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.