Birch Bayh as a 1976 presidential candidate.
Photo: Vernon Shibla/New York Post Archives via Getty Images

Former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh has been lost in the mists of time. Indeed, even his son, former Indiana governor and senator Evan Bayh, is largely a forgotten figure after the failure of his 2014 comeback bid.

But if you voted between the ages of 18 and 21 or benefited in any way from the Title IX program banning gender discrimination in higher education, the elder Bayh had an impact on your life. And he played an indirect role in the breakthrough in reproductive rights represented by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Bayh was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 34, after serving as the youngest-ever Speaker of the Indiana House. His first high-profile national moment came in 1964, when he pulled his colleague Ted Kennedy to safety from a plane crash that killed the pilot and a Kennedy staffer.

He soon became a power on the Judiciary Committee and chairman of its Constitution Subcommittee. In that role he became one of the last great advocates for constitutional amendments, co-authoring the 25th amendment providing for appointment of a vice president upon a vacancy in that position, and the 26th amendment lowering the voting age to 18 in federal and state elections. Bayh was also the chief Senate sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, which cleared Congress in 1972 only to succumb to a powerful backlash closely associated with the rising conservative movement when the drive to ratify it stalled (there’s still an effort underway to complete ratification of the ERA, though some argue the deadline for state approval is long past).

But Bayh considered Title IX, best known for its impact on opportunities for women in college athletics, his most important legacy, as NBC News observed:

The law’s passage came at a time when women earned fewer than 10 percent of all medical and law degrees and fewer than 300,000 high school girls — one in 27 — played sports….

Now, women make up more than half of those receiving bachelor’s and graduate degrees, and more than 3 million high school girls — one in two — play sports….

Bayh said the law was aimed at giving women a better shot at higher-paying jobs. He continued speaking in support of Title IX’s enforcement for years after leaving Congress.

From his position on the Judiciary Committee, Bayh had a definite if more subtle affect on the shape of constitutional law via the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. He led the successful opposition to two Nixon SCOTUS nominees, Clement Haynesworth and Harrold Carswell, who were widely perceived as payoffs to southern reactionaries who had stood by Nixon in 1968. Nixon ultimately substituted Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun for the rejected pair; Blackman soon authored Roe v. Wade, with Burger concurring.

Bayh’s final years in national politics were deeply disappointing given the high esteem he had gained from liberals in particular and from political observers generally. After a flirtation with a 1972 presidential run cut short by his wife’s cancer diagnosis, Bayh ran for real in 1976, but was soon eclipsed as the liberal champion in the field by Mo Udall. It’s also clear his Hoosier-style persona and campaign methods didn’t travel well, as Adam Clymer notes:

The Bayh campaign never caught on. It was troubled by poor fund-raising and a style described by Charles Mohr of The New York Times as “juvenile, corny.” His campaign theme song, to the tune of “Hey, Look Me Over,” began: “Hey, look him over, he’s your kind of guy./His first name is Birch and his last name is Bayh.” He dropped out of the race in March.

No wonder.

Bayh lost his Senate seat in 1980, suffering the ignominy of a defeat at the hands of a then-obscure young conservative named Dan Quayle. It was a bad year for Democrats generally: late in the campaign year Bayh had to take time to head up an inquiry into the so-called “Billygate” scandal, involving President Carter’s brother Billy, who had acted as an unregistered lobbyist for Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi.

After leaving Congress, Bayh stayed out of electoral politics (other than supporting his son’s career), but was still visible in defending Title IX and advocating the abolition of the Electoral College. The one public shadow on his long and dignified retirement came in 2016, when the champion of equal rights for women was accused of sexual assault (as Clymer notes):

He…become the subject of a sexual-assault accusation in 2016 by a technology journalist, Xeni Jardin, who said in a series of tweets that he had groped her in the 1990s in the back seat of a car in the presence of unidentified male colleagues of hers. News websites, including Vox, reported the allegation at the time, but Mr. Bayh did not respond publicly.

That Bayh did not reply is not surprising, given his advanced age at the time. 88-year-olds rarely do. Here is tennis legend Billie Jean King’s statement upon hearing of Bayh’s death:

Sen. Birch Bayh was one of the most important Americans of the 20th century and you simply cannot look at the evolution of equality in our nation without acknowledging the contributions and the commitment Sen. Bayh made to securing equal rights and opportunities for every American….

Birch Bayh was a man of integrity, a leader with unquestionable character and an American treasure.

God only knows how ultimately to judge Birch Bayh, but for all the nostalgia about the passing of deal-cutting back-slapping senators, he was a lawmaker of principle who got things done.

Birch Bayh, Liberal Lion of the Senate, Dies at 91