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Frank Church’s Influence Honored Generation Later

It’s been almost a generation since Democrat Frank Church was at the center of Idaho politics.

He served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, finally defeated by Republican Steve Symms in a memorable 1980 campaign that still ranks as one of the most expensive Idaho has seen. Four years later, Church was dead at 64 of pancreatic cancer.

But it was apparent at an emotional ceremony last weekend, 20 years to the day after he announced his bid for president, that Church hasn’t been forgotten.

A small plaque on the wall of the venerable Boise County Courthouse in Idaho City will serve as a permanent reminder of the day in 1976 that the tiny mining community was the focal point of American politics.

Bethine Church remembered her late husband as “a happy and complete human being.”

Lifetime buddy and campaign manager Carl Burke recalled the 22-minute announcement speech laid the foundation of Church’s presidential campaign.

That Church lost the Democratic nomination to former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter is well-known. Less known is the fact that Church, Bethine and those around them still considered the campaign a rousing success.

They got a very late start. Church refused to let even a presidential campaign interfere with the Senate investigation he was heading into the Central Intelligence Agency.

He didn’t have much money. And Church had no national organization.

Yet, he won four primaries before conceding Carter’s lead was insurmountable.

That’s why the plaque quotes from Church’s announcement speech:

“It’s never too late nor are the odds ever too great to try. In that spirit, the West was won, and in that spirit, I now declare my candidacy for president of the United States.”

For those who have come nearly a generation later, it’s easy to forget Church was a great political orator, perhaps the best the state ever produced.

He won a national oratory contest as a youth and the replay of his announcement speech underscored his skill.

Some of those attending the commemoration, such as Democratic congressional challenger Dan Williams, remembered Church’s habit of reaching up to flick his hair back as he spoke.

And Church’s announcement themes could have been made yesterday as easily as 20 years ago.

He called for less federal government and more authority for the states and denounced the “compulsive interventionists” that get the United States involved in every world disagreement.

Reflecting the politics of the day, he blasted the crimes of President Richard Nixon and his administration as “illegal and indecent practices,” a “pernicious doctrine.”

The replay of the 1976 announcement speech before an audience of several hundred on a cold, chilly March day brought back memories for many people.

Kenn Smith, Idaho City historian and avid Church supporter, had saved the banner used 20 years ago and put it back up for Sunday’s commemoration.

Church left only two weeks to prepare for the announcement after he decided to run. And while Idaho City wasn’t known as a Democratic hotbed, he said, “for a few months in 1976, everybody in Idaho City was a Frank Church Democrat.”

“He was a great guy,” said Smith.

“We really will never forget that day in Idaho City.”

Bethine Church called the courthouse plaque “Frank’s eternal flame” and recalled that the bus entourage from Boise to Idaho City for the formal announcement was delayed because Church forgot his glasses.

She told reporters at the time it was she who forgot her purse.

Quickly, she said, their lives changed and they were surrounded by “these capable, unsmiling men with wire ears,” the Secret Service agents assigned to presidential candidates.

But most of all, Bethine Church said, she and her husband had fun on the campaign trail.

Supreme Court Justice Byron Johnson, who lives in Idaho City, passes the plaque every day.

“I’ll bet not 10 percent of the people who live here knew what happened that day. I’m glad the plaque is here now as a reminder.”

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