The news Sunday came as a shock.
Former Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican icon in Indiana, had died at age 87. Only a couple of weeks earlier, former Sen. Birch Bayh, a Democratic legend here, had died at age 91.
In some ways, it had a poetic symmetry. Their lives, after all, had mirrored each other in many ways. They rose from a state not known for political trailblazing to become two of the most accomplished men in the U.S. Senate. Lugar was a leader in both foreign policy and farm policy. Bayh authored two constitutional amendments—one on presidential succession and one lowering the voting age to 18—as well as Title IX, the legislation that made sports something women did, instead of merely watched.
Both had short-lived plans to run for president. And neither got the chance to choose their own political curtain calls, instead losing their final elections as some of the qualities that made them great became handicaps in a changing political stage.
Wednesday, in a memorial service at the Statehouse for Bayh, his son Evan—a former governor and senator himself—said: “It is not very often you can see a page of history turning and you can see the end of an era. But in the passing of my father and in the passing of Richard Lugar, that is what you see.”
Yes, the chapter these two political giants wrote is over. But I doubt they’d agree with those who say the standards they represented—civility, bipartisan cooperation, thoughtful problem-solving—are now history, replaced by tribalism and name-calling.
There’s no question we are in a political black hole. But if every politician praising Lugar and Bayh this week would pay more than lip service to their example, there would be light at the end of our tunnel.
After his father’s service, I asked Evan Bayh whether the type of statesman his father and Lugar represented is an anachronism.
“Think about my father’s times,” Bayh said. “There were political assassinations. There were riots in all of our major cities. There was the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Those were difficult times … . The country [was] coming apart at the seams. But we persevered and made it through with the right kind of leadership.”
Those last five words, though, are what so many people fear is lacking: the right kind of leadership.
Where is the Birch Bayh or Richard Lugar of 2019? Would any of Indiana’s current members of Congress be eulogized with the same awe that has been bestowed on those two? Not today.
But I want to be an optimist. Bayh and Lugar certainly were. Bayh believed young people should have a voice and participate in their government; that’s why he made it possible for those being drafted into war to have the right to vote for the leaders who sent them.
Lugar also believed in our future. It’s why he founded the Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series to launch more Republican women into politics. And it’s why after losing his Senate seat in the 2012 primary election, he founded The Lugar Center, seeking thoughtful bipartisan solutions to global problems.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who worked with Lugar to dismantle nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, wrote in a Washington Post column that Lugar’s success was his “rare ability to combine strong conviction with a practical eye toward achieving results.”
It was an ability Birch Bayh shared. Evan Bayh noted his father believed the adage that a man who refuses to take half a loaf goes to bed hungry.
“The message is: We need to look within ourselves and realize that we’re all Americans first and stop obsessing over our superficial differences,” Evan Bayh said. “They really are meaningless compared to the things that we have in common. I think that’s how my father always looked at things and that’s how Dick Lugar looked at things.”
Still, Evan Bayh said his father noted that the Senate he served in was different from the one his son experienced.
“But I think that will pass,” Bayh said. “And it will pass when the American people insist that it does. And let’s hope that that’s sooner rather than later.”
Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.