In 2018, NPR noted that the death of Sen. John McCain represented “the near-extinction of lawmakers who believe in seeking bipartisanship to tackle big problems.” President Joe Biden has promised to restore the bipartisanship of yesteryear, but most observers are skeptical given the massive chasm between his proposals and what Senate Republicans seem willing to accept. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters, “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration” — not an auspicious sign for those hoping for comity and dealmaking.
The inability to come together even on issues where both sides agree that something needs to be done — like infrastructure — and of Congress to do once-basic tasks like passing appropriations bills to keep the government open, lead to frequent laments that politics have become too extreme and divisive. Many yearn for the collegiality and cooperation that they see in the past relationships between politicians such as Biden and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and their ideological opposites such as Sens. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. But such rhapsodizing mischaracterizes the past in American politics, where acrimony often reigned in even worse ways than it does today.
There are many well-chronicled examples of the animosity between individuals in Congress, including duels, fistfights and the caning of Charles Sumner in 1856. Even in the modern era, there have been many other incidents of dirty tricks that far exceed today’s rancor. The case that may best epitomize the brutishness of politics in the 20th century is the sad tale of Sen. Lester Hunt, D-Wyo.
Hunt, a World War I veteran and dentist, moved from Illinois to Wyoming, where he became a successful politician, serving two terms as governor (1943-1949) before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1948.
A fiscal conservative with New Deal inclinations on health, housing and education, Hunt developed a strong distaste for the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis. Early in Hunt’s time in the Senate, the two served together on a subcommittee investigating Nazi war crimes. Hunt witnessed firsthand McCarthy’s lying and grandstanding.
McCarthy’s lack of integrity appalled Hunt, who never disguised his disdain for his colleague. During one shared trip, Hunt refused to share a room with McCarthy despite limited space.
More importantly, however, unlike so many of their colleagues, Hunt actually aimed to do something about McCarthy and others like him, including Sen. Styles Bridges, R-N.H., who once called for a “first-class cyanide fumigating job in the State Department.” Hunt wanted these senators held responsible for character assassinations, so he introduced legislation to severely restrict congressional immunity and allow civil defamation suits against members of Congress.
Yet doing so put a target on Hunt’s back. And his unscrupulous opponents gained crucial ammunition in July 1953 when Washington, D.C., police arrested Hunt’s son, Lester “Buddy” Hunt Jr. for solicitation of a male undercover policeman.
Hunt met with the director of the D.C. vice unit, Roy Blick, who agreed to dismiss the charges. But someone tipped off Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho (sometimes called “Little Joe from Idaho” for his closeness to McCarthy), and Bridges, who threatened Blick. He reinstated the charges, leading to a trial in October 1953. The defense argued that the arrest was entrapment. But the judge found Hunt Jr. guilty and fined him $100. The media never really latched onto the case, and the issue initially appeared to fade away.
Yet in a closely divided Senate, with 48 Democrats, 47 Republicans, one independent and the midterm elections approaching, Republicans needed Democratic targets to regain the Senate. Hunt, who hailed from a conservative state, was high on their list.
Hunt had pondered retiring, but polling showed him easily defeating GOP challengers, prompting him to seek reelection. Welker and Bridges, in turn, tried to pressure him to resign — which would have flipped control of the Senate because they expected Wyoming’s Republican governor to appoint someone from the GOP to the seat. The appointed senator would also have the advantage of incumbency when he faced voters in November. Welker and Bridges threatened to expose Hunt’s son’s conviction — promising to place copies of the arrest record in mailboxes throughout Wyoming.
Initially, Hunt refused, but the pressure grew as McCarthy threatened to expose an anonymous colleague for financial mismanagement. Many observers believed that he would accuse Hunt — and everyone knew that McCarthy would show little regard for the truth. Distraught over multiple threats, Hunt announced his decision not to seek reelection on June 8, 1954.
The decision shocked many, and journalists began speculating about the real reason, including influential columnist Drew Pearson. On June 19, Hunt entered the Senate building. At his desk, he laid out a bunch of letters and then sat down and shot himself with a rifle he had snuck in. He died a short time after.
A few days later, Pearson exposed the blackmail of Bridges and Welker. He lamented: “Perhaps if I had brought the whole thing into the healthy light of day. . . . Hunt might have adjusted himself some time ago and might be alive today.” Not long after, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson underscored the role of his unscrupulous colleagues in Hunt’s death. “I can think of few events which cast a greater pall over the Senate than the untimely death of our beloved colleague, Lester Hunt.”
Hypocritically, Bridges and Welker attended Hunt’s memorial, the latter rising and calling Hunt “truly emblematic of all that was good in America.” Afterward, they and their allies attacked Pearson and denied contributing to Hunt’s death. Ultimately, there was no investigation into their actions.
Nonetheless, many knew of Bridges’s and Welker’s role. Hunt’s cousin, William Spencer, chastised Welker in a private letter. Spencer highlighted how his cousin had told him “in great detail the diabolical part you played following the unfortunate . . . episode in which his son was involved.” He argued that Welker “took every advantage of the poor fellow . . . [for] political advantage. Such procedure is as low of a blow as could be conceived.”
In the short term, Welker, Bridges and McCarthy got what they had wanted. Wyoming’s governor appointed Republican Edward Crippa to Hunt’s seat. But perhaps repulsed by these vicious tactics, Wyoming voters chose Democrat Joseph O’Mahoney over Crippa that November.
The story faded after the censure of McCarthy, a process assisted by his role in Hunt’s death.
Few remembered the event as time passed, but in 1959, Allen Drury published his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Advise and Consent.” It looked at how opponents blackmailed a U.S. senator from Utah over accusations of sexual activities with men, that ultimately culminated in his death by suicide. Many thought it was a thinly veiled retelling of Hunt’s story, despite Drury’s denials.
Today, Hunt has largely been forgotten. But his story remains important and relevant, because it reveals that even during the postwar period — recalled by many as a golden era of political consensus, bipartisanship and cooperation — the politics were every bit as brutish and dirty as they are today, and maybe more so.
Lamentations over the decline of civility forget this truth. Politics was and remains an often dirty sport with victims such as Hunt and his family. In fact, Hunt wasn’t the only senator to fall victim to McCarthy’s dirty tricks. The Wisconsinite’s underhanded tactics cost another critic, Sen. Joseph Tydings (D-Md.), his seat and damaged the lives of countless others, including people in the State Department and Hollywood.
While Congress may have been more functional during this earlier era, Hunt’s sad story shows that what we are experiencing is far closer to the norm than we might think.
Kyle Longley is the director of the War and Society Program at Chapman University and author of “LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval.”