In 2003 memoir, Bethine Church tells it like it was

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comDecember 22, 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: This story was published Sept. 7, 2003.

Frank Church liked to say Idaho had a third U.S. senator because of the influence of his wife, Bethine.

Nineteen years after his death, she has written a lively and blunt memoir that honors Church's legacy.

"Now I often say I'm not just his widow but his public relations person, " she writes in "A Lifelong Affair: My Passion for People and Politics."

But were the senator alive, he'd have a notion to send his PR woman on a long vacation. Bethine says things Frank never would have.

Among these are the admission that she played the key role in delivering Dworshak Dam in 1962; a string of intimacies including mulling over suicide so she could go with her husband; and score-settling with the man who denied Church a fifth term in 1980, Steve Symms.

The revealing tales "just rolled out, " she told me, adding, "It's just a wonder I didn't sink Frank sometimes because I really am just exactly what I am and I say just what comes to my mind."

Bethine Church, 80, is an Idaho icon. Republicans respect her integrity, depth and joyful approach to politics. To Democrats she is mythical. She and former Gov. Cecil Andrus represent the glory days when Democrats shared power in Republican Idaho through force of intellect and personality.

Bethine truly was Church's partner, his most important confidante, and somebody who would kick the furniture to get her way. She writes evocatively of her youth in Mackay and Idaho Falls; of her love for her father, Gov. Chase Clark; of the powerful and famous; of a loving husband and father who would skip a ride on Air Force One for a Sunday volleyball game.

George Klein, who met the Churches in the first Senate campaign in 1956 and became Church's top aide, said Bethine's role was not exaggerated. "She was the motivator for all those years, " Klein told me. "Frank was kind of bashful. She's a natural political creature and there are very few of them as dedicated. She'd just kept after him, and pretty soon he'd be shaking hands."

Klein says Bethine spent a lifetime compensating for her father's defeat in 1942 after two years as governor. "She just never got over it. She's always quoting her father and she felt the people were cruel not to re-elect him."

Bethine quibbled with Klein, telling me, "No, what drove me to succeed was my Pop's belief that people needed great help, great representation, and that there was nothing more important than being a public servant."

Bethine has carried on Church's legacy on the environment and other causes championed by Church, a proud liberal before "liberal" became a dirty word.

BETHINE'S SALON

The book made me feel as though I were listening to Bethine at her East End home, a Democratic salon where folks like Tipper Gore still come to pay tribute.

It reads like an oral history because it began as one. Dan Williams, a longtime friend who ran for Congress twice, spurred her.

For three years, Williams tape-recorded her tales and sat at a keyboard with her over his shoulder, typing anecdote into narrative. "The hardest thing I had to do was think of synonyms for 'wonderful, '" he said.

REVEALING TALES

Bethine's loyalty to her husband is predictable. But there are revelations. Most newsworthy is her account of approval of Dworshak Dam, named after GOP Sen. Henry Dworshak, but delivered by Bethine Church.

In 1962, Church was vying to become the first (he's still the only) Idaho Democrat re-elected to the Senate. He faced Jack Hawley, whom Bethine calls "easily the worthiest opponent we would have over the years."

Supporters said the Clearwater River dam was critical for a Democratic vote in the north. Church told his wife, "You've got to do something for me." That meant asking a favor of Carrie Davis, a friend of Bethine's. Davis was married to Tennessee Rep. Clifford Davis, who led the House committee with jurisdiction over dams.

Bethine writes that she called her friend. "...There's this dam up north that Frank thinks is going to make a big difference in winning or losing. It's tied up in your husband's committee, and he won't let it out. Is there anything you could do for me?"

"Why, honey, " replied Davis, "that's no problem at all. Don't you feel embarrassed; that's just the kind of thing you should ask me."

Chairman Davis supported the dam; Church defeated Hawley. Until now, Bethine kept quiet her role in a dam that is detested by environmentalists who worship Frank Church. Asked if she's confessing, Bethine laughed and said: "No, no. It's just such a damn good story."

There's also little artifice in her discussion of the personal. She tells stories on herself, like the time she "made an ass of myself" toasting President Johnson; of attending a state dinner with a "leak" from an operation; of propositioning Church before he went off to war (ever the picture of propriety, he declined, of course); and of her contemplating suicide.

She imagined dying in a plane crash or driving off a cliff before pancreatic cancer killed Church on April 7, 1984. Bethine writes: "...I asked him if we couldn't figure out a way to go together. He laughed and said that we would foul it up somehow. Besides, he said, I had responsibilities, which did not sound true to me at the time."

BETHINE ON SYMMS

Most controversial will be her attempt to get back at Symms, who beat Church in 1980 in the ugliest contest in Idaho history. Symms won a second term, but declined to seek a third in 1992 after he divorced his wife of 30 years, Fran, and married his former receptionist.

Fran Symms helped retire her former husband. Prodded by reporters (including me), she spoke of Symms' long-rumored infidelity two months before he announced he would not run.

Bethine revives the story, recounting Fran Symms' visit with her in 1989.

"I'm so sorry that I believed in Steve and backed him in '80, " Bethine quotes Fran Symms as saying. "By the next election, in '86, I wasn't sure I still believed in him. But he reassured me, saying, 'I know all these things have happened, but if you back me, it'll all be different, I promise.' And for my children's sake, I believed him.

"Then, the night when he won he sat on the end of our bed and said to me, 'Now I can do anything I want to.' I didn't know that included leaving me."

The couple separated four months after the election.

Fran Symms told me she didn't want to comment.

SIMPSON ON SYMMS

The other assault on Sen. Symms comes from former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a GOP colleague.

Simpson visited Church at a New York hospital after the cancer diagnosis, cheering him with a story of how Symms "started to rail and rant at me" in the Senate.

Bethine writes that Simpson said: "Look, Symms, you're drunk. If you don't get off this floor right now, I will say into my microphone in what kind of situation you're in, so get off the floor. And he did."

Bethine writes that Simpson told Church: "You were beaten by a man you didn't deserve to be beaten by" and left the room with a grin.

Simpson told me he indeed asked Symms, who was fighting Simpson's landmark immigration bill, to leave.

"He wasn't drunk; but he'd had a couple, " Simpson recalled. "He didn't like the immigration bill at all. ... He really got into it, hadn't spent any time working on it while I was gettin' it ready, going through committee, bringing it to the floor, never said a word. I went over to him and said, 'What the hell are you doing?'

"He slowed down, and came up to me the next day and he said, 'My staff saw me in action and I owe you an apology.' True story."

But Simpson said he thinks Bethine imagined the parting shot. "I don't remember anything about saying, 'You were a better man than he.' I didn't say that."

He said he thinks Bethine "distorted reality" because she loathes Symms. "Bethine hates his guts. She'd like to cremate him and throw his ashes into the Salmon."

Bethine stands by the story and said she told it because of a phone call Symms made to Church the night after Simpson's visit. She writes that Symms said, "I want to thank you Frank. I've had the best years of my life since I came to the Senate."

"Here was Frank, dying, and all Symms could do was think of himself, in keeping with his philosophy of life and politics, " Bethine writes. "Frank just laughed, but I was so furious I could have killed Steve quite cheerfully."

Symms, in a written statement, said, "It is obvious that Bethine's attacks on my personal life reflect a continuing bitterness that the voters of Idaho chose my conservative approach to public policy over the liberal views of her late husband, Frank Church. I wish Bethine all the best and hope her book does well."

Marylu Burns, a friend of Bethine's for more than 50 years, told me hard feelings remain from the 1980 campaign, but it was the phone call to the hospital that still rankles. "That stuck, because she was heartbroken."

Bethine acknowledged settling a score, but told me she was not motivated by enmity. "I have never been bitter, even the night we lost. I have no bitterness or hate. They diminish you."

But why recount Fran Symms' very private words?

"Because I wanted everybody to know what a class act she was through all that -- to come to me and say, 'I was wrong in '80 and I'm really sorry.' "

Readers will come down on both sides here. Some will wince at Bethine's picking a scab that will hurt Fran Symms, who is as quietly classy as Bethine is brassy. Others will say Bethine closed the case on Steve Symms the rake.

Perhaps I'm too queasy, but I'm with the first group. Fran Symms answered questions about her ex-husband's unfaithfulness in 1991. Bethine would have done more to honor Fran by keeping the story to herself. But I don't believe Bethine hates Steve Symms. She thinks he's dumb and selfish, and still can't believe voters chose him. Her loyalty to Frank made keeping quiet impossible.

A LONG MEMORY

Bethine writes that there are only two people she refused to shake hands with -- former Rep. George Hansen, who lost to Church in 1968 after calling Church a "baby killer, " and former CIA Director Richard Helms, who lied to Church's committee investigating CIA abuses.

George Klein, the longtime Church aide, said Bethine never forgets an injury. "And if they don't apologize or cater to her, she'd hold a grudge forever."

Bethine's book also will last. It gives us a look at the role of a gifted political spouse, important insight into a period of upheaval, and a glimpse at how things work.

The book is not perfect. Sometimes, I wanted more analysis and less anecdote. One example: Bethine writes that she just shakes her head when asked to explain how the 32-year-old Church won in 1956. There are annoying footnotes, like one describing the Maginot Line and another about a lighthouse in North Carolina.

But I'm glad Bethine Church didn't give up and die with her husband and that she's written this "wonderful" book. So is she.

"I thought I really couldn't live without Frank, " she said. "But my life has just been so full and so remarkable. It's just unbelievable how special life really is. So if you get over that hump of despair, you find that there really is a bright sky out there and you better look at it."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, dpopkeyidahostatesman.com

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