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The Politics of Self-Absorption

Evan Bayh, the Hoosier Drama Queen

by STEVEN HIGGS

Democrat Evan Bayh is exiting the U.S. Senate in the same capacity he has served the past 12 years — an embarrassment to his constituents, his party and an affront to democracy.

The Indiana senator’s surrender will be remembered for two sound bites: He said he has loved serving Hoosier citizens, but he doesn’t like Congress anymore. Less noticed but far more newsworthy was the antidemocratic manner in which he announced his retirement.

Bayh’s claim that he loves serving the people of Indiana was a jaw-dropper for anyone remotely familiar with his political history. As a neophyte reporter at the Bloomington Herald-Telephone in 1986, when the son of former Sen. Birch Bayh was elected Secretary of State, I quickly learned what Evan Bayh was about — Evan Bayh, and Evan Bayh only.

Bloomington Democrats in 1986 railed at me over Bayh’s self-absorbed political style. The clear future of the Indiana Democratic Party, they said, offered no support for the party, no support for fellow candidates, nothing for anyone but himself. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that princely young Evan hadn’t ever really lived in the state. For his career, he owed only his pedigree and his looks.

Not coincidentally, while Bayh’s political (and personal) fortunes have soared these past 24 years, through his terms as Secretary of State, Governor and Senator, the quality of Hoosier lives from one corner to the next have declined precipitously. So, when the vapid pretty-boy professed his love of serving the citizens, disingenuous was the most charitable term that leapt to mind.

A clue to the truth lay in the visual image his announcement afforded — standing by her man, wife Susan, whom The Indianapolis Star says at times has earned more than a million dollars a year serving on the boards of outlaw corporations like WellPoint and other "health care companies." While we Hoosiers suffer and die due to the cost of health care, Susan Bayh earns $330,000 a year, twice Evan’s salary as a senator, just for sitting on WellPoint’s Board of Directors.

The Supreme Court, however, says Susan Bayh’s corporate benefactors are people. So, Indiana’s junior senator wasn’t really lying when he professed affection for his citizen service. He no doubt loved every minute he spent representing WellPoint, Eli Lilly, Amoco Oil, Duke Energy, A. K. Steel and all the rest of the corporations that have underwritten his political career.

His "service" will pay off for the rest of his life, maybe in two years when Gov. Mitch Daniels’s two-term limit expires.

***

Bayh’s explanation that he is quitting because he no longer likes Congress not only came off as whiny, it was indicative of his gutless style. No one would disagree that Congress is dysfunctional, though the problem isn’t partisanship, as Bayh suggests. It’s that Democrats, because of guys like Evan Bayh, can’t lead. Period.

Yes, Congress’s inability to represent the people is a crisis that threatens our society. But Bayh’s reaction to that challenge is not to stand up and fight, it’s to wrinkle his noise and quit. Since he leaves no legacy of any kind from his 12 years in the Senate, and since he has been and always would have been one of its most ineffectual members, it’s no surprise that when the going got tough, the senator chose to split.

Evan Bayh has no vision, he’s no fighter, and he’s no Democrat. He’s a child of destiny. He touts bipartisanship because he’s a Republican stuck with a Democratic family.

Democracy never has been a cherished institution in Indiana, which was openly controlled by the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century and spawned the John Birch Society in the 1950s. With one of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the nation, the state is one of only four in the nation where Ralph Nader was unable to get on the ballot for president. It is virtually impossible for anyone other than establishment Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians to provide electoral alternatives to Indiana voters at the state and national levels.

So, it again came as no surprise that Bayh waited to announce his retirement until it was too late for the electorate to determine his replacement. He announced his decision on the last day that candidates had to collect and submit signatures for ballot placement.

Only one candidate, Bloomington cafe owner Tamyra d’Ippolito, had initiated a petition drive to seek Bayh’s seat. On Feb. 19, she announced she did not obtain the 5,000 signatures necessary but will challenge Indiana election laws in court. If d’Ippolito’s legal challenge fails, the Indiana Democratic Party will select the candidate for Bayh’s seat.

One of two things happened here. Either Bayh did just reach a decision, in which case he’s an impulsive quitter. Or, he knew all along and deliberately chose to circumvent state Democratic Primary voters.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) believes it was the latter. "It raises serious questions whether he purposefully timed his announcement to deny Hoosiers a voice in the political process," NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said in a Feb. 17 news release.

Only Evan Bayh could make the National Republican Senatorial Committee seem noble. What an embarrassment.

STEVEN HIGGS is editor of The Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com