Anguished voices have a way of echoing beyond the grave. And at times in Washington the spirits of bygone politicians are suddenly recalled to life. Like ghosts in Dickens, such figures bear witness to the causes of their downfall in a tone that should make their mortal counterparts take heed.
So it is this summer as Republicans try to bludgeon Democrats with same-sex marriage. Bush’s jibes against “activist judges” (just not the ones who took his side on vote counts from the Sunshine State), and GOP vows to stand in courthouse doors rather than admit committed couples, resurrect memories of the foes of civil rights like axe-wielding Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. Similarly, in a throwback to McCarthyism, the Bush-Cheney campaign is threatening to warp gay nuptials into weaponry for drawing Democratic blood.
This strategy brings to life the story of a little-known U.S. senator from Wyoming named Lester Hunt. His death 50 years ago speaks volumes about the sadism that lurks beneath appeals to family values.
Hunt, a Democrat elected in 1948, faced a tough fight to keep his seat in 1954. Republicans held only a one-vote majority in the Senate and saw the incumbent as a prime target. So avid were top GOP strategists to oust him that they fastened onto the arrest of his son. “Arrested, soliciting as a queer,” noted New Hampshire Sen. Styles Bridges, chair of the GOP campaign committee, when informed of the arrest by inside sources at the Morals Division of the D.C. police.
Bridges and another Senate colleague pressured police to bind the younger Hunt over for a fast-track trial, threatening to lambaste police as obstructionists if they refused. What followed, according to historian Rick Ewig, was a fervent effort to shame the elder Hunt into resigning from the Senate and withdrawing from the race.
Like today’s far-right fringe, these demagogues were mimicking a politics of fear they had seen a peer use to win office and attract a national following. Indeed, the attempt to oust Hunt was fueled by his criticism of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the loudest-roaring right-wing lion of his day. “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it often enough, someone is bound to believe it,” Hunt told the Wyoming Eagle in 1952 in reference to McCarthy.
Hunt’s son was found guilty and paid a small fine. And Hunt himself at first appeared to bow to the GOP bullying, citing his own health as reason for leaving the race. But his resistance to vacating the seat stiffened amid counsel from friend and fellow Wyoming Democrat Sen. Joseph O’Mahoney.
In June 1954, just as a lazy summer was beginning in the capital, Hunt put an end to the jockeying. He took a shotgun under his coat to his Senate office and killed himself, leaving a letter to his son denying any tie between the arrest and the suicide and another letter asking a friend to help get his son a job.
This bloody episode bursts from the heart of David Johnson’s riveting history of gay-baiting in the McCarthy era. In The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians, Johnson lays blame for Hunt’s death at Bridges’ feet. In his book he traces the shameful collaboration between government personnel officers and the D.C. vice squads that fueled inquisitions, investigations and systematic removals of gay people from federal agencies. As Johnson reports, it took 30 years to get the government out of the business of filtering, finding and firing gay people who were striving to serve their country through public service.
Johnson’s book bears out the importance that allies, such as the ACLU and later the American Psychological Association, had in helping lift the public stigma from gays. Today allied voices continue to guide, and in some cases lead, the debate over same-sex marriage.
Arizona Sen. John McCain put a finger in the eye of present-day Senate ringleader Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) when he called the Bush-backed plan to amend the Constitution “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.” Far from the Capitol, others held a delighted wake for the doomed anti-gay proposal, which failed 48-50 on a cloture motion that needed 60 votes. “This is the sort of nonsense that Bush and his handlers continue to feed to their ‘base,’” Floyd McKay wrote in the Seattle Times. “So my 47-year marriage is somehow diminished because a lesbian couple down the street gets a license like ours? Oh, please!”
With friends like these, gay people are increasingly seeing attacks on their basic humanity backfire on proponents. Though right-wing mullahs still scapegoat his kind, a present-day Lester Hunt might find a bit more breathing room.