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The third senator

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.

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