Bayhs and the Senate Lion

Late last week, news came of a letter the ailing Democratic titan had sent Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, seeking to rescind a new law calling for an election to replace senators in the state. Reading between the lines, one knew that this was the end for the Kennedy dynasty as we’ve known it for the last 60 years.

Ted Kennedy was the anomaly. He was the only one of the four Kennedy brothers who grew old before our eyes. He was the only one to lose a presidential race in which he ran. He was the only Kennedy brother whose personal shortcomings – whether cheating at Harvard or on his wife, too much drink, or the forever stain of Chappaquiddick – were fully aired in his lifetime.

Kennedy earned the title “Lion of the Senate” for his dedication to education and health issues. He pushed health reform on issues like the State Children’s Health Insurance and the Americans with Disabilities Act for most of his Senate career.

Among Hoosier Democrats, Ted Kennedy was an icon. In a corner of the United Center during the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I witnessed a crowd quickly bunching up in front of the Indiana delegation, blocking the aisles.

A Chicago fire marshal eventually appeared as rumors spread across the floor that the convention might be shut down due to capacity issues. “What the hell is going on up there?” the official yelled.  

“There’s a Kennedy up there,” I told him. One of the Kennedy nephews had waded into the Indiana delegation, setting off the tumult. “Oh, OK,” the official responded, voice lowered. “That explains it.”

In fact, Ted Kennedy owed his life to Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, who pulled him from a burning aircraft after it had crashed near Southampton, Mass. in 1964. “We’d been bouncing around from one thunderstorm to another,” Bayh told me of the plane crash. “I thought we’d been struck by lightning, but we had ended up in an apple orchard.”

Sen. Bayh had “an instantaneous thought that comes with a near death experience: At least we took care of Evan in my will,” he said of his son, who would become an Indiana governor and then retake his Senate seat. When Bayh came to, he heard wife Marvella’s screams and he went to the front of the plane and saw that the pilot and an aide were dead. 

“Then I went back again, smelled the fumes … thought the darn thing might explode. I heard Ted mumble and we were able to get him out of there. Why we didn’t go up in a puff of smoke I don’t know,” he said.

The senior Bayh and Kennedy entered the Senate about the same time after the 1962 elections. He said older members wondered what they would get with Ted Kennedy. “When your name is Kennedy and your brother is the president and your other brother is the attorney general, you’d think he’d have a head bigger than his body,” Bayh recalled. “A lot of the older members wondered what this young pup was going to be like. They were pleasantly surprised.”

Bayh and Kennedy forged similar paths. They supported the historic civil rights and voting acts as well as President Johnson’s Great Society program that initiated Medicare. They served on the Senate Judiciary Committee where Bayh would write constitutional amendments on presidential succession and lowering the voting age to 18. “Ted was one of the spear carriers on that,” Bayh said. 

Both backed the historic Title IX that opened up collegiate athletics to women. The two played a major role in opposing President Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees Albert Haynesworth and G. Harold Carswell.  And both parted with President Johnson on the Vietnam War. 

Sen. Evan Bayh remembered his first tumultuous days in the Senate, entering as President Clinton’s impeachment trial was getting underway. “There were no rules. It was intensely partisan and political. Who was respected enough to broker a way forward? It was Ted Kennedy who hammered out the agreement of how the Senate should proceed.”

Evan Bayh saw in Kennedy a throwback to the time when his father served in the Senate. “He was never reading talking points,” Bayh said. “We live in an era where everything is tested by focus groups, but Ted was old school. He spoke authentically, from the heart.”

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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