Top 50 Stories: 1976 -- An Idahoan runs for president

Frank Church's post-Watergate inquiries, work to preserve wild spaces made him one of the state's most influential politicians

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJuly 5, 2014 

Frank Church

Sen. Frank Church didn't enter the 1976 Democratic race until after former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was a clear front-runner.

Church's March 18 announcement was delayed by the historic report of the Church Committee, the special Senate Intelligence panel that revealed abuses by the National Security Agency and other agencies.

In his 27-minute speech outside the historic Boise County Courthouse, Church railed against leadership he said mirrored "the Russians in our treatment of foreign peoples, adopting their methods of bribery, blackmail, abduction and coercion."

The CIA, FBI and IRS, Church said, were permitted to "systematically ignore the very laws intended to protect the liberties of the people."

Watchdogging in the post-Watergate era raised Church's profile. Backed by a cadre of Idaho aides - including newspaperman Bill Hall, now-4th District Judge Mike Wetherell and future Congressman Larry LaRocco - Church played it to the hilt as the liberal alternative to Carter.

At a banquet, Church presented the peanut farmer a basket of huge spuds.

"I'd like you to have some Idaho peanuts," said Church, winning howls of laughter and the attention of a political cartoonist who portrayed Church as a giant peanut.

Church's biggest win was Nebraska, slowing Carter ever so briefly. He also won Idaho, Montana and Oregon. But California Gov. Jerry Brown's entry into the race - the same week as Church - denied the Idahoan the key to his strategy: a win in delegate-rich California.

"It's never too late, nor are the odds ever too great, to try in that spirit the West was won," Church had told 2,000 fans when he announced.

But he was too late and withdrew before the convention. Carter won the Democratic nomination and defeated GOP President Gerald Ford in the general election. The man who had introduced Church in Idaho City, then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, became Carter's Interior secretary.

More than a decade before his run for president, Church helped guide the Wilderness Act of 1964 through Congress. He was a steadfast advocate for wilderness preservation and other conservationist causes throughout his career in the Senate. Idaho's River of no Return Wilderness, the largest unbroken wilderness in the Lower 48, was named after him in 1984.

Church lost his bid for a fifth term in 1980 to GOP Sen. Steve Symms, the burden of a liberal legacy in a conservative state finally taking him down by 4,262 votes. Four years later, Church died, at 59, of cancer - a disease he'd beaten in his 20s.

His wife, Bethine, carried on his legacy in conservation and foreign policy criticism, calling herself "not just his widow but his public relations person." She died in December, at 90.

Her final public appearance came a few days before, at the 30th annual conference of the Frank Church Institute at Boise State. Aptly, the topic was overreaching government spying.

Weeks before, the NSA admitted it had spied on Church and Tennessee GOP Sen. Howard Baker, calling the surveillance "disreputable, if not outright illegal."

The only other Idahoan to run for president was Republican William Borah, Church's model of oratorical flourish and foreign policy restraint, who ran in 1936. The Republican nomination that year went to Alf Landon of Kansas, who won only Maine and Vermont against FDR.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service