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Posts published in “Day: May 26, 2023”

The what-ifs of an inquiry

The name of Idaho’s former Senator Frank Church has re-emerged this year and last in a connection useful mainly for comparison purposes. But it also opens some lines of thought about the presidency, what it takes to get there, and what might have been.

The new impetus for this is a just-released book, The Last Honest Man, by James Risen. It almost functions as a biography, though not quite: Its essential subject is what’s been called the Church Committee (formally the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities), which investigated wrongdoing by American intelligence agencies. The Risen book is shaped to report both what that committee did and to provide context for it and how Church came to lead it.

Bottom line on the book (a note here: I talked with the author in the final stages of his research): It’s a fine read with lots of new and contextual detail. It gave me much better insight into the committee’s work, and specifically why it was so useful. (Secondary disclosure: I’m publisher of the major general-view biography of Church, Fighting the Odds, by LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer, which was referenced in Risen’s narrative.)

Church, who was ambitious and planning a run for the presidency at the time, did ponder the possible campaigning benefits of leading the committee. He earlier had chaired another subcommittee looking into corruption by multinational corporations, and in the shadow of Watergate a reformer with Church’s street cred looked to have a good shot for the presidency, especially if he were investigating something with even larger implications.

For the candidate, it didn’t work out that way.

In recent years, Church’s committee has had a positive enough reputation that even some current Republicans have used it as an example of what they’d like to do in their investigations. (The last surviving member of Church’s committee, former Senator Gary Hart, has blasted the comparison.) But that was not always so. Church’s panel was often attacked, usually but not exclusively from the right, back in the day, and it probably was a factor in his failed bid for a fifth Senate term in 1980.

Through part of the Risen book, a sub-issue about an alternate history possibility recurs.

Church almost wasn’t chosen to chair the intelligence committee; Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield instead wanted Senator Phil Hart to do it, and Hart passed on it only due to illness. Suppose Church had not chaired the committee?

He then would have been free to launch his presidential campaign almost a year before he actually did, and that could have mattered. Church promised in taking the chairmanship that he would not run for president until (at least) its work was done, and generally held to that commitment. He entered the race in March 1976, running a “late-late” campaign by which time former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was an almost prohibitive favorite.

But in, say, late summer 1975, the picture would have been different. Carter was then a near-unknown, and Church had a much higher national profile. The other major contenders in the Democratic primary then included Alabama Governor George Wallace, Representative Mo Udall and Washington Senator Henry Jackson. Church had the profile, campaign skills and available resources to match and maybe surpass any of them.

He also probably would have dominated the liberal side of the contest and with the campaigning groundwork he could have put in, likely would have scored well in the early New England primaries. When he did actually enter the campaign - late - Church fared well in most of the late primaries he entered.

We’ll never know now, of course, but the odds of Church actually winning the presidency in 1976 seem highly realistic in hindsight, had he launched in 1975. Which leads to other unknowables, such as what kind of president Church would have made.

And what kind of world we might now be living in.