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Senator Lester Hunt's Decision

June 8, 1954

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.

New York Times Senate correspondent Allen Drury soon focused on this outspoken Wyoming freshman. Drury later described the widely popular senator as "60-ish, dumpy, always smiling, always humorous, outwardly serene, but obviously [a] host to hidden demons."

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.

No one associated with the Senate in 1954 would ever forget the trauma of that tragic day. The event influenced a classic work of American political literature, Allen Drury's Senate-based novel Advise and Consent. Working on the book when he learned of Hunt's suicide, Drury changed the plot to have his character, Senator Brigham Anderson, commit suicide in the face of lies about his moral conduct by his tormentor, a thinly disguised Senator McCarthy.

Later in 1954, still reeling from the shock of Hunt's death and McCarthy's brutal tactics, senators voted overwhelmingly to censure the Wisconsin senator. Within three years, chronic alcoholism claimed McCarthy—closing the chapter on this anguished era.