In Lee v. Skousen tiff, LDS Church sided with the man who liked strippers

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) One of the more entertaining Utah political tiffs was the battle between Salt Lake City Mayor J. Bracken Lee and Salt Lake City Police Chief W. Cleon Skousen. The battle ended in 1960 when Lee managed to convince a majority of city commissioners to fire Skousen.

Skousen was hired in 1956 to re-energize a police force that suffered from low morale. He had been recommended by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. The then-mayor, Adiel F. Stewart, not surprisingly, lobbied LDS Church leader David O. McKay for permission to get ex-FBI agent Skousen out of his BYU job. By most accounts, Skousen did improve the moral of the department. However, the moralistic, ultra-conservative Skousen was headed for a collision with the election of Lee as SLC’s mayor in 1959.

The Fall 1974 issue of “The Utah Historical Quarterly,” has an interesting account of the tension that developed between Mayor Lee and Chief Skousen. Both were political conservatives, but Lee, who was not Mormon, enjoyed recreational activities that the straightlaced Skousen regarded as immoral. According to historian Dennis L. Lythgoe, the pair clashed over Skousen regularly sending the city’s vice squad to bust striptease shows “to the private clubs of the city, such as Alta, Ambassador and Elks.” Lee allegedly ordered to Skousen to let up on the raids. Skousen refused. According to Lythgoe, “Angry words followed, with Lee suggesting that the police should stay away from striptease shows and admitting that he enjoyed them himself and had no desire to be arrested while attending one.”

Lee’s defense of striptease shows in refreshingly candid. In a footnote to Lythgoe’s article, he says in an interview “… I think the prettiest thing in the world is a nude woman — a good looking nude woman.” It’s clear that Lee was offended by what he believed was Skousen’s attempt to put a heavy police presence on issues that offended his personal morality. The pair also clashed over Skousen’s attempts to crack down on mild forms of gambling that went on surreptitiously at area private clubs.

When he became police chief, Skousen initiated a program where local taverns would self-police themselves. His reasoning was that if the taverns could self correct any potential violations of the law it would cut down on needed police presence. The taverns formed an association and hired a former police officer to advise them.

Lee disliked the program, and asked Skousen to disband it. He believed that tavern businesses were pressured and intimidated by both SLC police and the association if they spurned membership. At a public hearing charged by Mayor Lee on the program, both sides of the association debate were heard. In an interview with Lythgoe, Lees regards the tavern owners as thieves who had made a bargain with Skousen to steal less. He told Skousen, “I think you could make a deal with the underworld to only steal so much at night and they would be glad to police themselves.”

The rift between Lee and Skousen was moving beyond competing moral visions and into disputes over the role and size of government. Despite both men being traditional, anti-communism conservatives, Lee was realizing that Skousen’s morality tolerated an intrusive form of bigger government that his competing moral views opposed. Lee was not interested in vice cops chasing dancing women in panties or bras. Also, he wanted taverns to be policed by cops.

Not surprisingly, the final straw that led to Skousen’s firing was over the size of the police department’s budget. Lee wanted it trimmed far more than Skousen wanted to trim it. Skousen’s salary, at $10,000 a year, was larger than Lee’s. He also had three highly paid assistant police chiefs. Lee wanted those to go. The money issues, as Lythgoe recounts, couldn’t be worked out, and one day, in a Machiavellian move, during a routine commission meeting, Lee made a surprising motion to fire Skousen. Even more surprisingly, it passed 3-2 among city commissioners.

The mayor suffered short-term public relations/media problems but eventually withstood harsh criticism from Skousen supporters and others. In fact, Lee was re-elected as mayor of Salt Lake City twice after firing Skousen. In an interesting twist, the Deseret News, which had been an enthusiastic supporter of Skousen during his tenure, published a lukewarm, passionless editorial on his firing. What Lythgoe reports is that the Deseret News had prepared a full-page editorial harshly condemning Lee for firing Skousen. However, at the last minute, the LDS Church First Presidency spiked the editorial, and sent Counselor Henry D. Moyle to make sure the editorial did not run. Moyle’s church duties at the time included overseeing the editorial content of the Deseret News.

According to the article, Lee says that when he learned of the upcoming editorial, he called Church President McKay, who told him not to worry. Skousen is quoted as saying that Moyle was sent to spike the editorial because Lee was a Mason and the church worried about offending Masons. In an article footnote, then-Deseret News editorial director William Smart, who was editor and general manager of the News at the time Lythgoe’s article was published, Smart said that he had been opposed to Skousen’s firing but added this: “Well, we’ve never published nor ever will publish a full-page editorial — that’s ridiculous. And I’d really rather not comment on that. That’s an internal matter that I’d rather not get into.”

In the history of Utah journalism, it’s no secret that the Deseret News’ editorials are influenced by the hierarchy of the LDS Church. (In fact, in just the past two years, the newspaper, and the rest of the church’s media, has been restored to First Presidency control to a level that equals, if not exceeds, what it was 52 year ago.)

As to what drove the LDS Church leadership to side with the mayor who liked strippers over the ultra-straightlaced Skousen, I suspect Skousen is pretty close to the truth when he claimed “that the president of the church had always been more comfortable with a non-Mormon in office who was friendly than a Mormon who might feel a need to be independent,” writes Lythgoe.

As mentioned, it was an entertaining tiff in Utah history. The winner was Lee, who continued with a successful political career. Skousen resumed a private life, and enjoyed success with his brands of politics and religion for about two more decades until changing moods rendered him obsolete. However, in recent years the popularity of Mormon commentator Glenn Beck, a Skousen disciple, has pushed his books, particularly “The 5,000 Year Leap,” back into prominence.

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13 Responses to In Lee v. Skousen tiff, LDS Church sided with the man who liked strippers

  1. Steve Stones says:

    How could you not side with the guy who likes showgirls? LOL

    • Doug says:

      You wonder Steve, did old J. Bracken ever get a chance to ogle Bettie Page, Blaze Starr, Lila St. Cyr, in the “flesh”?

  2. Ellis Wyatt says:

    The story I heard from Skousen’s point of view was that Skousen believed that “laws should be enforced fully by police and bad laws should be fought by the public to pressure the legislature to fix or repeal them.

    Regardless how much some of us enjoy strippers and liqueur, and our belief that government has no unique moral authority to regulate or prohibit our participation in these things; the stories above do not list the authority Skousen had to arrest people for breaking the law.

    One of two things must be true: either 1) strip shows were illigal -or- Skousen had officers arrest people without cause.
    I’m struggling to find my way through the mountains of Utah laws to identify those related to stripping, but I’m nearly certain that these shows were not legal in those days. As such, the police department was doing its civil duty in upholding those laws. It now appears to be a legal practice as there are very publicly available strip clubs now in Utah. That tells me that Skousen’s viewpoint about bad laws followed its proper course: the legislature took away the prohibition that had existed.

    I would not purport to be a carte-blanch Skousen defender, but given the examples I’ve seen about his policy as police chief, Skousen did his proper job as police chief: he made sure his officers enforced the laws that were written and enacted by the legislature. Having discussed some examples with those who knew him, I believe he would put more pressure on enforcing those laws that he thought needed to be ousted to create public outcry against bad legislation. Unfortunately for Utahns, the politicians found it easier to get rid of him than to get rid of the bad laws.

    That same political atmosphere appears to exist still. Looking forward to the day that we can all agree that unless it infringes on someone else’s rights: IT’S NONE OF OUR BUSINESS!

  3. Ryuchi says:

    I like to read when it’s involve Mormon because Mormon the only religion capable to get a ‘harem of wife’. Mormon follower can married infinity amount of women if they want. LOL

  4. SL Cabbie says:

    Among my family heirlooms is a small handwritten note to my grandfather from Brack Lee. Brack thanked him for a letter of support for the firing that had been published in the Tribune.

    What is missing from this article is the readily available historical information that Skousen was more than a bit deranged, and dishonest to boot. Proof of that one comes from 1999 when the tornado struck downtown Salt Lake, and W.C. rushed to the first presidency with the claim it was a warning from God about where the state was headed since it had obviously targeted the “gay” neighborhoods. No mention was made that it struck the Delta Center, then owned by Larry H. Miller, Dee’s Restaurant, also owned by LDS individuals, and the unfinished Conference Center where it damaged some construction cranes.

    Skousen was a right wing John Birch society supporter who was ultimately banned from using LDS chapels for his presentations; he fought against fluoridation, and he was an ardent creationist and anti-evolutionist. And the story of the strippers is a new one to me; Skousen was involved in circulating an “anti Lee” pamphlet entitled “The Mayor and His Morals,” and he misrepresented his career at the FBI, saying he was an assistant to J. Edgar Hoover.

    He and headcase Glenn Beck are a match made in heaven.

    • Paul Skousen says:

      Dear friends, your commentary about my father, and the article itself, are not accurate. My father’s consistent position was, if it’s the law, his job was to enforce it. Mayor Lee’s attitude was those laws didn’t agree with his own view of how life should be in SLC, so ‘slack off, Skousen, slack off.’

      My father told Lee if he didn’t like the laws then to get them changed, but so long as they were on the books, it was his legal duty as defender of the law to do just that, defend the law. Further, the claim of “big government” intrusion is really a misnomer or misstatement, here. The whole purpose of local government is to handle these kinds of local issues that reflect local standards and desires. Mayor Lee’s contentions were never intrusion of government as it was a call for Skousen to slack off on existing laws, to meet Lee’s joy of all the vices the other big cities made so easily available (and the increase in crime that comes with it, something my father saw plenty of in the FBI). The Founders chained down the federal government so it couldn’t do those things on the local level that upset Lee, and in those days, it wasn’t as intrusive as it is today. Those were local laws, subject to change by local representatives. It wasn’t my father’s job to make those laws, nor was it Lee’s. But it was the duty of both men to enforce them, and Skousen did, Lee didn’t want to.

      Skousen’s association with John Birch Society was to educate people. When that group went off the cliff with some strange pursuits, he withdrew his association, and has had to put up with these kinds of accusatory comments even since, finding him guilty for the association that ended ages ago. Back in the day, they were working hard to spot corruption invading our highest levels of government. Some of the efforts were tangents, others were right on. When the USSR fell and the KGB files were opened, all the connective tissue was exposed, even some names that the John Birch people had identified were revealed as spot on. The JBS was vindicated on some of their research, not on others, but it’s too late to give them credit—the smear and discrediting has already done it’s work. At the beginning, they were working hard to root out corruption. (Personal note: the corruption back then pales in comparison to the corruption of today, but that’s another discussion).

      The LDS Church never “sided” with Lee, and never barred Skousen from using LDS chapels in the way you’re presenting it. The Church correctly must maintain a neutral political position. Because so many LDS were participating in teaching the Constitution and associating with the Freemen Institute/NCCS, they started using LDS facilities in the evening, etc. My father was very concerned about that and you can see in his monthly newsletters a repeated message to supporters to stop using their LDS connections to sidestep Church policy by using LDS buildings and make such announcements at Church meetings.

      The Church finally prepared a memo to be read from the podium that such classes NOT be held on LDS property, but affirmed their support for learning the Constitution. Guess who saw that memo first, in draft form? My father–a copy of the draft is in his journals. The Church sent it to him for review before they went public. He added a couple of things to make it stronger, took out a couple of words, and sent it back. That’s what was distributed to local wards and branches. At my father’s funeral, Pres. Monson (counselor at the time), Elder Hartman Rector, and Orrin Hatch were speakers, so to imply the Church was embarrassed or distanced itself from Skousen wasn’t true and isn’t true.

      And your claim of “readably available” historical proof that Skousen was more than dishonest and deranged, I would like to see that information. Where on earth did you hear he ran to the Church about the tornado? That’s ludicrous. Sounds like something fresh off the pages of City Weekly.

      As for his position as an administrative assistant to J. Edgar Hoover, that one has been floating around for ages. During WWII, he WAS an administrative assistant to Hoover while at the FBI. There was no such official government slot called “administrative assistant” for the FBI at the time, but it was a description of what my father did, he assisted the administration, an administrative assistant, get it? And Hoover himself called him “one of my administrative assistants.” I’ve got a couple of letters to people asking for speakers on Communism, and when Hoover couldn’t go, he had a few speakers who spoke in his stead, my father being one of those, “one of my administrative assistants,” the letters say.

      This slandering of my father is an enormous waste of everyone’s time when all that my father was trying to do was warn you WAY back in the day that TODAY was coming, and now it’s here. He didn’t get rich, he poured in his book royalties to pay other people’s salaries for his organizations while he took no salary.

      And if you think nothing’s changed since he sent up his warning messages, have you considered how much farther down the path into totalitarian dictatorship of the federal level over the local level that we’ve come since my father and others attempted to send a warning? Well, it’s here—80,000 pages of new government regulations; corruption on every level, a decline of values in this nation, the collapsing economy, the collapsing dollar, the loss of so many values that once made our country such a pleasant place to start something new, like a family or a business or a cause, with government intrusions from the highest levels to the lowest most intimate levels of your life, the decline that comes when those values and institutions are destroyed. That’s why my father and others like him were feverishly attempting to preserve–much to the mocking scorn by others, like yourself. That’s where we are and you and thinkers of the same ilk are authors of this mess. If we don’t turn it around, it should be clear to everybody by now that we’re destined for a lot worse.

      If you don’t see that disintegration, then you owe yourself some serious education and study time. You’ve got chains wrapped all around you, you’re thinking like a socialist, and you don’t even know it. My father saw it coming, and tried his imperfect best to slow or stop the slide. And for that, you call him names.

  5. Pingback: In Lee v. Skousen tiff, LDS Church sided with the man who liked … | Church

  6. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Skousen’s approach to government–small except when I want to force my religious morals on you–is a metaphor for conservatives Mormons and conservative religionists generally. Nothing satiates the cravings of a heavy-handed moral bully who thinks he knows best how everyone should run their lives like big government–on either side of the aisle.

    • J. Hartwell says:

      Amen Mike,
      Skousen reminds me of Matthew Godfrey — close the strip bars and replace them with Walmarts, payday lenders and unneeded hotels. No developer left behind baby!

  7. clairB says:

    Interesting article. Thanks.

    You noted “in just the past two years, the [Deseret News] newspaper, and the rest of the church’s media, has been restored to First Presidency control to a level that equals, if not exceeds, what it was 52 year ago.”

    Can you provide some additional details, or point us towards more information?

  8. Myth Believer says:

    This story pales in comparison to how today, The Church has sided with the man who liked to comb his hair back like the Fonz, to get laughs or to make what turned out to be a life-or-death drug bust. Sadly, the Standard hasn’t stuck to its own guns on “common-sense law enforcement.” One month to the day, before the deadly marijuana crackdown on a brazen “grow” right next to The Church, Grondahl depicted a candy-cane-toting Santa about to be blown-away by the long-arm-of-the-law. The accompanying “Our View,” mentions a veteran in Arizona, trying to defend his small family at home at night, shot 22 times. And then another man here in Roy, welding a gulf club, is shot and killed in his home at night. Both were break-ins by swat teams gone awry — or however they must go.
    Santa was screaming: it’s only a candy-cane… it’s only a candy-cane! Not so long ago, everyone would of been screaming: it’s only pot… it’s only a little pot! That’s right, guns don’t kill people, people do. Likewise for marijuana… could this be why it is so dreaded in these times of war?

  9. E B says:

    You need more details for this article to make much sense. Was arresting people in bars or strip clubs legal in Utah at the time or not? I’m guessing he acted inside the law. Why was the mayor trying to tell him not to do his job if he was, and why wouldn’t Skousen be arrested himself if he wasn’t? Further, why didn’t the mayor turn to the legislators for any changes in laws he wanted? That would be the proper way. Not intimidating the police chief. Unless (as I said) the police chief wasn’t acting beyond the law. You need to clarify for this story to mean anything at all.

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