As baby boomers, we’ve seen a lot of senators come and go in Washington. Sad to say though, it can be hard these days to think of most of them — some would say any of them — as “lions of the Senate.” But baby boomer Carol Singer Viau, a writer in Waynesville, North Carolina, remembers one lion she got to know well, as she reflects on the beginning of her own career back in the turbulent 1960s.
The passing this past week of former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh affected me deeply, since I worked for him back in the day. I have spent time reflecting on his contributions as a legislator — and thinking about the era in which he served.
Growing up in Hammond, Indiana, my parents were active in Democratic politics. In the late 1950s, my dad took me to the state capitol in Indianapolis to serve as a page for the legislature, and it was there, as a young girl, I met Birch Bayh. He was the youngest Speaker of the House in Indiana history.
My family watched Bayh’s career over the years, and delighted in his election to the U.S. Senate in 1962. He represented the people of our state until 1980, three Senate terms. It ended when he lost to Dan Quayle in the 1980 Reagan landslide. Quayle, of course, went on to be Vice President under Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
In Bayh’s second senate campaign, I served as co-chairman of the Indiana University Students for Bayh. We were proud to support him as a progressive, yet down-home Hoosier, who cared about the common person.
And it got me into the thick of things at the chaotic Chicago Democratic National Convention in the summer of ’68. The whole world was watching protests, students being corralled by National Guard, and mayhem in the streets. I was one of several ‘Students for Bayh’ working there. The sights of soldiers and tanks in Lincoln Park, and of the National Guard, three-deep, with guns drawn, outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel are etched in my memories.
As a rising star in the Democratic party, Senator Bayh gave a speech at the convention — and being a TV-production major, I was asked to advise on his wardrobe for the nationally broadcast appearance.
Then, in the summer of ’69, after laboring hard on the student campaign, I was named as an intern in Bayh’s office in Washington.
To say I was caught up in the fervor and excitement of working on the Hill in 1969 is an understatement. It was an amazing time to be young and involved in politics. Young people like me had the feeling that we could change the world and we were proud to work for senators who were giants of historical figures. Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy— they all were presidential candidates at one time or another and they were all around us.
One time, while walking through the capitol with Senator Bayh, he paused to look into the Senate floor from the gallery. “Let’s stop a minute,” he said. “Let’s listen to the debate going on. You’re not going to see something like this often.”
Alone in the Senate chamber were the Senate minority leader, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, debating Montana Democrat and majority leader Mike Mansfield. It was a bit of history.
Importantly, we felt that senators back then worked for the greater good. They got legislation done. Their contributions are lasting. No matter what party they represented.
Birch Bayh authored two important and lasting amendments to the Constitution, the 25th (presidential line of succession and removal of a president) and the 26th (giving 18-year-olds the vote). He was a chief Senate sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, and drafted Title IX, which barred sex discrimination at schools and colleges in all programs, including sports.
Tennis great Billie Jean King said this a few days ago about Bayh’s passing:
“… you simply cannot look at the evolution of equality in our nation without acknowledging the contributions and the commitment Senator Bayh made to securing equal rights and opportunities for every American. Senator Bayh will forever be my hero for guiding the Passage of the Title IX Amendments to the Higher Education Act… Birch Bayh was a man of integrity, a leader with unquestionable character and an American treasure.”
From my up-close-and-personal experience, he was a great legislator and worked tirelessly for the people of Indiana and the nation. He put his constituency above all else and understood the importance of bi-partisanship in government. His son, Evan Bayh, became Governor of Indiana, and later held his father’s Senate seat, carrying on the legacy.
I honor Birch Bayh’s life well-lived, and remember a better time when legislators worked for the common good.