Forty years ago this summer, the signing ceremony for the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980 was held in a nondescript, windowless room inside the Old Executive Office Building because it was raining like the dickens in the Rose Garden. President Carter, in his typically frugal manner, used just two silver and green pens (one for “Jimmy” and one for “Carter”) to sign the bill into law.
Standing behind Carter were three old Idaho Democratic bull elk, Frank Church, Cece Andrus, and John Evans. Church was in the last six months of his 24-year Senate career, Andrus was Secretary of Interior (with the best non-oval-shaped office in Washington, by the way), and Evans was the 27th Governor of Idaho, having succeeded Andrus in early 1977.
I was privileged to have helped Church write the Central Idaho Wilderness Act which created the River of No Return Wilderness, designated 125 miles of the main Salmon as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and released surrounding national forest land for multiple-use management.
The name of the 2.36 million acre wilderness area was later changed to the “Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness” in a magnanimous gesture by Idaho Republican Senator Jim McClure after Church was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. (Church died at 57, in April 1984, three weeks after President Reagan put his signature on McClure’s bill.)
Northwest political observers who were around in July 1980 might remember the wilderness bill as part of the political struggle between Church and then Rep. Steve Symms who was on his way to beating Church in November. This campaign put McClure in a quite a pickle.
McClure and his staff worked closely with us to develop the Central Idaho legislation – the two senators agreed on about 90 percent of the bill – but in the end, McClure decided to oppose the bill, and I surmise his opposition was primarily a strategy to keep “wilderness” as a focal point in the election.
Church and McClure were never political soulmates, but they did share something with at least 113 of their Senate colleagues – they were both World War II veterans. Church served as an Army Intelligence officer in the China Burma India theater and McClure joined the Navy, where he trained to be an aviator.
This shared experience was, in my opinion, why Church and McClure could disagree without being disagreeable.
On several occasions while I sat next to Church on the Senate floor, I was struck by his easy and genuine banter with other Western conservatives including Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., and Barry Goldwater,R-Ariz. (Like Church, Laxalt enjoyed overseas junkets, and Goldwater had a car that was totally tricked out with ham radio gear … which Church had Goldwater show me one night.)
Yes, it was a different time. Senators (and representatives) moved their families to Washington and didn’t travel back home every weekend. Campaigning wasn’t nonstop and fundraising wasn’t all-consuming. The most advanced technology in our Senate office was a first-generation fax machine with its smelly, curly, rapidly decaying paper.
Now, all of this is the reminiscence of a senior citizen who was a 27-year-old prima donna in 1980. And, while I may not remember everything from that era with perfect clarity, I can say with confidence that the WWII veterans would have approached our present national crisis with resolve and unity of purpose.
Of course, we can never know, but I’m sure that Frank Church, Jim McClure, Dan Inouye and Bob Dole wouldn’t have trashed each other in the middle of a pandemic. Rather, they would have been meeting face-to-face for as long as it took to hash out a bipartisan plan. That’s what Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine veterans did (and still) do. They remain focused on the task at hand until the job is done.
Maybe America will emerge from the present pandemic with a sense of shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the common good. Whether we do or don’t undoubtedly depends on the choices we make in the months ahead. As a tribute to the Greatest Generation, maybe we can do what they would have done. Choose cooperation over conflict. Mindfulness over meanness. And, respect over recrimination.
Fred Hutchison served as legislative assistant to Frank Church from 1975 to 1980. He is presently president and CEO of LNG Allies, the U.S. liquefied natural gas association.
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