INDIANAPOLIS — History is fascinating because of the ironies produced. Man declares the first unsinkable ship will be built, and it plunges to the Atlantic floor on its maiden crossing. Or on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the document, and John Adams, who argued for it in Congress, both pass away.
We had a similar scenario unfold in Indiana this week. As we prepared to memorialize the late Sen. Birch Bayh who died in March at age 91, we were thunderstruck with the news that Sen. Richard Lugar had died on Sunday at 87. These two men, one Democrat, the other Republican, both farmers, spent a combined 54 years in the U.S. Senate. Add Evan Bayh into the equation, and we had either a Lugar or Bayh serving in the Senate for a half century.
Beyond the timeline, Birch Bayh and Richard Lugar reshaped not only the state, but our nation and world. Combined, Richard Lugar and Birch Bayh compiled legacies on a scale befitting a Founding Father, whether it was Bayh’s two amendments to the U.S. Constitution (the most since James Madison), his ability to establish Title IX that opened up collegiate sports for women, or Lugar’s work to render harmless the most potentially devastating weapons stockpiles known to mankind.
The pair would determine the fate of Supreme Court nominees, save auto companies, open up new energy strategies and address a growing thirst and hunger spreading across a rapidly growing populace on a planet under duress. They would work to protect intellectual property and combat juvenile delinquency.
There would be two ill-fated presidential campaigns. Both men would lose their final campaigns. But it was clear during the Bayh memorial service on Wednesday that these two opponents who ran against each other in 1974, with Bayh winning, had forged the kind of steadfast friendship that we’ve seen in other rivals, perhaps most notably from Bill Hudnut and Andy Jacobs.
“He was a remarkable man,” Jim Morris said at the Richard G. Lugar Plaza Monday as Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Gov. Eric Holcomb laid a wreath in the Republican senator’s honor. “He saw his opportunities in the largest context. He had high aspirations for this community, with genuine affection for young people who were sad, lonely, at risk. He treated everyone the same.”
Birch Bayh loved young people, too. Former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill tells of Bayh showing up in his office, where he spent a half hour helping an intern stuff envelopes. His 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave 18-year-olds the right to vote as some were dying on Vietnamese battlefields.
Tens of thousands of Hoosiers, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, connected with one another through the nexus of Bayh and Lugar’s public service. These came through programs like the Lugar Series for Public Excellence that prepared women for office, his civic leadership program at the University of Indianapolis, or Bayh’s pinpoint knowledge of where every Dairy Queen in the state was located, giving him access to soft ice cream and scores of voters. Their political organizations spawned waves of talent, from Mitch Daniels and Larry Conrad to Todd Young and Joe Hogsett, that pervades the state’s power structure to this very day.
Bayh ran four Senate races, never winning by more than 4 percent, but he consistently took courageous stands of civil rights and came to oppose the Vietnam War. Lugar had 227,442 votes in his two Indianapolis mayoral races and established an arc where the five successor mayors continued the predecessor's projects. He collected 7,135,898 votes in U.S. Senate races, a record that may never be broken. He cast more than 13,000 Senate roll call votes. He mentored more than 1,000 interns.
His greatest legacy is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that passed in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed. The communist implosion left unpaid nuclear scientists, huge stockpiles of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons with no inventory controls, some even “protected” by nothing more than chain-link fencing and padlocks. It was a potential terrorist’s treasure trove.
It deactivated more than 7,000 Soviet strategic nuclear warheads and destroyed 662 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 485 ICBM silos, 110 ICBM mobile launchers, 615 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 30 nuclear submarines, 155 bombers, and 906 air-to-surface missiles.
Never had an arch rival in the history of mankind so peaceably destroyed a foe's arsenal to this magnitude.
Birch Bayh and Richard Lugar had a humility we rarely see in today's politics. When Dan Quayle upset Bayh in the 1980 election, Evan Bayh recalled his father's "last political speech" to supporters at his campaign headquarters: "I’d like to thank more than a million of my fellow citizens for encouraging me to take up the practice of law.”
The next morning, the vanquished senator showed up at a Ford plant to thank supporters. “The election was over, he lost, there was nothing to be gained," Evan Bayh said. "He was there to say thank you. Elections come and go, but friendships and loyalty never die.”
These Hoosier Senate lions rest in peace now. We can only hope their historic and sprawling legacies inspire future Hoosiers to take up the practice of wise, bipartisan leadership.