I have Bethine Church, the wife and political partner of the late Idaho senator, to thank for my one brush with the senator from Massachusetts who died last night.
It was the summer of 1979, and President Jimmy Carter had just returned from Vienna and the signing of the controversial SALT II nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The President was reporting to a joint session of the Congress and this wide-eyed, young TV reporter from Idaho was going to the speech as the guest of the wife of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I remember sitting in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives with Bethine to one side and Helen Jackson, the wife of the great Washington Senator Henry Jackson, to the other. (Church supported SALT II, Jackson did not and the powerful Senate wives mirrored those positions.)
After Carter’s speech, of which I confess I don’t remember much, Bethine said matter of factly, “We’ll go up to the radio/TV gallery and listen into the reaction.” OK, I thought, that is a good idea.
As we entered the very cramped gallery, high up in the U.S. Capitol, it was immediately obvious that everyone – everyone – knew and liked Bethine. She graciously introduced me, “as a friend from Idaho,” to John Tower of Texas, John Glenn of Ohio and then to Kennedy.
I’ll never forget the introduction. “Ted, you know Marc Johnson from Idaho?” Of course, he didn’t know me from a bale of fresh hay, but we stood in the noise and confusion of the Senate radio/TV gallery and talked about Sun Valley, Senator Church, the president’s speech and the treaty, which Kennedy praised as an important opening to the Soviet Union.
The next year, Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination and lost badly even though he, somewhat surprisingly, enjoyed a good deal of support in Idaho. That support existed even though being labeled “a Kennedy-style liberal” is always a liability for any Idaho Democrat.
President Obama today praised Kennedy as “one of the greatest senators of our time.” There seems little debate about that.
Tomorrow, the story of how the Senate – lead by then-Sen. John Kennedy – selected the “famous five” – the greatest senators (up to 1957) who had ever graced the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”