On his last day as a senator, in the early 1980s, Sen. Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, took his 25-year-old son Evan on a private tour inside the dome of the Capitol and up to the lookout atop it. There, father and son gazed down on a spectacular, rarely seen, view of the Mall and the city of ambition.
The perspective is both inspiring and sobering. It is monumental, literally: Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, the giants of our country. But the view also makes the living people in the distance seem insignificant, and the idea of their individual striving at best comical, at worst pathetic.
Now, almost 30 years later, Sen. Evan Bayh, also a Democrat from Indiana, is preparing to leave the Senate, and he is thinking of doing that same tour. Now he is the fatherly guide and amateur historian—for his twin 14-year-old sons.
Bayh is aware of the symmetry, but also of what he regards as the differences. His own father was leaving after losing a race in Indiana; his own father had not always been a vigilant parent. Evan wants to go out on his own political terms, and also as a more attentive father and family man.
Before I go on, I should say that Bayh and I, and our families, have been friends for nearly two decades. Reporters aren't supposed to befriend politicians. But I've been around so long that even I (loner-loser that I am) have acquired a few politician friends, on both sides of the aisle.
I am not naive, but I find Bayh to be a decent, generally well-meaning, family-oriented guy of sober mien and moderate views—not to mention an affable sports nut and a good basketball player. Behind his famously "bland" exterior is a sharp wit, biting sense of humor, and a detailed appreciation of politics and language. He knows the heartland of the country, even though, paradoxically, he grew in Washington, D.C. Above all, he is as close to a normal guy as I have ever met in politics.
Only in Washington would being normal make you weird. And naturally, when he announced that he was leaving, everyone assumed that there had to be something "more"—something somehow darkly personal—to the story. But that's just an example of why he is getting the hell out.
As I look back, I realize that I should have expected his decision to quit the Senate. Last Christmas, he and his family came to dinner at our home. His table talk about politics had a bitter, impatient edge I had not heard before.
Across from him and his wife, Susan, sat their talented teenage sons. Bayh talked proudly of their accomplishments, and with mock concern about the challenges of being the father of teenage boys. In reality, he relishes the role.
Just wanting to spend more time with his family is only one reason Bayh quit. I think his complaints about Washington were quite sincere. Here's my sense of the six main considerations that went into Bayh's calculation last weekend:
1. The nastiness of the Indiana race. I don't doubt that Bayh could have won reelection this year. But he would have had to play the game savagely, which would have forever sullied his good-guy image and his own sense of himself. Susan's substantial income from the boards of medical companies, though legal and defensible, would have been an issue.
2. Strains with Obama. Bayh and the president are not close; in fact, that's probably an understatement. It's both a matter of policy and personality. Bayh is a genuine deficit hawk, and has a record as a red-state governor to prove it. He regards the president as, at best, a well-meaning liberal with precious little understanding of how most of America (outside of Cambridge and the South Side of Chicago) really operates or thinks. Personally…well, Obama passed him over at the last minute in favor of Joe Biden for the vice presidential spot on his ticket.
3. Disgust with the family line of work. Politics these days oscillates between bouts of feverish inspiration (Obama and Palin) and battery-acid viciousness. Bayh just isn't gaited for it. All the cynics always assumed that he was consumed with ambition to be president. I was never convinced. Or, to put it another way, I was never sure that he wanted to work as hard—and sacrifice as much—as seeking the job would really require. He liked the idea of being picked for veep; that he would have done. But it just simply wasn't to be; what was worse, he got agonizingly close not once but twice. The fact that he lost out in 2004 to a forgettable scumbag named John Edwards makes it more galling. At the same time it confirmed Bayh's view of the corrupting nature of flat-out presidential ambition.
4. Ideology. It's not that Bayh doesn't have an ideology. He does: centrism is a creed, as Paul Krugman will tell you. Well, his creed is to moderate social spending, balance budgets, cut taxes where possible, project a strong national defense, and protect constitutional rights. But this is a not an era of centrism; it is an era of philosophical extremes.
5. Timing. No one is "boyish" forever, even the perpetually trim and athletic Bayh. At 54, he still has time to start another career, or take this one in a different direction.
6. The boys. Bayh didn't become a father until his 40s. His family does not come from wealth, and Susan has been the major breadwinner for most of their marriage and his career. He would like to change that mix and spend more time with his sons. One of them is a promising tennis prodigy; the other is a popular, winsome jack-of-all-trades in school. I am lucky enough to have known what a loving father looks like, and I can see that the soon-to-be-former senator from Indiana is one of them.