On his first day as governor of Indiana in January 1989, Evan Bayh found himself with a Republican Senate and a 50/50 split in the Indiana House and was compelled to reach out to Republicans on his way to becoming one of the most effective modern Indiana chief executives.
On his first day as a U.S. Senator in January 1999, Evan Bayh was sworn in as a juror in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
Such are the life and times of Evan Bayh, a senator’s son, a fortunate one who tried to traverse the very center where liberal critics said he would simply become road kill. In a presidential context, that is probably true. His efforts to form a moderate core in the Senate essentially allowed Barack Obama to rush by in the left lane on his way to the White House.
And it was Obama’s tack to the left – with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filling in the script – that created the harrowing political climate Bayh found last January when Scott Brown was elected to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. To Evan Bayh, this was a precursor to a disaster he would have no part of. On February 15 – President’s Day – Bayh flanked himself with wife and sons and told the nation and Hoosiers that he’d had enough. He loved America. He loved Indiana. He did not “love Congress.”
What followed were the Bayh Dominoes. As he stepped aside, he allowed the Obama-Pelosi-Reid troika forge historic law on the stimulus and health care fronts, but the political fallout engulfed those who picked up the Bayh mantle. It was a chain reaction that brought defeat to the undefeated like he had been: Brad Ellsworth, Trent Van Haaften, Bob Deig.
And while there was anger for not defending his Senate seat in quadrants of the Indiana Democratic Party that he had revived in 1986, and for being the first domino to tumble, for not giving more than $1.5 million to Democrats facing the worst tsunami since 1948, when it came to challenges just over the horizon all eyes turned to Evan Bayh one more time.
For many, it was disappointment when Bayh announced he would not seek a third term as Indiana governor. The man who became a legacy as a senator’s son and who wrote a book about fatherhood, stepped back because of his own sons who would be sophomores at a time their dad would be out raising millions and spending time in Greenwood, Greencastle, Greensburg and Greentown when time might be better spent chucking footballs in the backyard.
“When my days are done and I’m looking back on my life, I’m probably going to think about whether I’ve been a good father and a good husband,” Bayh explained. “And then maybe some of the political stuff will come later. I loved being governor and I think we were able to get some good things done for the state and those were happy days. But as I approached making the decision, I had to weigh not only political and public policy factors, but the welfare of my family. It might have been a different situation if my kids were three or four years older. I’ve got teenagers who are going to be sophomores in high school. I just kept coming back to that.”
His father, former Sen. Birch Bayh wasn’t always there. He became minority leader in 1956, the year Evan was born, and House Speaker in 1959 and then on to the U.S. Senate in 1962, the tumultuous Vietnam era and a harrowing reelection campaign of 1968. Evan Bayh was an only and often lonely child.
The arc of Evan Bayh was established early as a one-day presidential contender that would drive and color every stop he made. But once the twins arrived at the governor’s mansion, the subplot was always family.
Here the better tendencies of Evan Bayh – to be a good father, a good husband, to teach moderation, to be a conciliator and a problem solver – came to a collision course with the polarization and deepening antagonisms, coarseness and crudeness of modern politics.
When the reelection of 2010 threatened to engulf the wife who had enriched the family with her corporate board profession that comes with pillow talk, Evan Bayh had had enough.
He left little doubt that maintaining the fortune of good health will bring other political opportunities. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility that I will reenter public life,” Bayh said. “I intend to be a supporter and a participant, not just over the next year or two but over the long haul.”
Put another way, in Indiana’s bicentennial year of 2016, Evan Bayh will be 60 years old, an age when many men and women become a governor or senator for the first time.
Evan Bayh leaves Indiana Democrats in the state in which he found them: defeated and dispirited. The party lost its leader to his own family.
(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)