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The remarkable Bethine Church

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.

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