Idaho is a beautiful state, gifted with breathtaking scenery, plentiful water, and, so the license plate says, famous potatoes. Gem State voters, on the other hand, have of late proven somewhat less worthy than their celebrated spuds. By now, of course, every American recognizes Senator Larry Craig and his toe-tapping dance of hypocrisy and denial. But Craig must, unfortunately, rank well down the list of Idaho's electoral disasters.
Over the past quarter century, Idahoans have sent to Washington a congressman who wound up serving fifteen months in the slammer (though his conviction was later overturned); a man who objected publicly to a Hindu leading the Senate in prayer; and a woman who, mixing anti-environmentalism with bigotry, once remarked that "the only endangered species is the White Christian landowning male". The latter, Helen Chenoweth-Hage, was a radical libertarian crusader (she spoke of black helicopters and all the rest) who died, in a tragic twist of karma, when she was thrown from her vehicle in a traffic accident. She was, it seems, in violation of Nevada's mandatory seat belt law.
Nevertheless, I have come not to bury Idaho, but to praise it. Despite its bigots, sad closet cases, and libertarian nutjobs, the folks in Boise and Pocatello, Twin Falls and Mountain Home, once made a choice so inspired, so necessary, that it invites forgiveness for all subsequent sins. For in 1956, and three times thereafter, the voters of Idaho sent Frank Forrester Church III to the United States Senate. To be sure, they ultimately turned him out in 1980, but by then his work was largely complete.
Frank Church was a mainstream Democrat who labored in relative obscurity for much of his senatorial career. He sided with the liberal wing of his party on most issues, but also fiercely opposed gun control, a popular stand with his outdoorsy constituents. Church's moment of transcendence finally arrived in 1975, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, when the senator was tapped to chair a select committee on U.S. intelligence.
Summoning the full measure of his integrity and patriotism, Senator Church cast an unforgiving eye toward the constitutional violations that had occurred during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The result was a triumph of democracy, an encyclopedic report of excesses and abuses, the sort that most countries can only produce after the offending regime is violently overthrown. This stunning and unflinching self-examination resulted in a number of laws designed to limit U.S. intelligence agencies from sidestepping the strictures of the Constitution, including the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA).
Conservatives of an authoritarian bent immediately took to criticizing Church and his committee, arguing that both the report and the reforms it generated jeopardized American safety and national security. These attacks intensified after September 11, 2001, with some claiming a direct link between the decisions of the 1970s and the country's failure to prevent the terrorist atrocities that occurred over two decades later. Even after the 9/11 Commission identified instance after instance of intelligence breakdowns during the Clinton and Bush presidencies, many right-wingers continue to assert, in effect, that without the Church Committee, the Twin Towers would still be standing.
These people are fools. Their argument—that we must abandon the Constitution in order to preserve our democracy—is the very definition of Un-American. Indeed, if we cannot have both safety and liberty, if we cannot stand behind our founding document even when we are most terrified, then the experiment begun in Philadelphia in 1776 must truly be regarded as a failure.
For perhaps the thousandth time in six years, Frank Church was once again vindicated this week. The Central Intelligence Agency announced that someone destroyed evidence—in this case videotapes—of the interrogation of alleged al Qaeda operatives by agents of the U.S. government. Unaccountability was the problem in 1975, and it remains the problem today.
Power corrupts, Lord Acton reminds us. He might have added, had he lived to witness the Bush presidency, that absolute power can absolutely corrupt even those we elect democratically and entrust with our safety and security. James Madison understood that and created a Constitution to protect us from ourselves. Today we understand why.
Frank Church died much too young, just one year short of his sixtieth birthday. But his ideas remain very much alive. And when, at long last, we force ourselves to account for the abuses and excesses of our current era, we will no doubt look to Senator Church and his committee for guidance. Thanks, Idaho.
(See also this.)