Calling the 1954 suicide of former Wyoming Governor and U.S. Sen. Lester C. Hunt “a tragedy culminating from a different time,” state Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, is championing a bill to honor Hunt’s service to the Cowboy State.
Case addressed the House Revenue Committee on Thursday, reading an excerpt from a June 20, 1954, newspaper story covering the return Hunt’s body to Cheyenne.
The U.S. Congress had already met the day before, where it passed two resolutions in Hunt’s honor while his body had been in state for a few days at the U.S. Capitol.
Senate Joint Resolution 2 would give Hunt official recognition from the Wyoming Legislature for a life of public service. The bill passed the Senate 20-10 on Jan. 30, and the Revenue Committee passed it 6-3 on Thursday.
Both sons of Lander, Case he feels a connection to Hunt, who rose through the ranks of Wyoming government, serving as secretary of state then governor from 1943-49. He served in the U.S. Senate from. 1949-54.
Hunt is credited with conceptualizing the design of the Wyoming license plate in 1936.
It was around his time as governor that the Heart Mountain Relocation Center internment camp was in operation in Powell. Although he didn’t fight the existence of the camp while governor, Hunt spoke against the conditions Japanese Americans faced while interned there.
Hunt later said he didn’t want any of the internees to remain in Wyoming after World War II.
Hunt vs. McCarthy
Hunt was most known for tangling with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led a witch hunt alleging widespread communist subversion in the American government and society.
According to the U.S. Senate historical database, Hunt publicly called McCarthy “an opportunist,” “a liar” and a “drunk.”
“They clashed a bit,” Case said.
Hunt was tired of people in Congress misusing their power to hurt people, so he crafted legislation allowing private citizens to take legal action against lawmakers who commit libel and slander, Case said.
“By all accounts he would have got reelected,” Case said.
Cheyenne resident Richard Garrett spoke during Thursday’s hearing and mentioned how lawmakers are often the target of personal attacks, and that nearly every member of the House Revenue Committee had been the subject of a public attack of some sort in the past year.
Eleven days after announcing he would not run for reelection, Hunt was found dead in his Washington office with a .22-caliber Winchester rifle pointed to his head.
A Man ‘Caught Up In His Times’
Case said University of Wyoming historian and professor T.A. Larson found documents left by Hunt shortly before his death, proving he planned to take his life because of his entanglements with McCarthy and The Red Scare, a nickname for McCarthy’s efforts to root out Communists.
Going head-to-head with McCarthy in those days meant being accused of being a “Communist sympathizer.”
“The facts of history bear out why our senator committed suicide,” Case said. “He was a man above his times, but got caught up in his times.”
McCarthy was later censured by the Senate for his actions and is not regarded positively in the eyes of history.
“The facts of history bare out the dirty tactics that he did,” Case said.
At the age of 21, Hunt’s son was found guilty of soliciting an undercover male prostitute in Washington.
At this time, the Senate was nearly split between Republicans and Democrats, making every seat in the body high stakes for each party. Hunt was a Democrat and McCarthy a Republican.
Case said members of the Republican Party threatened Hunt they would expose the events involving his son to Wyoming voters unless he declined to run for reelection. Although Hunt initially resisted these threats, he eventually gave in.
Case said Hunt’s son had always incorrectly believed his father killed himself because he thought his son was homosexual.
“That’s the tragedy in itself,” Case said.
Hunt’s record was far from pristine.
While serving in the Wyoming House, Hunt supported eugenics legislation that would have permitted the sterilization of certain inmates at mental health asylums in Wyoming.
Case said Hunt later walked back on that stance.
“I’m not trying to sugar coat that and I think that’s an important piece,” Case said. “It’s also important that he expressed remorse about that, and he said that was a mistake.”
Some members of the Wyoming Senate have criticized a part of SJ 2 that quotes former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, who has been an outspoken critic of the Wyoming Republican Party in recent years.
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, questioned the validity of some of the points in the resolution, saying that Larson’s research has been backed by the American Heritage Center.
“It seems like a long time and a lot of things have been covered up, and I’d like to know how accurate this is if we’re going to put this on our record,” Bear said.
Bear asked Case if he was trying to draw a parallel between Hunt’s drive for respect in politics and the 2022 election between U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman and former congresswoman Liz Cheney.
“I’m trying to recognize a great man I think we’ve lost track of,” Case said.
Case told Cowboy State Daily his motivation for introducing the resolution was the recent revelations from Larson and a connection between Hunt and his father.
Case’s father and Hunt were friends and business partners in Lander and his dad served as an honorary pallbearer at Hunt’s funeral.
This memory brought Case to tears during his testimony.
“It just kind of started gelling this idea of sharing,” he said.
Case said Hunt’s life can help put into perspective some of the conflicts going on now in Wyoming politics.
“It’s an edgy time among our members, among our colleagues in each chamber, and it’s been an edgy bit of time,” Case said. “Maybe we can find some comfort from what happened to a great man a long time ago.
“I’m not saying the same thing is happening now, but I’m saying we can hold him up as a beacon for how we should be treating each other and making our government work.”