At a time when the U.S. Senate was filled with statesmen, Indiana's Birch Bayh was one of the giants. He died Thursday at 91, a focused lawmaker who loved politics but never confused the need to get elected with the need to do the right thing.
Determined to use his office to make our democracy stronger and more inclusive, he authored two amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution. The 25th Amendment updated presidential succession and the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. He helped pass groundbreaking civil rights legislation and successfully led opposition to two substandard nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bayh's greatest triumph was Title IX, an amendment to education law that forbade sex discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds. It was conceived as a faster way to solve some of the inequality problems Bayh's proposed Equal Rights Amendment was meant to address.
Bayh's ability to understand and articulate the effects of inequality shone in a speech he made to the Senate during the battle to enact Title IX. “One of the great failings of the American educational system is the continuation of corrosive and unjustified discrimination against women. ... Because education provides access to jobs and financial security, discrimination here is doubly destructive to women.”
The ERA fell short of ratification, but Title IX opened new vistas in college sports and other higher education opportunities for women and in turn expanded women's roles throughout society.
A visionary and unapologetic social liberal, Bayh used his bringing-home-the-bacon skills and zest for campaigning to bridge the gap with more conservative voters.
At events in Indiana, he used his southern Indiana drawl to remind people of his upbringing on a farm in Shirkieville, near Terre Haute. He might stop at the local Dairy Queen for a sundae, a simple pleasure he and his wife, Marvella, shared before her untimely death in 1979.
“He was a candidate who really enjoyed getting out there and meeting people,” Fort Wayne City Councilman Geoff Paddock recalled Thursday. Paddock, who profiled Bayh in his 2008 book “Indiana Political Heroes,” was a volunteer worker for Bayh during college; he traveled to Iowa to help in the senator's short-lived presidential campaign in 1976.
“I remember him shaking hands at a factory gate in Fort Dodge” early on a below-zero morning, Paddock said. On days like that, Bayh campaigned nonstop, yet “he seemed to thrive on that. ... He would be just as upbeat and effervescent after the final event at 10 o'clock at night as he was in the morning. ... It was the politics of joy for him, meeting people.”
Bayh also maintained his political hold in Indiana by working hard to secure federal funding for projects back home. The Grand Wayne Center and the Fort Wayne Post Office are local examples, Paddock said. Bridges, roads, flood-control projects, airports – Bayh was able to get federal support through “his ability, his hard work and, later, his seniority,” Paddock said. “That kind of helped him stand in good stead in Indiana.”
After three terms in the Senate, he lost to Dan Quayle, then a congressman from Huntington, in the election of 1980 – not so much rejected as swept away by the Reagan juggernaut. As Paddock pointed out, Bayh ran 250,000 votes ahead of the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, President Jimmy Carter.
Then Bayh retired from electoral politics, having served his state and his nation with distinction. Within a decade his son, Evan, took up the mantle, serving two terms as Indiana governor and two terms in the Senate.
We extend our thoughts and sympathy to the Bayh family.