Guest Opinion: Bethine Church was a political force

December 23, 2013 

Bethine Church’s son, Chase, announced Saturday that his mother had died of “old age.” That makes sense because only old age was strong enough to usher Bethine Church out of this world.

Bethine was a political force of nature right up to the end of her almost century-long life. There has never been anyone quite like her in Idaho politics and there may never be someone like her again.

She was always proud to be called a politician or the spouse of a politician and would challenge anyone who disparaged the profession. That’s because to Bethine politics was about people first and always. It was about improving the lives of people, especially those who were the most vulnerable in our society.

Bethine didn’t learn about politics from textbooks. She learned about it by being born into an Idaho political dynasty - the closest thing our state has ever had to the Kennedys or Bushes. She was the daughter of an Idaho governor who later became a federal judge. One of her uncles, Barzilla Clark, was also governor of Idaho and a cousin, D. Worth Clark, was a U.S. Senator.

She fondly recalled how, as a young girl, she campaigned with her father whom she affectionately called “pops.” She could regale you with stories about how “pops” practiced retail politics - getting out with the people and never forgetting someone’s name. How, as a lawyer, “pops” had worked to help many average people get through the Great Depression.

Fortunately for Idaho and the nation, Bethine moved to Boise with her newly-elected governor father in time to enroll at Boise High School. There she met a handsome, bright and witty fellow student named Frank Church.

Early on it became clear to Bethine that she had met not only a good friend, but also a political soul mate. Frank shared Bethine’s passion for politics and her desire to make a difference in the world. Their friendship blossomed into a high school romance that would endure for the rest of their lives.

The Bethine and Frank Church story is well known by now. After Frank returned from World War II, their romance picked up where it left off and they took their vows on the banks of the Salmon River. In the middle of law school, cancer struck Frank, he shriveled to little more than bones and few gave him a chance to live.

But Bethine never gave up and almost single-handedly willed him back to health. It was the same grit and perseverance that would become her hallmark in politics. Having come so close to death, Frank and Bethine decided that life was short and they needed to grab it by the tail.

In 1956, Bethine and Frank launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate against incredible odds. Few gave them a chance. Frank was barely old enough to legally serve in the Senate. He was a Democrat in a Republican state. He was running against an incumbent senator. To make things worse, the ever-popular Dwight Eisenhower was at the top of the ticket seeking a second term.

Against all odds, Frank Church was elected. He went on to be the keynote speaker at the convention that nominated John Kennedy for president, sponsored some of the most important conservation legislation of the 20th Century, including the Wilderness Act, became an early critic of the Vietnam War, chaired the Senate investigation into abuses by the CIA and FBI, ran for the Democratic nomination for president and sponsored the Panama Canal Treaties.

Throughout Frank’s 24 years in the Senate, Bethine was not just by his side - she was an integral part of this political story. She was the indispensable partner who helped Frank Church become the public servant he was for the nation and for Idaho.It is often said that some of the strongest marriages are made by people who have different strengths, by people who bring the best out of their partner and who help them become better than they could be by themselves. That’s how I have always thought about Bethine and Frank Church.

While Frank sometimes had trouble remembering names, Bethine never forgot a name. While Frank could sometimes be on the shy side, Bethine was the consummate extrovert, always ready to engage people. While Frank had one of the most brilliant minds in the Senate, Bethine had a common touch that made her a master at people politics.

Washington is legendary for bad marriages, for marriages of convenience and for marriages where a spouse tolerates their partner’s chosen career. But Bethine and Frank Church were not like that; theirs may have been the greatest political love story of the past 60 years.

Their relationship was built on a shared passion for public service and a commitment to the greater good. They had an enduring respect, friendship and love for each other until cancer took Frank away from her nearly 30 years a

I last saw Bethine at a luncheon two weeks ago sponsored by the Frank and Bethine Church Institute at Boise State University. She was there to listen to a journalist talk about the NSA’s domestic spying program - something that Frank would have found most disturbing.

Bethine looked frail and weak, but I was not surprised to see her. Even at age 90, Bethine was never one to live in the past. She was still engaged in the issues of the day, whether the NSA spying on American citizens or the fight over protecting the White Cloud-Boulder Mountains. Her passion for politics and the common good never wavered.

Yes, only the ravages of time could take Bethine Church away from us. No other force in nature would have been strong enough.

Rod Gramer is co-author of "Fighting the Odds: the Life and Times of Senator Frank Church." He is also the former political editor of The Idaho Statesman and executive news director at KTVB-TV.

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