Birch Bayh Revisited
by Jonathan Singer, Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 01:09:26 PM EST
Five years ago this month, I had the chance to speak over the phone with Birch Bayh, the father of retiring Democratic Senator Evan Bayh and a former Democratic Senator in his own right.
The elder Bayh was a progressive lion and a legislative heavyweight. The list of bills he penned is too long to detail here, but it includes two constitutional amendments (the 25th, on Presidential succession, and the 26th, lowering the voting age to 18), Title IX (mandating gender equality in higher education), and the Bayh-Dole Act (amending the nation's patent laws).
At a time when progressive legislation is stalled in the Senate, and the momentum for positive change built up during the 2008 campaign appears to be waning, I thought it worth reposting my interview with Birch Bayh -- which, by the way, includes a lengthy discussion of his son:
Jonathan Singer: When you were first elected to the Senate in 1962, your freshman class included notable liberals like Abe Ribicoff, George McGovern, Dan Inouye, Gaylord Nelson, and of course yourself. That group didn't arrive from nowhere, though. What was happening in the 50s and early 60s that helped foster your generation, and can it be replicated today?
Birch Bayh: Well, we'd gone through a period there after World War II, and some of those folks like Dan had served. I just missed it. But I think we had a spirit of optimism in the country. Certainly I think the election of John Kennedy and all he stood for was one that really was an inspiration. Of course somebody like Abe Ribicoff, he'd been doing a number of things, and Frank Church had come six years before. So I think there was a general feeling of optimism in the country that the sky was the limit.
I haven't lost that optimism myself, but I must say I'm very discouraged about it. One of the things -- you could speak to this -- if I were interviewing you I would ask you how many of the people on campus there are willing to expose themselves and do what is necessary to grind it out and get to public office and then work to serve the people while they're there. I don't know the answer to that question. I'm a little bit disturbed that there aren't as many as I would like.
But I'm also one that thinks that some of us who are older who have been around a long time and seen things come and go always tend to reflect on the "good old days" and look at our generation and the people that surrounded us, as if they were the ones that really had the energy and the idealism. I don't think that's the case.
I think we have a number of young people -- like yourself -- who want to make a difference. I'm not sure the numbers are as large because I think the burden of getting elected to public office at the national level has become astronomically expensive. That is a burden that a lot of young folks don't have the desire to, nor the capacity to really raise that kind of money. I think that's most unfortunate about our Democratic system, that you're confining it to people who are either very wealthy in their own right or have capacity to gain access to large amounts of money.
Singer: Your class that you talked about -- that generation -- you had the momentum, let's say. You passed the Civil Rights Act, you passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Clean Water, Clean Air, the list goes on. These laws are truly in jeopardy today. How can the progressives regain that momentum that you had?
Bayh: They have to be willing to stand up and take them on. I must say one of the voices that I've noted with a great deal of enthusiasm is Senator Boxer taking them on on a couple of these appointments. I've watched her [speak] very eloquently on the Senate floor and a talk show or two. I'm sure Senator Feinstein is equally concerned about things like this, but I just happened to note that Barbara's taken a sort of a leadership role in taking them on on this.
Singer: I know there's one more Senator who also took on the administration on the two most recent nominations, and that would be the junior Senator from Indiana, your son Evan Bayh. What lessons might you pass on from your 1976 bid for the Democratic nomination to him as he is considered by many to be a frontrunner for the nomination?
Bayh: It's beyond my pay grade, really, to make an assessment of where he is in the great scheme of things. Certainly his name's been mentioned a great deal.
He was involved in playing an active management role in my 76 campaign; he dropped out of school a semester. He's seen what it takes, he's seen the all-nighters, and he's seen what is possible to lose.
I have to say to you, Jon, I was disheartened because we had a lot of young people -- disheartened is not the right word, but guilty, I think, is the word -- because we had a lot of young people. Many of Evan's peers dropped out of college and participated, and young people all over the country... we had a great group of young folks. I felt that I had let them down. I didn't get in as good as they were entitled to. And I thought my loss my loss was not, certainly, the end of the world, but to lessen the enthusiasm of those young people who were signed up, I thought that was tragic.
But then shortly afterwards I happened to overhear a conversation that was going on in our basement where Evan had a bunch of these young people -- his buddies -- over and they were having a beer or something there, and they all were going to make a difference with their lives. Some of them have.
I think we're selling this generation of young people short. I think they have every reason to be very frustrated about how the process works. Here you have a President that was elected by fewer popular votes. Really I think the election was stolen in the way the Florida votes were counted. And the Supreme Court came in for the first time since  -- the Tilden-Hayes thing -- the first time since then that the Supreme Court had ever been involved. You had the same kind of tragedy. A deal was cut that the Democrats would go along with this nomination in the Electoral College and throw their votes in the South to Hayes in exchange for the government pulling the army out of the South, prematurely, I think.
I don't know. I just think the Supreme Court should not get involved in things like that, and I would have sworn they wouldn't, but they did. But to see that kind of thing happen, and then see the rise of the extremist movement on the right here that clearly had a profound impact on this election.
I think the Democrats... You know I don't think we need the Republicans to steal family values from us. People that talk about "saving babies from abortion," and nobody likes abortion. But I've been the leader in the Senate, as you may know, to protect the right to choose. Not because I though abortion was nice and kind, but I think nobody should put themselves in the position of the woman and her husband and her doctor and her minister when decisions like that are made.
But people that are worried about unborn babies are the same ones that vote against kindergarten programs in Indiana or school lunch funds out of the federal government. Things like that. What is life? What about old people? What about our veterans that aren't getting the kind of services they ought to get? How come life is so important in the nine months before birth, but then we sort of forget about the importance, we're not worried about whether that baby lives in poverty once he or she is born. Pardon me. I'm on my soapbox here. How did we get off on that? Get me off of it.
Bayh: I'm not sure I even answered the question.
Singer: That's all right. Let's pull it back a little bit towards your son, if you don't mind. You once told a New York Times reporter that your son took your 1980 defeat by Dan Quayle harder than you did. Do you think that you'll be similarly invested in your son's, well, "possible" campaign, let's call it?
Bayh: I don't think so. There are different ways of looking at it. I look at the Senior Al Gore that I had the chance to serve in the Senate with. A great human being. He went down to defeat to this right wing bunch back at the time. He was intimately -- is intimately involved in everything his son has done politically.
I was involved in the early stages. I didn't urge him to run, but once he wanted to run, then I wanted him to win. I wanted him to have the benefits of whatever I might bring to the table, whether it was my judgment or a number of supporters throughout the state, access to certain money. I made all of that available to him and worked hard for his Secretary of State's race and his Governor's race.
In fact, I really didn't get enthused about his Secretary of State race until I attended a couple of his rallies and found out there were a bunch of young folks that there were a bunch of young folks that he had been able to recruit on his own. Sure, several of them were sons of people who had been my friends, but he had the capacity to go out and raise a cadre of bright young folks to support him. Some that weren't so young. Maybe they were supporting him because of who his father was. I don't know.
I think that it's important if you run for President that you have to make those important decisions. And your father, if he can help, probably, he helps just by being your father without getting intimately involved.
I had some interesting enemies, I'm sort of proud of them, but nevertheless I wouldn't want him to inherit those.
Singer: It is certainly a badge of honor that you were on Nixon's list...
Bayh: I sort of look at it that way. I don't say a whole lot about it, though.
Singer: I don't want to pigeonhole either of you, but you and your son Evan -- this will be the last question on your son, I promise -- you seem to come from, let's say, two different wings of the Democratic party. Is this a fair characterization? Is meaningful?
Bayh: People tend to say that. I'm not sure that it's right. You have to put my votes in the environment in which they were cast, and I don't think many of his votes would have been any different.
You look at the whole Human Rights questions, I happened to be there at just the right time when the country was awakening -- this goes to the first question you asked -- the whole country was awakening to a hundred years of injustice that hadn't been resolved yet. I was on the Judiciary Committee and actively involved in the Civil Rights movement.
I had the good fortune to be able to right an injustice that I thought was being heaped on young people by lowering the voting age, where you had young people that were old enough to die in Vietnam but not old enough to vote for their members of Congress that sent them there. That's just one reason to lower the voting age, not the only one.
And Title IX coming along there. I don't think Evan would have done any different than I did. I was fortunate to be there at a time when that was right.
I notice he's interested in father's responsibility, which I think is a long overdue issue that ought to be addressed. Fathers that sire children then often don't take care of them I think ought to be subjected to some sort of penalty. People are concerned, here again, about life, and haven't given a whole lot of attention to how you make fathers responsible for the lives they bring into the world.
I don't want to interpret where he is or whether we're from different wings of the party. Obviously that might help him...
Bayh: I don't want to pooh-pooh that.
I don't think he would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade. As Governor, he did come out against late term abortion, but as strong of a supporter as I am of choice, I tell you I find that choice to be almost reprehensible unless the life of the mother is involved. If the life of the mother is involved, I vote for the mother. But I just don't know where he is on those issues.
Singer: Now you brought up a couple of things: The 26th Amendment, of course, which extended voting rights to 18 year olds, which you wrote. You also wrote, of course, the 25th Amendment on Presidential succession. You brought up Title IX, parts of which are being considered in a Supreme Court case now, and from what I understand you wrote an Amicus Brief in the case. Could you talk a little bit about that, and your feelings on the case.
Bayh: First of all, I think my involvement in Title IX is probably the most important contribution I made to the governmental process. I was intimately involved in all of those other issues at the time, but I guess I was sort of out front. And the reason I was out front, frankly, was because of spending a young lifetime with a wonderful woman, Evan's mother Marvella, who had sensitized me to what it was like to be discriminated against. She was denied access to the University of Virginia, and nobody thought about it at the time, but a lot of schools were doing that.
So I think the ability to get involved in that... I was blessed to have that opportunity. I don't know where this question is going. Want to repeat it again?
Singer: Just maybe about the Amicus Brief--
Bayh: Oh, the Amicus Brief. Sure.
I think the fact that the courts have consistently supported the original decisions on Title IX. Interestingly enough, I didn't realize until we got working on this Amicus Brief that the Justices had put such a... I think it was Justice Brennan wrote an Opinion that pointed out Title IX was not a normal law that was introduced and went through the Committee process and had hearings and you could look at the hearings, and had debate in the Committees and had a Committee Report, so you could see what the Committee meant the law to mean, intended the law to mean. But it was an amendment attached on to another bill, and the only record you had as to what Congress had intended was the comments and the intention expressed by Senator Bayh, as the principle author, which he made when the thing was being debated on the floor.
Bayh: So that's pretty heady stuff, but that's sort of the way the legislative process and intent have been construed on almost every issue.
It's unfortunate. Title IX is rather simple: don't discriminate on the basis of sex. Athletics have gotten most of the attention here, but at the time having just gone through the ordeal of getting the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress, I thought that discrimination against women was the most egregious of all discriminations, and that in working on Title IX, the real impact would be in academia. What they learned. What women were able to learn that they couldn't otherwise have learned.
I continue to believe that is the case. You just don't get the headlines when you see the number of CEOs in large companies that are women and other indices of success--
Singer: There are more members of Congress -- female members of Congress -- than any time. It's not enough, but--
Bayh: Absolutely. Absolutely. A Constitutional Amendment or a law is usually the bedrock, the framework, of what you want to have done, and particularly when you're passing legislation that has to be interpreted in every classroom in every state, you rely on the laws that follow and the regulations that the Department of Education set down to implement the legislation.
I should point out that I was intimately involved with a group of women here a year and a half ago when there was an effort made by a right wing element in the President's party to get him to turn back the clock. They convinced the Secretary of Education to appoint this panel, which was a rigged panel if you've ever saw one. We were able to organize enough heat at the White House to understand that this was not politically wise for them. So we were able to get involved with that.
The opposition at the time was lead by wrestlers, and my heart goes out to the wrestlers. As I pointed out to them, their problem is not women, it's that Athletic Directors on campuses will shut down a wrestling program, the gymnastics program, because they're not all that popular. At the same time, they'll put in a new soccer program or a new baseball program, so the Universities' unwillingness to provide additional slots for women without feeling that they have to... I don't need to go any further on that.
Anyhow, the wrestlers were told time and time again that the regulations are within the intent of Title IX and that they accurately reflect how the authors of Title IX intended for it to be interpreted.
And Jackson is just one step beyond, but I think it's a very basic step. As I point out in the Amicus Brief, to me, the best way to get Title IX enforced is not by going to going to the court, not by decisions of the Supreme Court, but by policing what's happening in the classrooms throughout the country by the teachers that are participating in it, or the administrators that are participating in it.
Here you have Coach Jackson, who is a male basketball coach who happens to be black -- to put the scenario in the full context. Color has nothing to do with the issue; the fact that he's a man probably does, because here a man is asking his school board to do something about discrimination against his women students, his girls, and that to me is the way it ought to be done in the schools, communities throughout the country. Teachers stand up and say, "Hey, we have injustice going on here."
They, the Coach Jacksons of this world, are the symbols to alert the community generally that there's discrimination going on. You shouldn't have to sue somebody to get justice. It ought to come through administrative process. With the help of people like Coach Jackson to bring it to their attention, the School Board says "OK, we'll put a stop to this." Shouldn't have to sue them to get it done.
And to actually retaliate against Jackson, which compounds the problem here, to actually shoot the whistleblower, so to speak, I think is a major injustice. So I was glad to get involved in that.
Singer: Everyone in the progressive community, and in fact in the nation, is grateful for everything you have done to further our Democracy. I just want to thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Bayh: I hope I've come close to what you intended, here. I sort of got off on, as we would say in the law. Maybe it's not relevant to what you want to hear, but I told you what I think.
Singer: Well I think it's always important for people to be able to have a voice in the progressive community whether they're 20 years old or a little older than that.
Bayh: Quite a bit older than that. One word that you may want to note to some of your peers who are contemplating what they're going to be doing with their lives. I've had a number of people come up to me where I give speeches or lectures and say, "How do I get involved? How do I get to be a Senator?" or "How do I get to be President?" I mean all sorts of things. And I say it's not easy to get to be a Senator, it's not easy to get to be a Congressman. It requires a tremendous burden financially, physically and family-wise.
But if you really want to get involved in making a difference, you can stay at home with your family and have a job and make a reasonable living without having to be on an airplane all of the time, then you ought to go back home and run for School Board. Young people are being elected for School Boards all over the country. You can put together the resources and you can see enough people -- if someone is bright and intelligent and impressive, you don't confine it to the School Board. That's one office that hasn't been commercialized to the extent of even State Legislatures now. There spending enough money in some legislative seats in some states that is as much as you needed to run for Congress when I was involved.
Singer: Or more. There was a State Senate race here in California that, I think, each person spend one to two million dollars.
Well, again thank you so much for your time. It's real honor to speak with you today.
Bayh: I think you guys and gals can make a difference, so don't let anybody tell you you can't. I enjoyed talking to you, Jonathan.
Singer: It was very nice talking to you as well.