It was just after
New Year’s Day, 1962, and Birch Bayh was driving his family to Harry Truman’s presidential library. Bayh, his wife, Marvella, and their 6-year-old son, Evan, weren’t headed to Missouri as tourists. They had an appointment with the former president himself.
Bayh was plotting a long-shot bid for one of Indiana’s U.S. Senate seats, and he wanted to meet with Truman, a man who knew something about Democratic upsets. The two talked politics for nearly an hour, until Evan, dressed in his best suit and trying very hard to stay still, blurted: “I have to go to the bathroom.” His parents were stunned—until Truman stood up, walked over, and offered Evan his hand. “You know, son, I do, too. Let’s go.”
Truman must have shared some good advice, because Birch Bayh won that race and two more after it, serving 18 years in the Senate. James Madison, a professor emeritus at I.U. and one of the state’s foremost historians, says Bayh “ranks among Indiana’s very, very best—a distinguished politician who made a difference.”
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That’s certainly the sense one gets from Birch Bayh, the first major biography of the senator, coming out this month from Indiana University Press. The book’s author, Robert Blaemire, worked on it for six years—and that’s on top of the 13 years he spent as a member of Bayh’s staff. Blaemire presents the senator as someone who valued compromise and good government reforms like lowering the voting age to 18. Bayh’s life, Blaemire writes, is “a story about an era when things worked in American government, an era when Democrats worked with Republicans, when giants walked the halls of Congress.”
Bayh was clearly a giant, and there’s some truth to this portrait. But it’s a mistake to place him in Indiana’s Hall of Moderates, right next to Richard Lugar and, well, Evan Bayh. In fact, there’s a second story lurking in the new Birch biography—the story of a more radical, and more interesting, politician, one whose life reveals not only his talent and vision but also some profound changes in his beloved home state.
Birch Bayh was born
in Terre Haute in 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression. From the beginning, his life was marked by a mix of national and local, agriculture and ambition.
His father was a well-known expert on physical education; in addition to teaching and coaching, he refereed a record 10 title games in Indiana’s single-class basketball tournament. When Birch was 8, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where his father had landed a job as the public schools’ head of physical education. In high school, however, Birch returned to the Hoosier state, living on his grandparents’ farm outside of Terre Haute. He loved that farm, feeding chickens, putting down hay, and obsessing over tomatoes. In 1944, he won the state’s 4-H Tomato Championship.
The next spring, Bayh graduated high school as the salutatorian in his class of 26. He spent the following years farming, studying at Purdue University, enlisting in the Army, and participating in Rural Youth Speech Contests. At a Chicago event, he fell for another contestant, an Oklahoman named Marvella Hern. They married in 1952, and their only child, Evan, was born three years later.
Birch Bayh was clearly a smart and energetic young Hoosier, and he decided to focus that energy on politics. “It was the influence of his father,” his biographer Blaemire says. “There were so many times, not only in our interviews but in my life with him, where Birch said he wanted to make a difference.”
In 1954, Bayh ran for state representative, relying on his personality, his pale blue eyes, and his farmer’s capacity for hard work. During the Democratic primary, he met personally with the committeemen and vice committeemen in each of the district’s 56 precincts. He charmed factory workers at bars and successfully courted black voters, as well. Bayh won the primary, then the general. He was all of 26 years old.
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Terre Haute’s Vigo County is a famous bellwether—a narrowly divided electorate that has flip-flopped for decades, almost always siding with the winning presidential candidate. But Bayh wasn’t interested in safe or centrist policies. At the Statehouse, he proved an eager progressive, defending labor unions, teacher raises, and more humane forms of criminal sentencing. He also enrolled at Indiana University’s law school, paying his way by selling 120 acres from the family farm. After a Democratic surge in 1958, Bayh became Indiana’s Speaker of the House.
In 1962, he targeted the Senate seat held by Homer Capehart, an aging but powerful Republican. One of Bayh’s supporters, Mary Lou Conrad, came up with a campaign jingle, a riff on a popular song Lucille Ball had performed on Broadway. The Bayh version started like this:
Hey look him over /
He’s my kind of guy /
His first name is Birch /
His last name is Bayh
It’s hard to imagine now, when “Bayh” seems as easy to pronounce as “pork tenderloin,” but in 1962 those lyrics introduced a candidate and his strange surname to Hoosiers all over the state, earning thousands of plays on the radio and providing the soundtrack to his slick ads on TV. Bayh campaigned even harder than he had as a state rep, hiring a separate staff for Marvella so that husband and wife could canvass separate parts of the state. During the campaign’s final push, Harry Truman came to Indiana and stumped for Birch, explaining to an Evansville crowd that Homer Capehart was a corrupt has-been. The senator, Truman recalled, had once asked him for a White House meeting—and then asked him to tweak a policy because it was costing him money. “Get your ass out of here,” Truman replied, “and don’t ever come back.”
On Election Day, nearly 2 million Hoosiers turned out. Bayh won by a margin of just over 10,000 votes. It was a remarkable victory in a state that has long tilted to the right. From 1816 up through today, Indiana has been more conservative and more Southern than its Midwestern peers, and those trends show up at the ballot box. America has held 20 presidential elections since the start of World War II, and the Republican candidate has carried the Hoosier state in 18 of them, typically by a far higher margin than he won the national vote.
Despite his deep red state, Senator Bayh stayed committed to his progressive beliefs. He took unpopular stands—in Indiana, at least—on abortion, a practice he disliked but defended, and on gun control, an issue where he tried banning certain types of handguns. Bayh campaigned in gay bars, ignoring his security guards’ chagrin. He championed women’s rights, leading the way on Title IX and on requiring most health insurers to cover pregnancy and maternity costs. It’s uncanny how many of Bayh’s causes feel relevant today. He pushed for granting the District of Columbia full congressional representation—two more Democratic senators—and for dumping the Electoral College in favor of a presidential system based purely on the popular vote. Above all, Bayh believed the federal government had a role, and a moral duty, to help regular Americans pursue their dreams. In 1970, for instance, the senator unveiled a plan for universal childcare, which would cost $12 billion over three years. “We owe it to the millions of mothers who must work,” Bayh told reporters. “We owe it to the children, to provide some nationwide, effective professional network of childcare centers.”
Bayh’s bill ultimately failed, just like every other universal childcare bill thus far, but it remains a big issue for many progressives. Bayh kept taking big swings. He became an important ally to some of the 20th century’s most prominent liberals. (Once, a Lyndon Johnson staffer called the senator’s home to invite him aboard the presidential yacht. Evan answered the phone and said his parents couldn’t make it—they were already in Hyannis Port, hanging with the Kennedys.) Birch even plotted some presidential runs of his own, most notably in 1976, though Marvella’s battle with cancer complicated his ambitions.
The senator still focused on his home state, securing Indiana tens of millions in federal funding. After touring a tornado-ravaged stretch in Southern Indiana, Bayh returned to Washington and pressed FEMA, an agency he helped found, on why it was taking so long to send money. The agency offered excuses. “Don’t tell me about what FEMA can and can’t do,” Bayh shot back. “I wrote the bill.”
Moments like that helped Bayh connect with Hoosier voters, even if many of them didn’t agree with his politics. In each reelection, his biggest asset was Birch Bayh—his ability to fuse Kennedy glamour with corn-fed charisma, a mixture he somehow sold as authentic, usually by poking fun at himself. In 1974, a year in which he drew a tough challenger in Indianapolis mayor Richard Lugar, Bayh attended a lighthearted campaign event. Journalists roasted politicians, and politicians roasted journalists. Bayh roasted himself. Just before he reached the microphone the senator stopped, turned his back, mussed his thick hair, and spun around. “Aw, shucks,” he said in his best hayseed, “it sure is good to be back in Indiana. We were sitting in front of the stove the other day. I was reading the Constitution. Marvella was sewing a star on the flag and Evan was studying his Eagle Scout book, when Marvella looked up at me. ‘Blue Eyes,’ she said—she always calls me Blue Eyes—‘I yearn for the farm.’”
The crowd loved it, and Bayh beat Lugar, ensuring six more years. Still, he could tell something in the state was shifting. During that same campaign, at a parade in Seymour, the senator shook hands with a voter, only to have him lash out. “You want to take my guns away,” the voter said. “I want to take my handshake back. Fuck you.” Blaemire says he remembers his boss seeming shocked, then angry. “You can take your handshake,” Bayh replied, “and shove it up your ass.”
More and more Hoosiers were getting angry about social issues like guns and abortion—and in Bayh’s next election, in 1980, their anger exploded in a new way. It was Bayh’s first race without Marvella, who died in 1979. His opponent was Dan Quayle, a 33-year-old congressman who sometimes misled voters. Quayle promised he wouldn’t take money from the oil industry, until Bayh provided PAC paperwork showing he already had. During one of their debates, Quayle said he needed to study a fair-housing bill before commenting on it, until Bayh pointed out that Quayle had already voted against it in the House.
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None of that seemed to matter. The many bills Bayh had written didn’t seem to matter, either. Quayle kept most of his message vague (“a new generation of leadership”), and that was a smart strategy for any youthful challenger. After all, Bayh’s jingle back in 1962 hadn’t exactly contrasted his record with his opponent’s. But Quayle had a new trick—an army of outside organizations that would hammer Bayh for his liberal record. Ads and mailers from outfits like Moral Majority spread across the state, including one that called Bayh a “baby killer,” and the senator could feel their impact when he talked with skeptical workers at factory gates. “If I’ve lost those votes,” the senator told an aide, “I’m in big trouble.” He was right. Quayle ended up beating Bayh easily, and while part of that was surely the popularity of Ronald Reagan, the GOP’s candidate for president, part of it was the new style of politics overtaking Indiana and everywhere else: nationalized and viciously divided on the issues.
Robert Blaemire was born
and raised in Hammond, Indiana. In 1967, his parents moved him to Washington so he could enroll at George Washington University. The day after they left, he took a bus to Capitol Hill and begged Birch Bayh’s office for a job.
Blaemire ended up working with Bayh for more than a decade, and during that time, and for many years after, the senator promised he would one day write his memoirs. “Every time I talked to him, he said he was going to do it,” Blaemire recalls. “Finally I said, ‘Senator, I don’t think you’re going to do it.’” Blaemire proposed writing Bayh’s biography instead, and the senator agreed, reviewing the manuscript and sitting for 30 hours of interviews. (Through his second wife, Kitty Bayh, the senator declined to be interviewed for this story prior to his death in March, “a prerogative of being 91!”) The result of Blaemire’s work, Birch Bayh, still reads like a political memoir in some places. It isn’t as action-packed as some biographies, nor as comprehensive as some histories, but it does a great job at capturing Bayh’s perspective throughout his long and historic career.
That perspective has never seemed more relevant, thanks to one of the two Constitutional Amendments Bayh helped draft. The 25th Amendment, which was ratified in 1967, created a process for removing a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” That process has come up frequently during the embattled presidency of Donald Trump. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor who’s now running for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, recently cited it while campaigning in Pennsylvania. “Fifty years ago,” Buttigieg said, “my home state senator, Birch Bayh, was authoring several constitutional amendments, [including] the 25th Amendment, which might come in handy one day.”
While Bayh’s laws and issues feel timely, his path to office feels ancient. With a couple of exceptions—the way he tried to hedge on, say, the busing debates during the Civil Rights era—Bayh remained a remarkably consistent liberal. Political scientists have developed an algorithm called DW-Nominate, a kind of advanced statistic that, like the fancier numbers in baseball or basketball, allows one to compare figures to their contemporaries and across eras. According to DW-Nominate, Birch Bayh finished every one of his two-year congresses with a voting record more liberal than at least 80 percent of his fellow senators. In today’s terms, he didn’t lean as far to the left as Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, but he was close—and he was more liberal than New York’s Chuck Schumer.
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Yet Bayh assembled that record while representing not Massachusetts or New York but Indiana. Given the beliefs of most Hoosiers, it makes sense that they rejected him in 1980. “Voters used to give politicians a lot more credit for their ideological brands or personalities,” says Nathaniel Rakich, an elections analyst at the website FiveThirtyEight. That meant a state could split its ticket, the way Indiana did in 1968 by choosing both Richard Nixon and Birch Bayh. But split-ticket voting has declined for years, and today most people go with the same party for everything from city council to the presidency. “In the last decade or two,” Rakich says, “partisanship has gotten much stronger.”
“Fifty years ago,” Buttigieg said, “my home state senator, Birch Bayh, was authoring several constitutional amendments, [including] the 25th Amendment, which might come in handy one day.”
You can debate whether that’s good or bad for the country. It’s clearly bad for Indiana Democrats. A potential counter for the party is to compromise and moderate, and one of the strangest parts of Bayh’s legacy is that his son, Evan, grew up to be an exemplar of this approach. From 1989 to 1997, Evan was a moderate as governor. (“He was the one who pushed this idea that we can’t possibly raise taxes,” says Madison, the history prof.) From 1999 to 2011, Evan was a moderate as U.S. senator. According to DW-Nominate, during Evan’s final two-year congress, his voting record was actually more conservative than 57 percent of his fellow senators.
That didn’t save him when he tried to run as a Democrat in 2016, just like it didn’t save Joe Donnelly in 2018. Caution and compromise can’t seem to beat partisan passion. “It’s unlikely that a Democrat will win a statewide race in Indiana for the next 10 years or so,” says Rakich. Those odds probably explain why a talented politician like Pete Buttigieg is going straight from running for mayor to running for president. If you’re a Democrat in Indiana, running for governor or senator can feel like a good way to waste a year of your life and several million dollars.
Things won’t stay this way forever. “Coalitions change,” Rakich says, “and 30 years is a whole generation.” For now, though, it’s hard to picture an Evan Bayh–style Democrat winning the Hoosier state.
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It’s just as hard to picture a Birch Bayh–style Democrat winning. But that option does have one advantage: A candidate can start from a place of conviction. Even outside of campaign years, Birch Bayh kept a hectic schedule touring his state and meeting with conservative constituents. During one trip, a bemused staffer asked him: “Are you sure you are from and represent Indiana?”
“I didn’t really expect to win when we ran the first time in 1962,” Bayh replied, “and I took away a very important lesson: If I get one more vote than the other guy, I get to continue doing the job I love. Sure, it’d be great to have an easy reelection, but I guess I’m not willing to give up working on the issues that are important to me in order to be popular with everyone.”
That might be the real lesson from Birch Bayh’s life. In our current political moment, perhaps Hoosier politicians on the right and the left shouldn’t ask themselves, Where can I compromise? Maybe they should ask, What issues are important to me?