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Scandals in Presidential History: The Blackmailing of Lester Hunt

One of the most problematic issues for President Dwight Eisenhower was the actions of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and his hearings into the extent of communism in the US government. When Eisenhower was running for President in 1952, Eisenhower believed that McCarthy's methods had gone too far in casting suspicion and slandering the reputation of many good people in government, including Eisenhower's former boss General George Marshall. During the 1952 presidential election, the Eisenhower campaign toured Wisconsin with McCarthy. In a speech delivered in Green Bay, Eisenhower declared that while he agreed with McCarthy's goals, he disagreed with his methods. Many had hoped that Eisenhower would go farther than that and disassociate himself from McCarthy and his methods. In a draft version of his speech that had been circulated to the press, Eisenhower had included a strong defense of Marshall, which contained a direct criticism of McCarthy's attacks. But Ike did not include that in the speech he delivered. On the advice of conservative colleagues who were concerned that Eisenhower might lose Wisconsin if he alienated McCarthy supporters, he deleted this from his speech. William H. Laurence, a reporter for The New York Times, was aware of the deletion and featured this is a front page story the next day. Eisenhower was widely criticized for giving up his personal convictions, and the incident was the low point of his campaign.

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After being elected president, Eisenhower made it clear to those close to him that he did not approve of McCarthy and he worked actively to diminish his power and influence. But he never directly confronted McCarthy or criticized him by name in any speech.

One of the sleaziest and worst examples of McCarthy's methods concerned a Wyoming Senator named Lester Hunt, and a New Hampshire Senator named Styles Bridges. Bridges, a former Governor of his state, was a staunch defender of McCarthy and of his methods. He was one of only 22 senators, all Republicans, who voted against the censure of McCarthy for his "red scare" communist witch hunts, and for something called the "lavender scare". The latter was McCarthy's attack on homosexuals in government.

Lester Hunt had once also been Governor of his state. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948 as a Democrat, defeating incumbent Republican E.V. Robertson by a large margin. During his tenure in the Senate, Hunt became a bitter opponent of McCarthy, and his tactics. He pressed for legislative reform that would strip away much of the protection that allowed McCarthy to smear the reputations of people with impunity. For example, he tried to introduce a law to restrict Congressional immunity by allowing individuals to sue members of Congress for slanderous statements. He also called for reform of Senate rules to prevent much of what McCarthy was doing. He said, "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." He also lobbied 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, in an early effort to bring about government backed health care. McCarthy viewed the initative as a socialist measure. McCarthy leveled accusations that Hunt was soft on communism after Hunt supported a call for disarmament.

On June 9, 1953, Hunt's 24-year-old son Lester Jr. (known as "Buddy") was arrested in Washington, D.C., for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square, just north of and adjacent to the White House property. Buddy was a student and president of the student body at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was his first offense. Police kept the matter quiet in order to give Hunt's family an opportunity to address the issue. News of the arrest became known to a number of Senate Republicans. When new of the arrest reached Styles Bridges, he and fellow McCarthy backer Senator Herman Welker of Idaho, attempted to use the information in an unscrupulous manner. The two approached Hunt and threatened that if Hunt 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. The two sought to blackmail Hunt into resigning under the threat that if he did not do so, they would publicly shame his son.

The senate was closely divided at the time, and Bridges knew that 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. When Hunt refused, Bridges and Welker contacted Inspector Roy Blick of the Morals Division of the Washington Police Department. They threatened to arrange to get Blick fired for failing to prosecute Buddy Hunt. In response, Blick then had Buddy Hunt charged and prosecuted for the offense.

News of the charge became public and Senator Hunt attended his son's trial. On October 7, 1953, Buddy Hunt was convicted and fined for the offence of soliciting a plainclothes policeman "for lewd and immoral purposes". On the same day, the Washington Post published the story. Buddy Hunt's attorney was quoted in an October 8 New York Times account as saying his client preferred "to avoid any further publicity."

In December 1953, Hunt told journalist Drew Pearson that he would not run for re-election because he was worried that his opposition would make his son's arrest an election issue. He said that the publicity would have an adverse effect on his wife's health. Republicans had threatened to distribute in Wyoming 25,000 leaflets about his son's arrest. Hunt later changed his mind and on April 15, 1954, he announced that he would be a candidate for re-election. A poll taken on April 5, 1954, gave Hunt 54.5% support. His nearest opponent had 19.3% support in the same poll.

In May 1954, as a member of the Senate's "liberal bloc", Hunt proposed rules for Senate committees designed to eliminate some of Senator McCarthy's tactics. In response, Senator Bridges renewed his threat to publicize Hunt Jr.'s offense to Wyoming voters. Eisenhower was powerless to stop the tactics of the McCarthy block. Hoping to spare Hunt and his family the embarrassment that would flow from the threats, he offered Hunt a high-paying position on the U.S. Tariff Commission if he agreed not to run for the Senate. On June 8, 1954, Hunt changed his mind about running again, and wrote to the chair of the Wyoming Democratic party, citing health concerns as the reason: "I shall never again be a candidate for an elective office." But he did not resign from the Senate.

Eleven days later, on June 19, 1954, Senator Hunt shot himself at his desk in his Senate office, using a rifle he had brought from home. He died a few hours later in Casualty Hospital. A New York Times report said that Hunt had acted "in apparent despondency over his health" and claimed that Hunt had left four sealed notes.

McCarthy denied any involvement in a plot to blackmail Hunt. But the day after Hunt's suicide, Drew Pearson published a story in which he claimed that Republican Senators had threatened Hunt. (The full story can be read here). He also ascribed other motives to Hunt's actions. Pearson wrote, "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." Privately, Pearson later wrote in his diary: "Unfortunately I am afraid that the morals charge against his son and the experience Hunt suffered was the main factor", adding that he had exaggerated the severity of Hunt's health issues in his story.

Hunt was buried on June 22 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at Beth El Cemetery following a brief church service in Cheyenne.

On June 24, 1954, acting Wyoming Governor Clifford Joy Rogers appointed Republican Edward D. Crippa to fill the remainder of Hunt's Senate term. On July 4, 1954, the Washington Times-Herald reported Buddy Hunt's arrest and conviction from the previous year, and tied this incident to Senator Hunt's death.

On July 9, Inspector Blick signed an affidavit which claimed that Bridges and Welker had not pressuring him, but he offered no explanation for his decision to prosecute Buddy Hunt under circumstances which did not normally result in prosecution.

In one of the biggest acts of hypocrisy, on November 9, 1954, Senator Styles Bridges spoke at a Senate ceremony eulogizing its recently deceased members. He called Hunt "a man who demonstrated the best qualities of an American. He was loyal and he served well". The remarks disgusted Hunt's cousin, William M. Spencer, president of the North American Car Corporation in Chicago. He wrote Senator Welker, who had also eulogized Hunt, Spencer's letter reads in part as follows:

"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 could be conceived. I understood, too, from Senator Hunt, that Senator Bridges had been consulted by you and approved of your action in the matter."



In November of 1954 Democrat Joseph C. O'Mahoney won Hunt's Senate seat in the senate, defeating Republican nominee William H. Harrison. Buddy Hunt later worked on the staff of Catholic Charities in Chicago and then for the Industrial Areas Foundation of Chicago. He continues to reside in Chicago, and in October 2015 gave his first on-camera interview about his arrest and his father's suicide. The story of Hunt's death is told in the 2013 book Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt by Rodger McDaniel.
Tags: dwight d. eisenhower
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