Guest Opinion: Bethine Church, First Lady of Idaho

December 23, 2013 

Bethine Church, Idaho's First Lady.

That’s how I always referred to her over the years, whenever she was in the audience where I was speaking, including those occasions when it was my high privilege to deliver lectures, or moderate panels, at the annual Frank Church Symposium.

That characterization, which brought a luminous, full smile to her radiant face, was never a slight toward those living in the Governor’s mansion. Rather, it represented a heartfelt tribute to a woman whom Gov. Cecil D. Andrus rightly described as a “force of nature.”

You don’t need many heroes, if you choose carefully. Bethine, like her iconic husband, Sen. Frank Church, was one of mine. She was a fierce defender of Democratic values, which she believed would improve the quality of life of Idahoans and Americans everywhere. Her strong, forthright beliefs, presented with charm, ease and grace, were reflective of the savvy political skills of a person born to politics.

Politics, it may be said, was in her DNA. Born into a political dynasty, her “career” on the campaign trail, first for her father, a Governor of Idaho, through the political pursuits of candidates from FDR to Obama, and manifested most brilliantly in her partnership with Frank, gave voice to her concerns and aspirations. If Bethine had been born a generation or two later, when women began to assume prominence in the electoral life the nation, she would have been a powerhouse as a candidate, even though she modestly suggested that she was a “better back-up person.”

Bethine was a wonderful hostess and a natural facilitator of absorbing political discussions. Those of us fortunate to have attended dinners and receptions in her home, will never forget the historical figures and outsized personalities who held forth on the great issues confronting America.

One evening, I sat next to Ted Sorenson, the literary magician who brought immortality to the words and speeches of John F. Kennedy. In a fascinating tutorial, Sorenson shared a lifetime of experience and advice on the art of speech-writing and speech-making. Sorenson has few peers in the fraternity of speech writers.

Another occasion at Bethine’s home provided an intimate dinner conversation with the inestimable Sen. George McGovern. With plates of food on our laps, late into the evening, with Bethine ever solicitous of the Senator’s comfort, we reviewed the strategy behind his presidential race against Richard Nixon. Sen. McGovern lamented his reluctance to brandish in the 1972 campaign his World War 11 medals, a strategy that would have served him well against Nixon, a non-veteran, and might have afforded political protection from attacks for his “dovish” stance on the Viet Nam War.

When I arrived home that night, I discovered that I had failed to leave behind a red linen napkin that I had stuffed in my suit pocket. I meant to tell Bethine that I had, quite accidentally, liberated the napkin, but never got round to it. It’s now a treasured memento.

The last time I saw Bethine was on Dec. 10, at the Frank Church Symposium luncheon. We shared a table of eight that included, among others, her devoted son, Chase, and the remarkable former Idaho Attorney General Tony Park. Bethine was frail, but had made a gallant effort to attend the luncheon.

The discussion centered around –what else-- politics. Bethine’s voice was reduced to a whisper, but she offered to an attentive ear, a few choice remarks about the problem of government secrecy. She pointed out that “Frank” had tried to fix that. She laughed, weakly, but smiled freely. Occasionally, she frowned. The First Lady of Idaho was in her element.

Adler is the Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holds appointment as the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs.

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