(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.