June 19, 1954: A weary Sen. Lester C. Hunt (D.-Wyo) walked into his Senate office. At 61, the former Wyoming governor was serving his first term in the Senate and was by far his party’s strongest candidate to win the seat again — critical to his party, as the Senate was almost evenly split, with 48 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and one Independent. But Hunt was being blackmailed — reportedly even by one of his colleagues: if he ran again, Hunt was told not so subtly, the hitherto secret police report that the senator’s son had been arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover police detective in Washington DC’s Lafayette Square the year before would be made public. That evening, in his office, the distraught Hunt took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Published reports at the time said that Hunt’s suicide resulted “because he had cancer,” as Facts on File for 1954 says.
Seasoned Capitol Hill political reporters such as Allen Drury knew better and Hunt’s dark secret, while known to colleagues and those who covered them, remained that. But a few years later, when Drury wrote his epic political novel Advise and Consent, the Hunt tragedy is moved to fiction, sort of: Sen. Brigham Anderson (R.-UT.), war hero and U.S. Senator from Utah (Drury never mentions political parties in A&C, but a senator from Utah would almost certainly have to be a conservative Republican), is being blackmailed to vote for a controversial nominee for secretary of state with the story that he had a relationship with a buddy in the military while stationed overseas in World War II. Shaken by this and what the news will do to his wife and young daughter, Anderson takes his own life in his Senate office with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In 1989, after an evening in which he gently brushed aside my questions as to who his characters in Advise and Consent were based on, Drury did confirm that, yes, the tragedy of Brig Anderson was based on that of Lester Hunt. Nearly two decades later, historians have made the whole sad story known and one can read all about it (and its inspiration of Brigham Anderson) on line.
All of this came back to me in the last 48 hours, as the arrest of Sen. Larry Craig in the men’s room of a Minneapolis airport and his resultant guilty plea for “disorderly conduct” has taken the nation by storm. Craig now says he pled guilty because he hoped the thing would “go away,” regrets having done so, and has taken after the Idaho Statesman for witch-hunting — in effect saying, “the newspaper made me do it,” as ABC-TV’s veteran Capitol Hill correspondent Cokie Roberts put it this morning.
In 1954, things like this were never discussed and, given the states where the real-life Hunt and the fictional Anderson came from, their endings in tragedy are not truly a surprise, as sad as they were. A half-century later, these things are talked about and, at least when it comes to Republicans, they result in political deaths rather than suicides: Rep. Bob Bauman’s secret life was revealed and, even after heated denials and claims of alcoholism, the Marylander lost his seat — one of three Republican House Members to lose as Ronald Reagan was sweeping into the presidency in 1980; a year later, Rep. Jon Hinson (R.-Miss) was caught in a compromising situation in a men’s room, arrested and sent for psychiatric treatment before resigning; and, of course, the famous “inappropriate e-mails:” that spelled the downfall of Rep. Mark Foley (R.-Fla.) and was pivotal to the Republican loss of the House last fall.
So where are we today with Craig? His Republican colleagues, ever aware of the Foley affair and the cries of protecting “one of their own” that hit House GOP leaders, have called for a probe by the Senate Ethics Committee. In addition, Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney (Craig resigned as his Idaho state campaign chairman) and John McCain moved quickly to distance themselves from the Idahoan.
And perhaps most importantly is the IdahoUSA poll that just came across my desk: 89% of Gem State residents are aware of the Craig affair and 55% of them want the senator to resgin.
My conclusion: Larry Craig may have the best explanation in the world — something of which I could never conceive — as to why he paid a $500 and signed a guilty plea for what he calls a “misunderstanding.” But it won’t wash: it didn’t start with Craig and it won’t end with him. But when it comes to Republicans and especially conservatives, it’s the end of a career.