Q&A with Evan Bayh (January 2011)

Evan Bayh Talks: Regrets, family, the Senate, conflicts, and what comes next.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: CNN’s Tom LoBianco broke the news this morning that Evan Bayh will make a return bid to the U.S. Senate. Bayh served as the state’s junior Senator from 1999 to 2011. The former governor announced he was retiring from the Senate in 2010, and in January 2011 sat down with IM to explain why.

In two wide-ranging interviews (excerpted here) beneath the high ceiling of his former Washington, D.C., office on Capitol Hill, Evan Bayh reflected on everything from the Senate and his reasons for leaving to the experience of being fully vetted—twice—as a potential vice-presidential nominee. Here, candid thoughts on wins, losses, and the future.

Retiring from the Senate

On February 15, 2010, Bayh announced that he would not seek reelection.

Senator Bayh on the campaign trail with Barack Obama in August 2008.
Senator Bayh on the campaign trail with Barack Obama in August 2008.

IM: When did you first consider not running again?

EB: At least two or three years ago.  There was so much gridlock and partisanship and political fighting. I came here to get things done, and not enough was getting done. And it seemed to be getting worse.

IM: How hard of a decision was it?

EB: I anguished over it. I did. I had many a sleepless night. It was an intensely personal decision. I intended for it in no way to reflect upon the president, my colleagues in the Senate, or anybody else. This was just what was right for me and my family at this moment.

IM: Whom did you confide in?

EB: I talked to my wife, Susan, about it at great length. She’s a wonderful woman. She wouldn’t give me much guidance. “I just want you to be happy,” she said. “Do whatever will make you happy.” I think she believes I made the right decision.

I talked to my father, of course, and my former chief of staff, Tom Sugar. And then just a very small group of people other than that.

IM: What did your father say?

EB: My father [former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh] loved the Senate, but he observed that it was much different when he was here—more collegial, less partisan. The political discourse in general is a lot nastier today. There’s a lot more fundraising and money involved. So he could understand how I felt. I will be leaving the Senate just as I turn 55. He left the Senate just before his 53rd birthday.

“I told the president I’d decided not to seek reelection. He was surprised. He asked if I was 100 percent sure, and then I made a mistake. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m 98 percent sure.’”

IM: Was there a last straw?

EB: I didn’t have an epiphany or anything like that. I’d determined to make a final decision when I got away with my family for a week in August 2009, on a raft trip down the Grand Canyon. We’d intended to take that trip the year before, but we’d put it off because of the vice-presidential selection process. I couldn’t be out of touch for five or six days if [Barack Obama] was trying to get me.

We were going down the river, camping out, spending all day together. We slept under the stars. No TVs, no newspapers, no cell phones. Just my family and Mother Nature. A good time to think about the big picture.

So I got up the first morning, and I said to myself, “Well, I need to think about this decision, but I’m just going to enjoy the Grand Canyon today.” Then I got up the next morning: “This is too beautiful; I’ll think about work tomorrow.”

IM: So you returned to D.C. thinking what?

EB: After we got back, I got a call saying the president wanted to meet with me. I didn’t know what it was about. Turned out he wanted to talk about fiscal policy because he knew I cared about the issue and, as a governor, had to balance budgets and make some hard financial decisions.

It was just the two of us, and after the meeting, as we were walking out of the Oval Office, I said, “Mr. President, could I talk to you about something else for one minute?”  And that’s when I told him I’d decided not to seek reelection. He was surprised. He asked if I was 100 percent sure, and then I made a mistake. “Well,” I said, “I’m 98 percent sure.” He, of course, focused on the 2 percent, which led to a series of conversations with him and others about possibly changing my mind. I was terribly conflicted. I love public service, but I didn’t feel Congress was getting enough done. I didn’t want to be in public office just to hold office.

I went back and forth in my mind until last February, on the cusp of the filing deadline, when I had to decide. So it took a deadline to finally force me to say okay, 98 percent isn’t good enough. It’s all or nothing.

Regrets

The deficit, Iraq, and the vice presidency.

IM: Is there anything you would have done differently?

EB: I’m sure there are a thousand things. I am deeply bothered by the deficits we are running, and very often I was the only member of my party to vote against the budget or spending bills. But I wish I could have done more to keep the deficit under control.

We probably could have handled Saddam Hussein in a way other than invading the country. Iraq continues to be a violent, turbulent place, and that’s unfortunate for the Iraqis. But we do tend to forget that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of people during his tenure. There were rapes and torture, all sorts of things. The chief motivating factor in my mind for invading Iraq was the thought that he might get biological or nuclear weapons. Turned out—even though it was very reasonable to believe at the time that there were weapons of mass destruction—it wasn’t true. As somebody once said, you can’t chart the way forward if you’re looking in the rearview mirror. But you should learn from what you’ve experienced to inform the future.

IM: Two times you were almost chosen to be the vice-presidential nominee.

EB: I’m one of the usual suspects. I think I was in the final four or five with Al Gore, and then with Barack Obama, I do think it ended up being Joe Biden or me. In one campaign memoir, the president described it to one of his assistants as a coin flip. I’m not regretful, though. Things happen that way in life, and it was an honor just to be considered. As I said to my wife, “Dear, I just came in second in a contest where they don’t give silver medals.”

IM: How was the vetting process?

EB: It was like having a colonoscopy performed, but they used the Hubble telescope. There is no facet of who you are or what you’ve done that is not looked at. I never minded that, though. If you’re picking somebody to be the vice president of the United States, you ought to find out everything there is to know.

I was fully vetted twice, and I also provided some materials for John Kerry’s campaign. Each time becomes more exhaustive and more extensive.  A lot of it is the Internet. “Well, there’s a posting that you’re a Martian. Is that true?”

Near the end of the process last time, I got a call from one of the lawyers. By then he already knew more about me than my wife did. He was embarrassed. “I’m sorry to call you about this,” he said, “but there’s a rumor going around on the Internet that you suffered from depression. ” And I said, “It’s not true. I’ve never taken any medication for depression. I’ve never seen a psychiatric professional. I’ve never even had to consult my clergyman about that kind of thing.

“But if you guys don’t hurry up and make a decision, I might have to!” [Laughter]

Proudest Moments

Working for the people—in Indiana and abroad.

IM: Do you have a proudest moment in your Senate career?

EB: Around here, everything tends to happen at the 30,000-foot level, but what really matters—what I get the most satisfaction out of—is when I can actually put a face on some of these statistics and know I’ve really made a difference in someone’s life. And fortunately for me, that happens frequently. I refer to that as psychic income. You can’t spend it, but it’s worth more than money in the bank.

A few weeks ago, I was walking through the Indianapolis airport when a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for saving my father’s job.” He worked at an auto facility that would have gone bankrupt if we hadn’t taken action. In what other line of work do you get that kind of reinforcement?

IM: Are there other accomplishments you’re proud of?

EB: I’ve been on the Intelligence Committee for 10 years and the Armed Services Committee, so I’ve been intimately involved in efforts to prevent terrorist attacks on our country and to protect our soldiers abroad. I’ve really enjoyed working with our military men and women and our citizens who represent us in our intelligence services. They really are the best this country has to offer. They put their lives on the line every day. They’re not in it for the money. In the intelligence world, the public never even knows who they are. And yet they are doing heroic things. When there were things I could do to support them, that made me feel good. Like making sure the troops in Iraq got better equipment when it was pretty clear they didn’t have the body armor or the up-armored Humvees they needed. That was disgraceful, and I really worked very hard to change that.

And of course I’m always proud when people come up to me and just say, “Thanks for your service.” I hope they think I’ve conducted myself in an honorable way and tried to do the right thing.

What’s Next

Lawyer? Lobbyist? President?

IM: Now that you’re leaving the Senate, what are your options?

EB: Fortunately, I think there will be a lot of them. I’d like to keep a connection to public policy and have a platform from which to speak out about what I think is good for Indiana, what’s good for the United States. It’s part of me.

Regardless of what happens, Susan and I intend to retain our close ties with Indiana and be Hoosiers. It’s our home, and we love it and have so many dear friends there. That may mean we’ll be living in Indianapolis again, or it may mean for a while we’ll be part of the Hoosier diaspora.

IM: Are you interested in practicing law again?

EB: That might be a part of what I do. I haven’t had a chance to sit down to figure all of that out and make some final decisions, yet.

IM: Would you ever consider a lobbying job, after the required two-year waiting period?

EB: No, I wouldn’t want to be involved in that. Not that I think it’s inherently dishonorable. It’s just not what I’d want to do.

IM: At this point in your life and your political career, how do you feel about a presidential run someday?

EB: Oh, I think that’s extremely unlikely. Now, if I were Michael Bloomberg  and had, you know, $12 billion or $13 billion, maybe I’d be more likely. [Laughter] But I don’t.

What’s Wrong with the Senate

Money, complacency, and partisan politics.

IM: When you announced you were leaving the Senate, you famously said, “I do not love Congress.” Was there ever a time you thought you might?

EB: When I was young, I idolized my father. I thought he’d devoted his life to a noble thing—public service, trying to help other people. And so I had kind of an idealized view of the Senate.

IM: What would you change about the Senate?

EB: I’d do away with the caucus system, because it has made our politics very tribal. There’s one Democratic point of view and one Republican point of view, and they expect you to support it all the time, with no difference of opinion whatsoever. Which is really quite astonishing, because we’ve got 58 members of the Democratic caucus. It would be unnatural for all of them to think exactly the same thing on every issue. And yet that’s what is expected. I think the public expects us to behave differently.

IM: Then why not break with the caucus?

EB: You can do that—become an iconoclast—and I frequently do, but it hurts your ability to get things done. People don’t want to work with you. They get tired of you not being part of the team. So it’s that constant tension between doing what you think is right on the one hand—which of course you have to do—and being effective. I have the second-most-independent voting record of any member of my party, after Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Both of us are former governors of Midwestern states. I think that probably explains it.

IM: What else would you change?

EB: There’s way too much money in politics, and it takes way too much time and tends to skew the process. If I were a philosopher king, I’d say there are no political parties, and all 100 senators would be independent and free to do what they thought was right. I’d find some way for people to communicate with the public without having to raise vast sums of money, because the money is corrosive. And I’d change the rules here that affect the filibuster and the seniority system. You do get some talented younger people in the Senate, but they don’t have a chance to have much impact for decades because of the seniority system.

IM: Do you have much hope for any real change in the Senate?

EB: I don’t think there will be many material changes in the near term. The new Senate will probably be divided more closely along party lines, making it less likely that things will get done. But I think if the public expresses enough dissatisfaction with the gridlock and the acrimony—and votes out politicians who behave in an excessively partisan or ideological fashion—that people in the Senate will actually change, out of self-preservation as well as idealism.

IM: Who in particular is to blame?

EB: There are quite a few idealistic members here who would like to see things be better. But the status quo is fairly entrenched, and very often the idealistic members are newer and don’t have the authority.

The people who’ve been here a long time—they’re not bad. It’s not as if they want a system that doesn’t work. It’s just that you get comfortable with the way things are, and as you have more clout, you’re more reluctant to change.

Almost without exception, the people in the Senate are smart and hardworking, and they want to do the right thing. Now, they very often have wildly different opinions about what the right thing is. And therein lies the problem, because the system allows the minority to constantly frustrate the majority and keep anything from ever happening.

Political Repercussions

Crashing the party?

IM: What’s your response to people who say you let down the Democratic Party?

EB: I’ve served 22 years, and I’ve been a member of the Democratic Party all 22 years. I’ve not only tried to represent our party well myself, I’ve also raised millions of dollars for other Democratic candidates. I’ve campaigned for dozens of Democratic candidates, done commercials for many of them. It’s probably fair to say I’ve done as much or more for the Indiana Democratic Party than anyone else has over the last two decades.

Besides, party loyalty alone is not an adequate reason to run for reelection.

Thoughts of Home

The state of our state.

IM: What does Indiana need from its next governor?

EB: The big challenge is economic: How do we create jobs? How do we create new businesses that will allow us to have a better standard of living than our parents had? Growing the economy makes everything else possible.

IM: How would one grow Indiana’s economy?

EB: We have been a state with a significant concentration of manufacturing at a time when that segment of our economy has been under great strain. So we need to do everything we can to be the most effective location for continued manufacturing, but also focus on parts of the economy that are more likely to grow going forward.

So what is our economic strategy for attracting investment? How do we educate our people to fill the good-paying jobs that will result from that investment? How do we promote modest taxes and reasonable regulation?  What can we do better, quicker, and less expensively than anybody else?

If I had to think going forward, it would be in the more highly innovative parts of the economy. We already have significant representation in some of those industries—in the life sciences, for example. Some in tech, some in the new energy and transportation sectors.

IM: Sounds like a big transition. A slow one.

EB: I said this to the president once: The people of Indiana like evolutionary change, not revolutionary change. We know that we need to improve, but we also like our traditions. I had the CEO of a major company in here recently. He employs 600 people in the state, 22,000 globally. When I thanked him for the jobs he provides, he said, “Yeah, we like your state. We’re either hiring people coming off farms, or they’re a generation off the farm. The people are honest, and their work ethic is strong.” We still have those traditional, fundamental values that, frankly, I think the country could use a little more of.

“People who have always been legislators have missed that experience of actually having to take ideas and put them into action.”

IM: Which job is more demanding, governor or senator?

EB: It’s not even close. Being governor was much harder. Particularly when the economy was not good. I had to cut spending, and I didn’t want to raise taxes, and yet I didn’t want to hurt the quality of services, particularly in education and healthcare. We were able to avoid raising taxes. We balanced the budget and left a surplus. But that was hard.

You have to travel more in the Senate. Just going to and from the state takes time, and you have some national and even global responsibilities. But being governor is a 24/7 job. There’s always a crisis. It’s “What am I going to get done today?” I used to enjoy the State of the State address, because it gave me a chance to step back and think about the broader agenda. But other than that, you don’t have that luxury—it’s just dealing with the incoming.

IM: Which job is more satisfying?

EB: What motivates me is translating ideas into results. So I found the governorship to be more rewarding in terms of actually getting things done. The Senate is rewarding in a different way—it’s intellectually fascinating—but months go by and nothing happens.

You can tell which senators have had to run something, whether it’s a state, a city, or a business. They tend to be a little more practical and willing to work together to get things done because they’ve been responsible for producing results. People who have always been legislators—there’s nothing wrong with that—but they’ve missed that experience of actually having to take ideas and put them into action.

Family

A third Bayh in politics?

Young Evan with his father, Senator Birch Bayh, in 1968.
Young Evan with his father, Senator Birch Bayh, in 1968.

IM: What are you planning to do on your first day off?

EB: That will be January 3. My boys start back to school that day. So I’ll probably see them off, go for a long run, and think about the nature of life. That’ll be a real watershed moment for me.

IM: What are you hoping to have more time for?

EB: Well, it would be nice if I could find some time to have dinner with Susan now and then, just the two of us, that sort of thing. And my boys will be 15. They only grow up once. I’d like to spend more time with them and be a part of their lives while they’re still in our house. The day will come when they’re not.

Not running for reelection has already allowed me to be there for them more than I otherwise would have been. I hardly would have seen them if I’d been campaigning. I would have been an absentee parent. Running for the Senate is all-consuming, particularly in a challenging year, and you could tell early on that this election would have required a full effort.

But I didn’t make my decision because I was concerned about being away from the boys. If I’d felt that it was the right thing to do otherwise, that was a price we all would have paid, happily and willingly so.

IM: How has it been, raising teens?

EB: They think I lived in the Dark Ages. “What do you mean there was no Internet or cell phones or texting or video games?”

They’re really good boys, though, and I’m very proud of both of them.

IM: Do either of them remind you of you at that age?

EB: Yeah, they both do in some ways. Beau looks like me and is built like me a little more. And Nick has some of my personality traits. He tends to be a little cautious, frugal. I see some of my mother in Nick, and I see some of my father in Beau.

IM: You worked on your father’s campaigns. How would you feel about the boys working on yours?

EB: If it’s what they wanted, I’d be thrilled. It’d be a great experience doing something like that together. Of course campaigns can get kind of nasty, and you hate for your kids to see that. But, as long as it was their idea, not mine, yeah, of course. My father’s campaigns were formative experiences for me.

IM: You’ve been in elected office for more than two decades now.

EB: Twenty-two years, and it’s been an honor. I want to emphasize that. I am not unhappy; I am happy. I’m occasionally frustrated, but I’m still pleased at the things we were able to get done. I just  concluded that I’d probably be able to get more done—if on a smaller stage and in a more individual way—in a different capacity at this juncture in my life.

I’m getting wistful. I’m doing some things for the last time, and I don’t know what’s coming. More than anything, though, I’m grateful. Millions of people in our state gave me an opportunity to work for them. I only hope that I’ve been able to justify their confidence.

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