In the spring of 1968, shortly before graduating from the University of Idaho, I drove down to Lewiston to hear Senator Frank Church speak at the old Lewis Clark Hotel. It was a standing room only crowd and I had managed to squeeze into the rear of the room. As I was leaving, I felt a hand grab my shoulder. I turned around and there was a lady I had never seen before with a wall-to-wall smile who said, “I saw you standing back here and I don’t believe that we have met. I’m Bethine Church.”
Little did either of us know that by year’s end, I would be in Washington, D.C., living in the Church’s guest room and joining Frank Church’s senate staff.
My initial meeting with her was vintage Bethine Church. She was the consummate politician, just as one would expect someone to be who had grown up in the midst of Idaho’s greatest political dynasty, the Clark family. Her father, Chase Clark, had been mayor of Idaho Falls, Governor of Idaho, and was appointed to a federal judgeship by President Roosevelt. Others in her family tree were governors, senators, federal and state judges. One was even Nancy Reagan’s press secretary.
When Chase Clark became Governor, Bethine moved to Boise and enrolled at Boise High School. There she quickly became friends with a group of students that included Frank Church, whom she later married. When Church eventually ran for the Senate in 1956, Chase Clark, Bethine Church and Frank Church’s best friend from high school, Carl Burke, formed the brain trust that helped Church unseat a Republican incumbent and win election to the Senate at age 32.
Joe Miller, a major political power broker in the latter half of the last century, came to Boise to advise the 1956 campaign. He had had a number of notable successes around the country and felt that the key to winning in a state like Idaho was political billboards. He laid out his strategy in a meeting at Judge Clark’s home that included Judge Clark, Frank and Bethine. Bethine blatantly told him that in Idaho his strategy wouldn’t work. An argument ensued, and Judge Clark told Bethine to go to the kitchen to help her mother. It was the last time that Bethine was placed in the back seat of a political campaign.
Her political instincts were excellent, her memory for faces and names was as good as it gets, and her knowledge of Idaho was remarkable. You could be driving down the road with her in a remote part of the state and she would suddenly tell you to turn right at the next country road. Then, a couple of miles down the road, she would tell you to pull into a farm yard where she would get out and go knock on the road. There would be delighted surprise on the face of the elderly woman who answered the door. And, before the day was over, she would have called each of her seven children and her six brothers and sisters – all Idaho voters - to tell them about the wonderful surprise visit she had had from Bethine Church.
Bethine Church had a better understanding of Idaho politics than most people, including her husband. In fact, had she ever entered into a primary election against him, the odds would have been in her favor. (more…)