The Rise and Fall of Frank Church: A Lesson for Conservatives

[Editor's note: hear Larrey Anderson interviewed about this article here.]

Idaho's Democrat Senator Frank Church
[i] was one of my heroes when I was in high school. Church wrote a letter of recommendation for me to Harvard and offered to nominate me to an appointment to any of the U.S. military academies. In the summer of 1971, he took me to lunch in the dining room of the United States Senate, where, for the first time in my life, I tasted French onion soup[ii].

He asked me if I would like to serve as an intern in his office in Washington, D.C. when I graduated from high school. (It was an offer that I was unable to accept for personal reasons.) In any event, when I a teenager, I thought Frank Church walked on water[iii].

By accident -- or maybe it was fate -- my opinion of the senator from the great state of Idaho, and of his politics, started to change. I heard Frank Church deliver two speeches in two different parts of Idaho. (This would have been in the summer of 1974. I had returned to Idaho from Cambridge for the summer and was working on some political campaigns.)

Senator Church's first speech was given early in the day at a college in liberal northern Idaho. He banged on the podium and, in his stentorian voice, promised the (mostly progressive) audience that he would do whatever it took to protect the newly granted woman's right to choose under Roe v. Wade. The crowd (mostly young college students and their professors) went wild.

The second speech was presented in conservative (and mostly Mormon) eastern Idaho. Instead of banging on a podium, Church clutched the edges of the dais. Tears swelled in his eyes as he told the audience how precious were the lives of the unborn. The audience was emotionally enthralled by his oration.

There was a reporter who attended both speeches with me. He was a liberal friend and confidant of mine. The reporter seemed unperturbed by (and unaware of) the glaring inconsistency in Church's speeches and the senator's "stand" (whatever it was) on abortion.

"Aren't you going to write about what Church said?" I asked the reporter.

"Said about what?" he responded.

"About abortion. Frank was all 'rah, rah' for Roe v. Wade this morning. Now he is crying about dead babies."


"So he is lying."

The reporter thought for a moment before he replied. "He's not lying. He's a politician. He is telling his audience what they want to hear. Do you understand how much this man has done for Idaho? For hell's sake, he got you into Harvard."

"Sounds like lying to me," I shot back.

"You need to spend more time around politicians."

Sure enough, not one Idaho newspaper picked up on the discrepancy in the two speeches. As far as the media was concerned, Frank Church was too big to fail.

But slowly failing he was -- at least with his voters. Frank Church was a very liberal senator in a very conservative state. He became a strong opponent of the war in Vietnam -- though he initially endorsed sending U.S. troops into the conflict.

The one bone Church tossed (and tossed and tossed) to Idaho's conservative voters was his support for the 2nd Amendment. This was a political contrivance that Church perfected. He mentioned his opposition to gun control in every speech I ever heard him give (in Idaho). It is a ruse still used by "moderate" politicians in conservative states. These otherwise die-hard liberals flaunt their NRA ratings at every opportunity. This is a fact that NRA members (or at least conservatives who belong to the NRA) need to take into consideration when the NRA endorses progressive candidates who pick the 2nd Amendment as their one "bona fide" conservative credential.

Since his political positions were purposely obscured (or ignored) by most of the Idaho press corps (Church was almost always called a "moderate"), the senator felt free to move farther and farther to the left[iv]. So he did.

Soon after his reelection in 1974, Church created and chaired a new committee dedicated to "investigating" the American intelligence establishment and agencies (in particular the CIA)[v]. A month later, the House of Representatives set up a similar committee[vi].

Between the two "investigations" and subsequent reports of the committees, the top-secret intelligence procedures, operations, and even the names of some active intelligence operatives working for the United States were made public and distributed to all of our enemies -- including the Soviet Union, communist China, North Korea, and communist regimes in Asia, Africa, and South America.

(The Church Committee, for example, conducted more than eight hundred interviews -- mostly with people involved in intelligence-gathering -- and produced more than 110,000 pages of documents. Almost all of the information gathered by both committees ended up in the hands of our adversaries.)

The reports, taken together, literally destroyed America's worldwide intelligence-gathering network. The Pike Committee report was so obviously and outrageously a threat to the intelligence community that even the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted against its publication. The report was nevertheless leaked to the media.

Within days of the release of the reports and documents, thousands of people sympathetic to the cause of freedom in communist countries around the world were arrested. Hundreds of people simply disappeared -- most of them were executed.

In the late 1970s, I worked for the Justice Department while I was in law school. I was able to meet some of the people mentioned in the documents -- and some individuals who knew the people rounded up by the communists as a result of the Church and Pike reports.

One of the close friends I made in D.C. worked with a U.S. intelligence agency[vii]. He had been a MIG fighter pilot for a communist country in Eastern Europe. One night, he snuck his wife and two young children to the airfield where he was stationed. He stripped a MIG fighter of all unnecessary weight. He stuffed his wife and two little kids onto the floor of the MIG.

He took off and headed west. He flew less than a hundred feet above the ground to avoid radar detection. He fled to the West with his family until the jet ran out of fuel. He landed in a farmer's field...just a few miles inside the border of a free European country. He had escaped communism with his entire family.

He was one of the men who told me what was happening (and had already happened) to the "informants" that had been identified by the KGB and other communist security organizations because of the Church and Pike reports. From my friend and other sources, I learned the names and locations of some of the American "sympathizers" who had managed to escape detection by the KGB.

I made a trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s to try to help save some of these brave people. The sad and (mostly) disappointing results of my trip are reported (albeit obliquely) in my memoir, Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market (reviewed here).

But it wasn't the Church and Pike Committee reports, or the deaths of hundreds of decent, innocent, freedom-loving people, that got Frank Church booted out of office. The media painted the Church and Pike Committees' reports as groundbreaking exposures of corruption in the intelligence community. (The New York Times and the Village Voice not only published parts of the banned Pike report -- they reveled in their "exposure" of the CIA.) Barely a word was written about the people who were murdered as a result of the information garnered by our communist enemies from the Church and Pike reports and the supporting documents[viii].

It was, oddly enough, the Panama Canal Treaty that ended Frank Church's political career. The Panama Canal was a long way from, and of little importance to, most Idahoans. Still, Idahoans are, for the most part, fiercely patriotic, and they saw the "giveaway" of the Panama Canal as stupid at best and treasonous at worst.

Because of his senior position on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Church was the chief sponsor in the Senate of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties that transferred the Panama Canal from U.S. to Panamanian jurisdiction.

Yet Church sent letters to his constituents in Idaho (and the Idaho press dutifully reported them) saying that he had not "made up his mind" on how he would vote on the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. He made these pronouncements at the same time that he was in charge of ramming the treaties through the Senate[ix].

The inconsistency (and deception) of Church's position on the Panama Canal was impossible to hide from the voters back home. Enough was enough -- the Idaho people replaced Church in 1980.

Because of the duplicity of Senator Church (and a willingly protective media), it took Idahoans twenty-four long years to figure out the real Frank Church and finally dump him.

We now have the internet and the "new media." Politicians like Frank Church have no place to run and hide and lie. Are you listening, Ben Nelson, Harry Reid, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln?

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of The Order of the Beloved, and the memoir Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market.

[i] Church served four continuous terms in the U.S. Senate. He was first elected in 1956. He served until he was defeated in his 1980 reelection bid for reasons that will be discussed in this article. He ran for president in 1976.

[ii] Apparently, the Senate French onion soup was famous. But I was a seventeen-year-old farm boy from Idaho and didn't even know there was such a thing as French onion soup.

[iii] It wasn't family ties or money that brought Frank Church and me together. I was very active in youth government as a kid. Among other things, I was Governor of Idaho's American Legion Gem Boys State and President of both the Idaho and National Association(s) of Student Councils. And I was chosen as a delegate to the Rockefeller Foundation's Williamsburg Student Burgesses.

[iv] The Idaho Press-Tribune (a small local conservative newspaper in the Nampa/Caldwell area of southwestern Idaho) sometimes ran editorials critical of Church. Most of these were authored by the libertarian Ralph Smeed.

[v] The official title of the committee was "United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities." The committee is now known as "The United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence" (SSCI).

[vi] The "House Select Intelligence Committee," also eventually known as "The Pike Committee," was established on February 19, 1975.

[vii] I have purposely omitted his name and the specific agency he worked for.

[viii] Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss wrote the bestselling novel The Spike in 1980. Their book was inspired, in part and among other things, by the results of the Church and Pike Committee reports -- or so de Borchgrave told me.

[ix] The form letter that Church sent to his constituents was a masterpiece of double-speak and obfuscation. The letter was sent out at exactly the same time Church was being interviewed on national television on how progress on the passage of the treaties was coming along. He was upbeat and said, "We now have the votes" (although the letter claimed that his vote might not be one of those). A real Alice in Wonderland moment in American politics.