A jury has convicted a U.S. senator from New Hampshire of attempting to blackmail a Wyoming senator. The deal was this: He offered to squelch criminal charges against the Wyoming senator’s son if he resigned.
The conviction occurred just this year. The crime in 1954. And the jury was an audience at a play built around a mock trial of New Hampshire Sen. H. Styles Bridges, who orchestrated the blackmail attempt of Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt.
Bridges is one of those characters from history it would be nice to forget about. Unfortunately it’s difficult since his name is on the official New Hampshire governor’s mansion, which he donated to the state, as well as a highway and various other taxpayer-purchased facilities.
An export from his home state of Maine, Bridges came to power in 1934 when he was elected governor of New Hampshire. He moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1937, and rose to the rank of chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
A favorite of William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, he made his mark as an ally of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, who orchestrated his famous red scare and lavender scare. He was an avid collector of rumors and innuendo about his political enemies and even his allies.
Bridges is probably best known for the quip that he started out one of the poorest men in the Senate and died a millionaire. Even then politics was a useful business for a man on the make.
Still, his sleazy persecution of Lester Hunt ranks right up there as one of his most notable achievements. The events took place in 1953 and 1954. The Senate was controlled by Democrats by a one-vote margin. McCarthy had ripped through Washington like a tornado, and his antics still played well with the public, though he was losing some steam.
Today we know how morally bankrupt McCarthy was, but it’s easy to forget that in 1954 he enjoyed the support of a wide spectrum of politicians, among them President Dwight Eisenhower and future presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
He was a political star maker, and it’s no wonder Bridges wanted to curry favor with him. In 1953, Wyoming Senator Hunt’s son was arrested in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, on a morals charge. Hard to believe such a thing exists in Washington, but it did.
As a first offense, police classified it as a misdemeanor and asked his father to get his son straightened out. And there the matter stood, until Bridges and Idaho Sen. Herman Welker cooked up a scheme to use the information to get control of the Senate for the Republicans.
They approached Hunt and told them they would have his son prosecuted and publicize the arrest if he didn’t resign. When he refused, they made good on their threat. They threatened the prosecutor with dismissal if he didn’t take the case to trial. And they got friendly newspapers to write about Hunt’s homosexual son and his arrest.
The trial shattered Hunt, and in 1954 he announced he would not seek reelection. He then shot himself in in the head in his Senate office.
Columnist Drew Pearson wrote of the episode:
The incident was one of the lowest types of political pressure this writer has seen in many years.
Author Rodger McDaniel has revived the story in his book, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins, The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. The story has also been turned into a play, which may be staged in Washington this fall.