physical check and announced that he would not run again. It was no secret that he had been having kidney trouble for some time, but I am sure that on top of this, Lester Hunt, a much more sensitive soul than his colleagues realized, just could not bear the thought of having his son's misfortunes become the subject of whispers in his re-election campaign." In private, he confirmed that Hunt had no serious health problem and wrote in his diary that "Unfortunately I am afraid that the morals charge against his son and the experience Hunt suffered was the main factor."
He was buried on June 22 in Beth El Cemetery following a brief church service in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At the time of his death Hunt was a major in the Reserve Corps.
On June 24, 1954, Wyoming Governor Clifford Joy Rogers appointed Republican Edward D. Crippa to fill the remainder of Hunt's Senate term. Democrat Joseph C. O'Mahoney won the seat in the November 1954 election.
On July 9, Blick signed an affidavit exonerating Bridges and Welker of pressuring him, but his decision to prosecute Hunt Jr. remained unexplained. Following the election, on November 9, the Senate eulogized its members who had died recently and Senator Bridges called Hunt "a man who demonstrated the best qualities of an American. He was loyal and he served well." Hunt's cousin, William M. Spencer, president of the North American Car Corporation in Chicago, wrote Welker after learning he had eulogized Hunt:
I was shocked when I read this. It recalled to my mind so vividly the conversation with Senator Hunt a few weeks before he died, wherein he recited in great detail the diabolical part you played following the unfortunate and widely publicized episode in which his son was involved. Senator Hunt, a close personal friend of mine, told me without reservation the details of the tactics you used in endeavoring to induce him to withdraw from the Senate, or at least not to be a candidate again. It seems apparent that you took every advantage of the misery which the poor fellow was suffering at the time in your endeavor to turn it to political advantage. Such procedure is as low a blow as cold be conceived. I understood, too, from Senator Hunt, that Senator Bridges had been consulted by you and approved of your action in the matter.
Lester C Hunt, Jr. later worked on the staff of Catholic Charities in Chicago and then for the Industrial Areas Foundation of Chicago. With his co-worker there, Nicholas von Hoffman, he co-authored a paper, "The Meanings of 'Democracy': Puerto Rican Organizations in Chicago", that appeared in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, an academic journal of linguistics in 1956.
Allen Drury used Hunt's blackmail and suicide as the basis for his 1959 best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Advise and Consent. In the novel, Senator Fred Van Ackerman from Wyoming uses a homosexual affair to blackmail Utah Senator Brigham Anderson. In 1962, the novel was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda.
Hunt's anti-McCarthyism and his son's homosexuality are mentioned in Thomas Mallon's Fellow Travelers (2007), a novel set in the 1950s that describes a young man's introduction to hardball Washington politics as he discovers his gay identity.