Sen. Birch Bayh with wife Marvella and son Evan (top left), with President Kennedy and Marvella at the White House, with Sen. Richard Lugar, speaking at IU's Dunn Meadow in 1977, and with Sen. Joe Donnelly and Evan Bayh in 2013.
Sen. Birch Bayh with wife Marvella and son Evan (top left), with President Kennedy and Marvella at the White House, with Sen. Richard Lugar, speaking at IU's Dunn Meadow in 1977, and with Sen. Joe Donnelly and Evan Bayh in 2013.

INDIANAPOLIS - There were two compelling aspects of U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh. He was a liberal senator representing a conservative state, and yet he took audacious policy stances at odds with a broad swath of his constituency that would have doomed most other politicians. In essence, this was a public servant willing to use all of his political capital to achieve compelling and enduring policy goals.

Birch Bayh was a statesman. He crafted the most amendments (two, precisely) to the U.S. Constitution since the Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights nearly two centuries before. Inspired by his wife, Marvella, he championed women's equality through the failed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and access to collegiate sports funding through his Title IX provisions included in the 1972 Education Act.

Bayh, 91, died at his Maryland home on Thursday, succumbing to pneumonia. It ended an unprecedented political life, where the farmer from Shirkieville with a degree from Purdue became speaker of the Indiana House at age 34, then decided to take on three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Homer Capehart in 1962. President John F. Kennedy had adopted much of Capehart's foreign policy stances, particularly with the blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis, yet Bayh steered through to an amazing political upset with a 10,943 vote plurality.

Subsequently, Bayh never won more than 51.7% of the vote during his four Senate races, and his opponents never had less than 46.4%, reached when the Democrat defeated former Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar in 1974.

His Senate career began on a gamble, with many Democrats believing that Indianapolis Mayor Charlie Boswell would be the one to challenge Capehart. But Gov. Matt Welch took a shine to the House speaker, believing he would connect with younger voters. Once in the Senate, Bayh would expand that pool, authoring his second constitutional amendment - the 26th – lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

I first witnessed Birch Bayh as a 12-year-old kid at an Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) conference in South Bend in 1968 when he was challenged by Republican State Sen. Bill Ruckelshaus. Former Indianapolis Times reporter Gerry LaFollette believed that Bayh thought he would probably lose that bid. But at the APME event, Bayh was relaxed and good natured, answering questions with ease and a laugh, while Ruckelshaus seemed intense and foreboding. When this writer asked the pair what they intended to do about pollution, Bayh acknowledged the issue had never come up. (Ruckelshaus would go on to become the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.)

While Richard Nixon easily carried Indiana in that 1968 cycle, Bayh somehow, some way came through with a 51.7% to 48.2% victory over Ruckelshaus, a tad better than his 50.3% to 49.7% upset over Capehart six years prior. It came after Bayh created consternation within the Democratic Party, becoming a critic of the Vietnam War after he traveled to the front lines and found generals unable to describe how the U.S. could win.

Part of the reason Bayh was able to win was his taking a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee despite coming out of the Indiana University Law School just three years prior, studying at night while he was House speaker. President Kennedy was assassinated 11 months after Bayh took his Senate oath, and there was President Lyndon Johnson at the helm with congenital heart problems and elderly congressional leaders in the line of succession.

Bayh, with the help of key aide Larry Conrad, fashioned the 25th Amendment, which created a process for an orderly transition of power in the case of death, disability, or resignation of the president. It was ratified in 1967, with Bayh declaring, “A constitutional gap that has existed for two centuries has been filled.” 

The irony was that it was first invoked in 1973 after Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned due to corruption charges, quickly followed by Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" where Attorney General Elliot Richardson and deputy AG Ruckelshaus resigned for refusing to fire Watergate Special Counsel Archibald Cox. Less than a year later, Nixon resigned in disgrace with the new Vice President Gerald Ford taking power as stipulated by the 25th Amendment.

The 1974 Watergate election year found Bayh facing a challenge from Lugar, who told HPI that the cycle was an absolute roller-coaster. The scandal created a horrible environment for Republicans, but Nixon's resignation in early August had revived GOP fortunes, until President Ford pardoned Nixon. Lugar began to recover that by October, until Ford announced his WIN program (Whip Inflation Now) and that ultimately allowed Bayh to win a third term with a 75,000 vote plurality.

Again, the liberal Bayh found himself at odds with many Hoosier voters. He had led the opposition to two of President Nixon's Supreme Court nominations. That he would win a third term was a testament to his campaign style that took him to nearly every Dairy Queen in the state, his sport coat off, his white shirt sleeves rolled up, and an easy, “aw, shucks” style. He would often be the last one to leave a Jefferson-Jackson dinner or union hall event. I saw this firsthand when Evan Bayh ran for governor in 1988, with father, son and wife, Susan, spending a night at an Evansville union hall. They were literally the last ones to leave the hall, and they made a beeline to a nearby Dairy Queen for late-night ice cream. I'll never forget sitting between the two Bayhs, with Birch saying, "Nice job, son."

"Birch and Bill Hudnut were probably the two best campaigners in the state," LaFollette said. "Birch was a charismatic kind of guy. He was an incredible campaigner. He was a people person. He had those little dimples and a nice grin, tilted his head in earnest. The women wanted to mother him. He was a glad-hander. He was a natural at that." 

His second term produced another Bayh policy milestone: Title IX. According to the Washington Post, Bayh credited his wife, Marvella, for his interest in the issue. “From time to time,” he reminisced in 2004, “she would remind me what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world. Without her, I would not have been in a leadership role.” He added, "In a country that prides itself on equality, we could not continue to deny 53% of the American people equal rights.”

Bayh briefly sought the presidency in 1972 until Marvella began battling cancer, and again in 1976, where he was once favored before losing to Jimmy Carter in Iowa and New Hampshire, ending his presidential aspirations. 

Bayh's final political fight came in 1980. Marvella Bayh had died of cancer in 1979 after having described her battle with the disease: "These years since cancer came to me have been the most rewarding, the most filling, the happiest in my life. I have learned to value life, to cherish it, to put my priorities in order and to begin my long-postponed dream of being useful in my own right."

Evan Bayh would manage his father’s final campaign. Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan was challenging President Jimmy Carter and a tidal wave developed in the final week of the campaign, washing out not only President Carter, but Sen. Bayh and House Majority Leader John Brademas in Indiana, and Democrat Sens. Frank Church, John Culver, George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson and Warren Magnuson.

Evan Bayh would later form the Bayh dynasty, winning the Indiana secretary of state's race six years later, the governorship in 1988, and then reclaiming his father's U.S. Senate seat in 1998. His father's 1980 campaign made a lasting impression on Evan Bayh, making him a more moderate-to-conservative secretary of state, governor and senator.

The son never returned to the father's liberal moorings, but would win races with comfortable to landslide pluralities, unlike Birch who always squeaked through. Evan was never as audacious on policy or risky politically as Birch, a man whose contemporary, Lee Hamilton, observed has written more of the U.S. Constitution than anyone since James Madison.

A fitting legacy for Birch Evans Bayh, Jr., a Hoosier for the ages.