Editorial: A threat, a suicide and a new stage production
Did U.S. Sen. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire bully a fellow senator into suicide?
This provocative and distressing question is at the heart of a new book and theatrical production about a long-obscured chapter in American political history. It’s a play that should come to New Hampshire for the sake of local students and politicians alike.
At issue is the 1954 death of U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt, a Democrat from Wyoming. Hunt’s suicide by gunshot wound in his Senate office is the focus of Dying for the Sins of Joe McCarthy: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt . According to author Rodger McDaniel, the events leading up to Hunt’s death were these:
Hunt’s 20-year-old son, Buddy, was arrested in Washington, D.C., for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. Initially, the police opted not to press charges. But when the police were questioned about it by Bridges and fellow Republican Sen. Herman Welker of Idaho, a close ally of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Buddy Hunt was recharged and convicted and ultimately paid a small fine. Bridges and Welker then badgered Sen. Hunt to resign, threatening to use his son’s conviction against him in the 1954 election campaign if he didn’t quit. Among their threats: They told Hunt they’d printed 25,000 flyers with a picture of his son on them and planned to put one in every mailbox in Wyoming.
The Senate at the time was closely split between Democrats and Republicans; if the GOP could take Hunt’s Wyoming s eat, they could take control of the Senate.
At first, Hunt ignored the continuing threats. Then, in May 1954, an emissary from President Dwight Eisenhower approached Hunt with an offer: Quit the Senate, agree never to run again and Ike would appoint him to a six-year term as chairman of the federal Tariff Commission. According to McDaniel, Hunt considered the offer seriously because he was tired of the threats from Bridges and Welker. But he ultimately said no – and a few days later took his own life.
McCarthy’s role is less clear. On the day before Hunt’s death, he announced he would open an investigation into a U.S. senator accused of bribing the police. He did not name the senator, but it was widely speculated that he was referring to Hunt, McDaniel says.
Remarkably, Bridges and Welker both spoke at Hunt’s memorial service, noting what a credit he had been to the Senate.
Were their threats enough to have forced Hunt’s suicide? Was he also suffering from illness? Were there other potential causes?
McDaniel, a Wyoming politician himself, has helped stage a theatrical production based on his new book in which Bridges, Welker and McCarthy are put on trial for criminal conspiracy to blackmail Hunt. It was produced earlier this year in Wyoming and will go to Washington, D.C., in October.
In the D.C. production, key roles will be played by former U.S. senator Alan Simpson; retired Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Michael Golden; Trevor Potter, general counsel to two Republican presidential campaigns; and Mindy Daniels, former president of the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance of Washington, D.C. A jury of local residents will hear the case and render a verdict.
In recent years, New Hampshire has become a leader on gay rights issues, including being among the first states in the country to legalize gay marriage. But the Hunt affair and Bridges’s role reveal a darker chapter. This, too, is part of the state’s political legacy and worth some serious reflection. Bringing the mock trial of Bridges, Welker and McCarthy to New Hampshire – perhaps by the New Hampshire Humanities Council or Historical Society – would be a worthy project indeed.