Writings and observations

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

The late former Idaho Senator, Frank Forrester Church III, is rapidly fading from public memory not only in Idaho, but nationally. Church served Idaho honorably for 24 years (1957-1981), the only Democrat senator ever re-elected (three times) in Idaho history.

Except for those that love to recreate in “The Frank,” the vast 2.3 million acre wilderness in central Idaho named after the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act (The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness), few folks recall Idaho’s most famous Democratic senator and second only to William E. Borah as Idaho’s most famous in the first 125 years of statehood.

Thousands of Idahoans and hundreds of thousands of Americans owe a special debt of gratitude to the Senator, who was unique in pursuing an issue we all come to care about but few senators ever take up as a cause.

Frank had an abiding concern about how elderly are cared for especially as death approached. He was an early supporter of hospice and the dignity of dying at home with loved one’s around and professional caregivers available to assist.

It took him eight years to get it done, but eventually something we all take for granted today, became a reality – the ability to have hospice costs covered by Medicare.

The next time a hospice nurse drops by to assist you in caring for a dying loved one, say a brief prayer of thanks for the Senator.

He was keenly aware of the fragility of life, having beaten testicular cancer as a young man at Stanford following his work in World War II as an intelligence officer. Having faced down death once he was virtually fearless. The cancer returned when he was 59 and he died relatively quickly on April 7, 1984. Some say it was just as well he had been defeated in 1980 by Congressman Steve Symms.

I’m not one of those; all I see is lost opportunity. He did so much good and in three years could have done more. From the creation of the Sawtooth and Hells Canyon National Recreation Areas, to care for elderly, to the defense of American values by holding hearings exposing the rogue activities of the CIA and international corporations, Frank Church did it all, with grace and honor.

I pondered all of this recently as I was reading Robert Caro’s fine fourth volume (five are planned) biography, entitled The Passage of Power, on the life of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Caro has fascinating anecdotes about the relationships between LBJ, the Senate Majority Leader, young John F. Kennedy, and the even younger Frank Church. All three according to Caro arrived at the Senate with one ambition in mind: to become President some day.

LBJ read Church almost immediately and relatively soon left a note for Church saying he was willing to persuade then powerful syndicated columnist Drew Pearson to start building up Church’s national reputation in exchange for a vote.

Church did not bite and was so frozen out by LBJ that he wondered if he was ever going to get back in LBJ’s good graces. He did though by playing a key role in helping convince other liberal senators that a weak Civil Rights bill in 1957 was good enough initial progress.

The quid pro quo was final approval for Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon dam (though Church always denied there was a deal). LBJ, however, kept vacillating between formerly signaling he was running for president in 1960 and his pathological fear of failure. This vacillation was skillfully exploited by Robert Kennedy who organized and garnered key supporters while LBJ was still playing semantic games.

Two Idahoans put off by the vacillation were Tom Boise, head of Idaho’s Democratic Party, and Church. JFK also smelled Church’s ambitions and played to it by offering a bigger inducement than LBJ could by asking Church to give the 1960 Convention keynote speech. Caro tells a poignant story of Church greeting LBJ during a campaign stop in Idaho Falls, shortly thereafter, and Frank being unable to look LBJ in the eye.

LBJ knows instantly he had been crossed but unfortunately he had already given Church the one thing Frank really wanted—-an early appointment to the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Ironically, in 1976 Church turned around and vacillated about entering the presidential primaries preferring instead to “campaign” through the media by his investigative committee hearings into the CIA, ITT and their covert activities in Chile.

Warned by advisors, the Senator waited too long. Yes, he won the Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Nebraska primaries – becoming the only Idahoan to ever win a presidential primary, but finished far out of the running, it’s too bad because he would have been a good president.

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus. He lives at Medimont.

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