Bethine Church: a political life, a political wife

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comDecember 21, 2013 

bethine church, frank church, birthday

At its annual dinner, the Frank Church Institute honored Vice-President Joe Biden and Mayor David Bieter with the Frank and Bethine Church Award for Public Service, and celebrated Bethine Church's 90th birthday. Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Stueckle Sky Center, Boise, Idaho.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Editor's note: What follows is a profile of Bethine Church written and published in 2006:

In a game room in Boise's East End, the walls really do talk.

Bethine Church, the widow of four-term U.S. Sen. Frank Church, has collected photographs from the couple's public and private lives. Every image has a story -- of world travel on behalf of the government, of encounters with celebrities, of heads of state and high political drama, of love and loss and family, of home in the Idaho mountains.

Frank Church was the most influential Idaho politician ever. Bethine was his partner in his public career. He served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, the lone Idaho Democrat to win more than one term. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1976, he was a serious candidate for president, looking briefly like the only man able to deny Jimmy Carter the Democratic nomination. He helped pass the Wilderness Act in 1964. He was an early critic of the Vietnam War, and investigated CIA and FBI abuses, forcing reforms that some now question in the post-9/11 era.

I'd seen the pictures over the years, when Church hosted events for Democratic luminaries like Tipper Gore. The walls are chockablock with presidents (FDR, JFK and LBJ), prime ministers (Golda Meir of Israel), kings (Juan Carlos of Spain), dictators (Fidel Castro of Cuba and Deng Xiaoping of China) and celebrities (Jimmy Durante, Marlon Brando, John Wayne). There are family snaps of the Robinson Bar Ranch, the Middle Fork Salmon River and the grand home at 109 W. Idaho St., where Bethine lived when her father, Chase Clark, was governor in the 1940s.

But I hadn't heard her inimitable narration. I finally got the chance when my editor asked me to gather string for an obituary on the grandame of Idaho politics. Church, 83, happily gave the E Ticket tour to me and photographer Darin Oswald. No waiting lines, but the ride took four hours.

Several days later, she called, saying, "I'd so like to see what you're up to. Do we really have to wait until I'm dead?"

My editors chewed on that, deciding she was right: There was no good reason to delay. Today, at IdahoStatesman.com, Church brings the pictures to life in an audio-visual presentation designed by Oswald's colleague, Chris Butler. We chose today because at 11:45 a.m., the U.S. Forest Service is holding a renaming ceremony at the Galena Overlook in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The viewpoint is one of Idaho's great vistas. From today on, it will honor Bethine and Frank Church, both of whom had the vision to protect the Sawtooths.

Driving to Robinson Bar over Galena Summit more than 30 years ago, the Churches looked down on a subdivision. "This can't happen, " said Sen. Church. Working with his Republican colleagues, Sen. Len Jordan and Reps. Jim McClure and Orval Hansen, Church got the bill creating the Sawtooth National Recreation Area through Congress in 1972. Had they failed, the Sawtooth valley would be dotted with vacation mansions.

Frank Church has been out of office 25 years, dead 22. Bethine contemplated suicide while watching him die of cancer, but he told her she had responsibilities. He was right. She founded the Sawtooth Society, which has led private conservation efforts in the SNRA; her support of Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has aided his push to expand SNRA wilderness into the Boulder and White Cloud mountains; she helped create the Frank Church Institute at BSU that supports a scholar and hosts a world-class annual conference.

Church took a fall recently that put her in the hospital one night. But she still entertains, negotiating her kitchen with a cane and sitting on a step stool to cook. She lustily talks of a life devoted to making Idaho and the world better.

Bethine grew up in Mackay and Idaho Falls, where her lawyer father represented copper mining companies and criminal defendants. From her parents, she learned a novel way of speaking, including her mother's strongest curse, "It just freezes my preserves, " and her pop's putdown, "He's as worthless as teats on a boar."

From there, she went to the salons of Washington, D.C., and the far reaches of the globe. But they didn't take the Idaho out of Bethine.

After a reception for French President Charles De Gaulle, the Churches gathered at the home of a Senate colleague, Joe Clark, with Adlai Stevenson, the U.N. ambassador, a former governor and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson's intellectual heft was legendary; he was mocked by Richard Nixon as an "egghead, " and voters twice chose Dwight Eisenhower. But Bethine showed no reluctance to say what was on her champagne-sparkled mind: She discussed the relative preponderance of outhouses in Idaho and West Virginia. "I guess I sounded like I sound now, " she said, laughing. "I said exactly what came into my head, and somehow Frank survived it."

Bethine Church was a true partner to her politician husband, not simply a prop. She has a knack for remembering names, something she learned from her dad. "Pop taught me that everybody, from the waitress to the people working in the kitchen, is as important as the people sitting on the dais."

She often prompted the senator's memory and was his most valued confidant. Had Church won his last-minute race for president in 1976 in the wake of Watergate, Bethine would have been an involved first lady. "If there had been tapes, " she crowed, "I would have been on them!"

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