How Birch Bayh saved the progressive wing of the Democratic Party

How Birch Bayh saved the progressive wing of the Democratic Party
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Sens. Edward (Ted) Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) had just cast their votes for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they boarded a private plane bound for the Massachusetts Democratic Convention in Springfield. A mist had settled over the Barnes Airport, causing the pilot to misjudge the runway. Crashing into an apple orchard, the aircraft’s cockpit tore open. The pilot died on impact, and Kennedy’s aide had fatal injuries. Sustaining a blow to his head, fracturing several vertebrae and puncturing a lung, Kennedy could barely move. The life of President Kennedy’s youngest brother, who was still recovering from the shock of JFK’s assassination eight months earlier, now hung in the balance.

“The plane’s going to catch on fire,” Kennedy heard the uninjured Bayh exclaim. “I’m still alive!” Kennedy called out to his friend. Risking the possibility of an explosion, the Indiana senator turned back to save his colleague, dragging him through a window and pulling him to safety. Then Bayh scrambled down a hill to a nearby road and flagged a passing motorist. His heroics ensured that Kennedy would serve another 45 years in the Senate, leading the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and establishing progressive policies that remain ensconced in American political culture.

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Bayh, elected to his first term from the Hoosier State in 1962 — the same year Massachusetts voters chose Ted Kennedy to fill his brother Jack’s Senate seat — immediately bonded with the scion of America’s most powerful political dynasty. They were ideological soulmates and, after 1964, were bound by both their shared progressive policies and a life-changing accident. Kennedy spent six months recovering from his injuries, relearning to walk, and would never be free from pain. He carried the scars of the plane crash until his death from brain cancer in 2009.

The announcement of Bayh’s death this week at the age of 91 recalls his role in the mid-20th century’s version of progressive Democratic politics and how it might enlighten today’s struggle for the party’s soul.

In his 2009 interview for the Edward Kennedy Oral History Project at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Bayh cited the egalitarian component of his progressivism:

“I like to feel that the ’64 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ’65 were probably one of the final chapters of the Emancipation Proclamation, because there we had 100 years of unfinished business, lip service. It wasn’t being followed in many areas of the country, and not all of those were in the South. Some of us up North liked to look down our nose and think that all this discrimination was going on in the South. I wasn’t aware of it going on in my home state, but once I got elected and began to know my state better, I found out that there was a lot of second-class citizenship observed in my state and in other states in the North, that we could hardly look down our nose at anybody else. We needed to clean up our own dirty laundry.”

Washing away the stain of racism in American elections also included Bayh’s and Kennedy’s leadership in abolishing the poll tax via the 24th Amendment. Attacking inequality in education, the two senators pushed through Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act to ban gender discrimination in universities.

Universal health care would become the cause of Kennedy’s legislative life, in part because of his 1964 brush with death. As Bayh explained his and Kennedy’s crucial support of a key component of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society progressive agenda: “I think our votes made it possible to pass the Medicare legislation. It had been impossible; they tried once before and didn’t get it done. We brought enough extra votes, and Ted’s, mine, [Sen. Daniel] Inouye’s (D-Hawaii) and others, made it possible now to have something that’s lasted a long, long time.”

Equality in American democracy, education and health care comprised the hallmarks of Bayh’s and Kennedy’s Senate careers and should continue to inform contemporary progressivism in their party. Bayh lost re-election in 1980 to Dan Quayle, signaling the start of the Reagan Revolution. Its leader would famously announce in his 1981 inaugural address that “government isn’t the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  

What a contrast to Bayh’s description of arriving at the Senate with Kennedy in 1962: “I think all of us Democrats were reading from the same page, from the same bible, so to speak, as far as feeling that we had a responsibility to make government respond to the needs of the people and to deal with some of the unfinished business that kept it possible for all of our citizens to share equal values in our democratic system. I like to think that because we were all committed to that, we made a difference in that body.”

They did indeed; can their successors?

Professor Barbara A. Perry is director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and author of “Edward M. Kennedy: An Oral History.” Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.