Writings and observations

peterson MARTIN

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.

In 1974, when Church was up for re-election, I was no longer on his staff and was living back in Idaho. It seemed to me that Frank Church was not as engaged in seeking re-election as he should be and that he could well be vulnerable to defeat. I took my concern to Bethine. We spent a couple of hours together and I laid out the reasons for my concern. I don’t know how much of an impact my concerns had, but in short order Frank Church became the kind of engaged candidate that I had first witnessed in the 1968 campaign. I have no doubt that Bethine was the driving force that activated him.
Bethine once told me that the Senator had told her that the thing that he most wanted from her was to have a comfortable home and a family he could be proud of. For those of who were fortunate enough to spend time in the Church home, they had succeeded on both counts.

When Frank Church passed away, Bethine had to decide how she was going to spend the rest of her life. I can remember visiting with her and both of us agreeing that there were few things sadder in Washington, D.C., than the widows of once important people trying to continue to live in a little bit of the spotlight they had once enjoyed. She knew better than that and decided to move back to Idaho, where she could continue to be a big fish in a little bowl. Next to marrying Frank Church, it was the best decision she ever made.

When I retired last year, Bethine shared the stage with Governor and Mrs. Otter and other dignitaries I had had the good fortune to work with over the years. Physically, she was just a shadow of her former self, confined to a wheel chair and engulfed in a fur coat. But she took the microphone and her remarks were, for me, the highlight of the program. In her ninth decade, her body might have failed her, but her mind was a good as it had ever been.

Bethine Church was a remarkable person in every way. Together with Frank Church, they constituted one of the most effective power couples Idaho is ever likely to see. What a wonderful Christmas gift to each of them that they are once again back together.

Marty Peterson is tiered and lives in Boise.

Share on Facebook


carlson CHRIS


Her pet name for the longest serving Democratic U.S. Senator from Idaho was “Frosty.” They almost always traveled together during their frequent trips to Idaho, both during campaign season and the few non-election years when they could pare back a bit.

The daughter of one Idaho governor, and the niece of another Idaho governor as well as a U.S. Senator, Bethine Church, who passed away on December 21st at the age of 90, was a skilled politician in her own right. Along with Frank Church’s long-time administrative assistant, Verda Barnes, she was the Senator’s top advisor on most matters, especially those that pertained to the politics of the home state.

Most folks in Idaho, and within the D.C. Beltway, recognized her as the third Senator from Idaho. She possessed and exercised with humility real influence not only behind the scenes with the Senator, but also in the more public roles she played inside the Beltway. She was a force to be dealt with, and other senators as well as staff and the folks “downtown” (the bureaucrats and cabinet members) accorded her the same respect they accorded her spouse.

During appearances at receptions and fund-raisers, especially if they were in Idaho or had mostly Idahoans present, Bethine would be the first in the room with Frosty following. She had the phenomenal memory for names (only Cecil Andrus was better in my experience), and would smoothly say “Frank, you remember Floyd Jensen, our good friend from Preston.” Senator Church would say, “Well of course I do, Floyd, how you doing?”

More often than not the Senator did need the reminder. They thus worked as a team, and they were probably the best true teammates the Senate has ever seen, whether campaigning or going over legislation together or reviewing the Senator’s carefully crafted speeches.

A favorite picture taken by the Lewiston Tribune’s Barry Kough is that of the Senator speaking during a re-election campaign at a typical small-town north Idaho café in a place like Troy or Kendrick or Potlatch. If one carefully looks in the background they’ll see Bethine sitting in a booth carefully listening to the Senator answer a question.

She is clearly critiquing the answer the Senator is giving and one senses that if there was a part of it she thought not well-stated or just plain wrong the Senator would hear about shortly after they jumped in the car and headed for the next stop.

Idahoans owe Bethine a special thanks for it was she who undoubtedly introduced the Senator to the wonderful wilds and vast wilderness area in central Idaho, a significant portion of which is now named after the Senator because of his authorship of the precedent-setting 1964 Wilderness Act.

She accomplished this by insisting they spend time during some of the congressional recesses early in the Senator’s career restoring the batteries at the family-owned Robinson Bar Ranch. They sold the ranch in 1964 before the Wilderness Act was passed, the Senator not wanting to have even the slim appearance of a possible conflict of interest. Her own love of the wilds led her to be one of the co-founders of the Sawtooth Society.

While in many respects she led a charmed life, it was not without its setbacks and its fair amount of sadness. Among the great disappointments had to be the Senator’s narrow defeat at the hands of Congressman Steve Symms in 1980 and the Senator’s failure to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.

Losing the Senator to the cancer that returned in 1984, followed by son Forrest’s death also from cancer left holes in her heart that time would never completely heal. She kept herself busy, though, staying active in Democratic Party affairs, working for causes like the Sawtooth Society, enjoying the company of her grandchildren, writing a fine book about her life with Frosty, and doing what she could to help preserve the legacy of the good, great Senator.

His legacy, whether it be preserving the wilderness values of “the Frank,” putting restraints on the excesses of the CIA, or securing Medicare funding for hospice care, and much, much more, is as much hers as it is his. She was truly an extraordinary person. May her memory be cherished by Idahoans forever.

Share on Facebook

Carlson Idaho