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Birch Bayh


U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh sat on a plane on Nov. 22, 1963.

Indiana’s junior senator, elected a year earlier with the help of the United Auto Workers union, was trying to find a way to save 3,000 automotive jobs after Studebaker disclosed plans to shut down its South Bend operations.

“I was flying to Chicago to talk to the chairman of International Harvester to see if they would assume those workers and move in and run that plant,” Bayh, 85, recalled in a telephone interview.

“I remember it was a very rough ride, the Lord was shaking the plane,” Bayh said. “The pilot landed, and once he came to a stop, before we got off the plane, he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to tell you that the president has been assassinated.’

“I immediately went to a pay phone and called my wife, and we both cried together,” he said.

Kennedy “had been very good to us, to sort of bring us under his wing.”

The president campaigned for Bayh in Indianapolis one fall Saturday in 1962.

The Democratic state legislator from the Terre Haute area was trying to unseat third-term Republican Sen. Homer Capehart, who insisted that Soviet missiles were being placed in Cuba.

Kennedy dismissed the notion in Indianapolis. “He really laid it on Capehart,” Bayh said.

Two days later, Kennedy told the nation that Soviet missiles were indeed in Cuba. Bayh said after the announcement, Kennedy’s brother and attorney general, Robert Kennedy, remarked, “Well, that’s the end of Birch Bayh in Indiana.”

But the Soviet Union agreed to remove its nuclear warheads if the U.S. would do the same in Turkey and refrain from invading Cuba, and Bayh defeated Capehart at the polls in November. The day after the election, President Kennedy and Bayh spoke by telephone.

“I remember his exact words were, ‘Birch, how did you do it, you old miracle maker?’ ’Cause nobody thought we had a prayer of winning,” Bayh said.

Bayh became a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee. The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., had been working on a proposal to spell out the orderly transition of power if a president were to die, become incapacitated or leave office early.

Kefauver died after suffering a heart attack on the Senate floor in August 1963. His subcommittee was nearly eliminated, but it received a reprieve with freshman Bayh as its new chairman.

Kennedy’s assassination made urgent work of the presidential succession amendment. Bayh and his staff produced a draft within three weeks.

“It’s a terrible thing to say, but I think that the president’s death made the whole country, and certainly Congress, aware of the importance of presidential succession and disability,” Bayh said.

The deaths of sitting presidents and vice presidents “were more than just theory, they were very real possibilities,” he said.

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1967. In addition to presidential succession, the 25th Amendment establishes the process for the transfer of presidential powers and duties to the vice president if the president is unable to perform them.

Bayh also authored the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Bayh was a longtime colleague and friend of Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. In June 1964, a small plane they and Bayh’s wife were riding in crashed in Massachusetts, and Bayh pulled an injured Kennedy away from the wreckage.

Bayh sought the presidency in 1976. He and wife Marvella had a son, Evan, who grew up to become a two-term Indiana governor and a two-term U.S. senator. Marvella died from cancer in 1979, and the third-term senator lost his seat to Republican Dan Quayle of Huntington in the 1980 election.

Bayh and his second wife, Katherine, have been married since 1981and have an adult son, Christopher, who is a Washington attorney. Bayh is a semi-retired Washington attorney who lives in Easton, Md.

Nobody rescued the Studebaker plant in South Bend. Some of the buildings have been demolished, and a technology park is being developed at the site.