It seems only appropriate to mark the death of Bethine Church who, for nearly 30 years after the death of her husband in 1984, kept his legacy – and the Church legacy alive – by reflecting on an enduring photo of the two of them together. In many respects they were that rare commodity in modern politics – a husband and wife team.
Bethine Church died at age 90 on Saturday. Her health had failed markedly in the last few months and, as son Chase said, she simply died of “old age.” By any measure hers was a full life.
In the masterful third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson – Master of the Senate – the historian Robert Caro did justice to the Church partnership when he wrote of her in the 1950’s: “Bethine Church did not fit that era’s mold of the docile Washington political wife, for while Frank was new to politics, she had been born into it, into Idaho’s Democratic dynasty, the ‘Clark Party.’ She had been raised in the Governor’s Mansion; during her girlhood her father was Idaho’s Governor, one of her uncles, D. Worth Clark, was Idaho’s United States Senator; another uncle had been the state’s governor some years before. She and the young man who had fallen in love with each other in high school were an exceptionally close couple; years later, one of Church’s staffers would call their marriage ‘the longest running high school romance in history.'”
On the morning after his razor thin loss to Republican Steve Symms in the contentious, nasty 1980 campaign, I was among a small horde of reporters stamping our feet to stay warm in the damp grass outside of the Church home on Idaho Street close to downtown Boise. The house had been Judge (and governor) Chase Clark’s home and later became the Boise outpost for the senator and his political partner.
Before long Church, with Bethine at his side, stepped behind a bank of microphones to do what I expect is one of the most difficult things in politics – offer a gracious statement in defeat. The first question, as I recall, after the short and gracious statement was “what do you intend to do now?”
With perfect timing the Senator Church said, “Oh, we’ll be staying together…” I remember nothing else that was said.
The next few days, appropriately so, will be given over to tributes to the Grande Dame of Idaho Democratic politics. She’ll be remembered for her passion for the Sawtooths, and wilderness and for protecting Frank’s legacy. Until the end of her long life she maintained vigorous relationships with big names like Joe Biden and Al Gore. She encouraged hundreds of would be candidates, some of whom might have been better off taking a pass on a political race. She toyed, perhaps seriously, with challenging Symms in 1986 and wisely took a pass.
Idaho has produced really only a handful of truly outstanding and nationally important political figures. Frank Church, sponsor of the Wilderness Act, wise and informed voice on foreign policy, early opponent of the Vietnam quagmire and the senator who warned against domestic spying a generation ago, is in that elite number. Still as Church’s biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have written in their book Fighting the Odds, “It is impossible to honor Frank Church without honoring her. He had believed, quite literally, that she had saved his life in his first battle with cancer. She had been his best friend and constant companion; by all accounts their love for each other ran deep. He had always needed her.”
Idaho and the nation has lost a great figure who lived a great story. We will not likely see her kind again.