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Evan Bayh '71: Changing the Tone of Washington

Former Senator Evan Bayh ’71 on America’s Imperfect Pursuit of the Highest Ideals

“Any improvement must begin by changing the personal chemistry among senators,” wrote former Senator Evan Bayh ‘71 in an Op-Ed for the New York Times days after announcing his retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2010. “More interaction in a non-adversarial atmosphere would help.”

Son of democratic Senator Birch Bayh, Evan was governor of Indiana from 1989 to 1996, leaving the largest budget surplus in the state’s history without raising taxes. In the Senate, beginning in 1999, he worked on foreign policy, education and affordable housing, among other issues, and was a member of six Senate committees. Despite good chances for reelection, in 2010 he declared he would not return for another term, citing a divided and ineffective Congress.

Today Evan is a partner at the law firm McGuire Woods, as well as a commentator for Fox News. He spoke with The Term about the Senate of his father’s day, Congressional dysfunction and his optimism about America’s future.

The following is a condensed interview transcript.

It wasn’t always preordained that I was going to run for public office. I didn’t really start thinking about that more seriously until I took a semester off from college to volunteer on my father’s campaign when he ran for President. I went to Iowa for a month and New Hampshire for a month. The campaign was unsuccessful, but when I was staying in people’s homes, meeting in living rooms with small groups of people, I just thought, “Boy, this is the way things ought to be.”

Having a loved one defeated can be a searing experience. It’s such a rejection when you lose. I came close to being disillusioned, but I thought, “No, giving up isn’t the right thing.” I decided that at that point if the public would have me, I’d give it a shot.

I’ve always found politics at its best to be a noble thing, even though it is not held in high regard by the public today. At heart, I’m an idealist. I think we can make the world a better place, and I’d like to play a role in that.

My father’s generation came through the Second World War, the Great Depression. These were searing national experiences, and incredibly unifying experiences. I think that generation could have political differences and philosophical differences, but at the end of the day they were all Americans first. We had a common identity that defined us. That generation is now passing from the scene, and we haven’t had the same kind of unifying crucible that has formed this generation’s character. We had that briefly following 9/11, but it dissipated pretty quickly.

The institution [of Congress] has changed tremendously. Probably the most prominent reason is money. There was a saying in my father’s day that you legislated for four years and you campaigned for two. Now you campaign for all six. Why? It takes six years to raise $20 million, which a competitive Senate race would cost. If you’re constantly trying to raise campaign contributions, all things political are more in the forefront of your mind. And with the rise of these new super groups, people know who makes $10 million contributions. You think [politicians] pay a little more attention to what those folks have to say? Probably. Finally, raising all that money takes too much time. It was not uncommon back in the day for my parents to have other Senators over to our home for dinner or around the holidays to socialize. They’d have Democrats or they’d have Republicans, it didn’t matter. That never takes place now. There’s no time.

The rise of the caucus has had a negative impact. Senators used to be a lot more independent. It’s one of the reasons I ended up [leaving the Senate]. I value my conscience. I value my independence. The last thing on Earth the leaders of your party want is for you to be independent or to break party ranks. They will punish you for that and ostracize you. It really is a team sport, us against them.
Wednesday Morning Prayer Breakfasts were one of the few times that the Democrat and Republican Senators would gather together and check their politics at the door. I also enjoyed my time in the Senate gym. When you work out with somebody, they’re not a politician.

I think I was known as someone who would work across the aisle. Even if I disagreed with 90 percent of what one of my colleagues stood for, I always thought, “Let’s see what we can do about that 10 percent where we agree.”

Part of it has to do with the fact that I’ve been governor. There’s a difference with people who have been in business, who’ve been mayors, who’ve been governors. Those people have experience being responsible for a bottom line. You don’t just vote for things in theory; you actually have to make them work.

As I’m fond of saying, “The meek may inherit the Earth, but they usually do not get elected to public office.” Particularly these days, it’s a full-contact sport. My advice to a young person considering running for office: Think about why you want to go into electoral politics. If you don’t have a really good answer in terms of the good you hope to accomplish, don’t do it. It’s a fool’s errand. After awhile the applause loses its allure. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is the good you can accomplish for the people who put their trust and confidence in you.

There should be a higher purpose that is highly motivating for you. If that’s the case, go into it with a full heart, and you will meet some of the most honorable, decent, wonderful people. If things work out, you’ll have an opportunity to serve your fellow citizens. I don’t think there is a greater honor than that.

Find someone at the local level or the state level that you admire and get involved. Help with that person’s campaign. I think you’ll find that campaigns are hungry for people that are smart, idealistic, hard-working. You’ll pretty quickly get some responsibility and you’ll learn what it’s like.

This dysfunction [of our system of government] did not arise overnight, and it’s not going to be corrected overnight. Eventually, the system will correct itself. Unfortunately, the problems that face our country fester in the meantime. The problem we have today is that fewer and fewer people participate, so it’s only the fanatics on either side that are involved and have a disproportionate role in the process.

I’m a long-term optimist on America because of the ability of our system to adapt and self-correct and because of the goodness of our people and mostly the ideals that we hold ourselves to as a country, even though we imperfectly pursue them from time to time. Foremost among them is freedom and all its manifestations, the ability to speak your mind and to associate with people of your choosing and the ability to choose to worship God as you see fit, to enjoy the fruits of your own labors, to elect your own representatives. Those are pretty powerful values to aspire to.

“I have very fond and idyllic memories of Potomac. I so much enjoyed the Book Fair. I got this book of poems. It was called Silver Pennies, and there was a beautiful poem in there called ‘America for Me.’ I read that to my children when they were young.”

Evan bayh, former U.S. Senator