Frank Church’s Quixotic Vision

Frank Church’s Quixotic Vision

A Father’s Day remembrance of a courageous politician who, in an earlier era, challenged America to resist the apostles of fear who would barter liberty for false security.


Silky Sullivan was a Western phenom. In the late 1950s, he stopped hearts in every race he ran by spotting his opponents a thirty-length lead. Halfway round the track, with the bunched contenders throwing up a great cloud of dust two city blocks ahead of him, Silky Sullivan loped along in solitary splendor, quixotic, romantic and, by every dint of racing logic, doomed. Then, to the amazement of all and to the delight of anyone who dared to dream the impossible dream, with a burst of awe-inspiring speed he would close on the pack, catch it at the final turn, blow past one flagging pretender after another, pull up beside the leader and win by a nose.

That was the plan.

My father wasn’t a betting man, but he was a gambler. He had to be, because to enter the 1976 presidential race after more than a dozen primaries had either been decided or closed was a stupendous gamble. Beating death at the age of 25 (terminal cancer, three months to live) can do that to a man. Either you learn to be cautious, knowing that around the next corner another trap door is triggered to swing, or you throw caution to the wind.

Frank Church ran with the wind. He honored a truth too many of us learn only after it’s too late: Caution may protect us from life, but it can’t protect us from death. He didn’t take foolish risks–he didn’t “live for today.” Life is too precious to trash in exchange for a wild night on the town. But when it came to things that mattered, he never shied away from a double-or-nothing bet. He invested the promise of today in his daring dreams for a better tomorrow.

Just like Silky Sullivan, he managed to win an amazing number of impossible contests. Fifty years ago, at the barely legal age of 32, he ran for the US Senate in a Republican state with Eisenhower topping the ticket. In my third-grade presidential straw poll at Roosevelt School in Boise, Idaho, only two of us voted for Stevenson (when the other valiant fellow came to class the following morning, he told us he’d changed his mind). But with the help not of Sancho but of my mother, Bethine Clark, and the mythical Clark family “machine” (in the 1930s and ’40s, her father, uncle and cousin had somehow managed to eke out one term apiece as governors and, in the latter instant, US senator) he won in a landslide. Go figure!

In the Senate, Frank Church tilted against one windmill after another. And no matter how many lances he broke, one by one he brought those windmills to bay: the arrogant ideologues who sold us down the Mekong River; the powerful multinational corporations who were getting away with bribery; America’s spymasters who were getting away with murder abroad (while lying to or wiretapping patriotic critics at home); the mighty timber, mining and corporate ranching lobbies that focused their shortsighted self-interests on trying to kill the Wilderness bill and the Wild and Scenic Rivers bills. Standing almost alone at first and then, through the clarity of his logic and force of his passion, gathering strength in the Senate and among the people, he placed one double-or-nothing bet after another and made his mark on history. Critics scoffed at his idealism, but by 1976 Senator Sunday School had become Senator Cathedral.

When he decided to run for President in America’s bicentennial year, the odds against him were as high as ever. By the time he entered the race it was almost over. Like Silky Sullivan, when he burst out of the gates he was a furlong behind the pack, nine men clustered well ahead of him, most of whom had been running hard for months. Five hard-won victories later he crossed the finish line in the money, one of three candidates still standing. For once he didn’t win, but it was a glorious effort and well worth the cost.

The decision to inaugurate his campaign far from the glare of the national media in the near ghost town of Idaho City was itself quixotic, but my father was a romantic at heart. He returned to the wellspring of his heritage, to the mining village that, during its boom years, his then 16-year-old grandfather and namesake had called home.

There was gold dust in the air back then. On March 18, 1976, for a single, shining moment it sparkled anew. With sunlight breaking like magic through the dark bank of clouds that had hosted a morning thunderstorm, five score and fourteen years after his namesake arrived in town, in a burst of golden oratory Frank Church recaptured the pioneering spirit of the American West, the spirit of liberty, equality and hearty independence. In a time of growing fear, he invoked for a new generation the faith of the American founders; he invited his countrymen and -women to believe again.

Thirty years have passed since that improbable, beguiling day. Yet to open a half-forgotten time capsule and read his announcement address anew brings a luminous clarity to our own dark times. “Our tragedy in recent years springs from a leadership principally motivated by fear,” he said. “Our Founding Fathers were a different breed. They acted on their faith, not their fear. They did not believe in fighting fire with fire; crime with crime; evil with evil; or delinquency by becoming delinquents. They set themselves against the terrors of a totalitarian state by structuring a government that would obey the law. They knew that the only way to escape a closed society was to accept the risk of living in an open one.”

Today my father’s voice rings out with undiminished urgency, challenging us to be true to the founders’ guiding vision. It begs us, for the sake of our souls as well as the soul of our country, to resist with all our might when the apostles of fear strive to seduce us into bartering our sacred liberties for false security. It reminds us that undermining the nation’s moral foundations makes us neither strong nor safe. It invokes the first law of history, which each succeeding generation forgets at its peril–choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them.

Three decades after its original clarion pronouncement, Frank Church’s call to arms–the arms of peace, noble influence and honest prosperity–is as timely as ever. With undiminished power and dearly needed moral eloquence, it parts the storm clouds that have darkened the twenty-first-century horizon. Enlisting memory in the service of hope, Quixote sets his lance. Silky Sullivan takes our breath away. The sun breaks through and our hearts are young again.

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