I happened to be at home in Indiana one February day in 1968 when the phone rang: “Kirby, this is Birch Bayh.”
Not a robocall, but the real thing. The Democratic senator called to thank me for, of all things, a letter to the editor I had written to defend his fundraising event, which had raised some GOP ire.
Republicans were beside themselves over Bayh’s $100 birthday fundraiser, including celebrities Jimmy Durante and Bobby Darin, among others, while local Republicans were holding low-cost Lincoln Day dinners for a lot less.
As a smarty college guy, I had pointed out that the after-effects of Sen. Bayh’s gala were likely to be more generally appealing than those of the many Republican bean soup dinners held around the state. The senator agreed.
Birch Bayh was a farm kid from southwestern Indiana who became the youngest-ever speaker of the Indiana House and a three-term U.S. senator from 1963 to 1981. He died March 14 in Easton as a resident of Maryland.
Former Congressman Lee Hamilton said a few years ago that Birch Bayh “has written more of the U.S. Constitution than anyone else since James Madison.” Indeed, he had.
Birch Bayh wrote the 25th Amendment to fill vice presidential vacancies and to deal with disabled presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson. He also wrote and achieved passage of the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18.
He wrote, but fought unsuccessfully for, both the Equal Rights Amendment and an amendment to eliminate the electoral college in favor of a direct popular vote.
Birch Bayh also legislated the Title IX provisions requiring schools to ensure equal opportunity for girls to play sports and participate in school activities. Now, every girl and woman who participates in public school sports in St. Mary’s County, whether in K-12 or the College of Southern Maryland or St. Mary’s College of Maryland, should take a moment to note the passing of a man they have never heard of who, 50 years ago, believed girls deserved the same opportunities as boys.
What seems so basic now wasn’t easy then. Notre Dame Athletic Director Moose Krause, for instance, said this would “ruin college football.” (I don’t think it has.)
For me personally, however, it was Birch Bayh’s visits following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to hundreds of Indiana high schools, including my own, to embrace students with a message of concern, condolence and confidence. None of us knew what trials we would face in the next five or six years, but Birch Bayh lent his voice of encouragement, equality and opportunity — and made his legislative record reflect his words.
He was a great man. I am proud to have worked for his elections and for what he accomplished, and, yes, for that phone call. He was absolutely a promising young man who kept his promise.