The sad, hypocritical retirement of Evan Bayh

at 04:53 PM ET, 03/15/2011


After two terms in the Senate, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) announced that he was done with Congress. "There are better ways to serve my fellow citizens," Bayh said. "I love working for the people of Indiana. I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress." (Spencer Platt - Getty Images)
Evan Bayh wasn’t a particularly distinguished senator. You’ll not find much major legislation with his name on it, or a particularly coherent philosophy laced through his votes. He was a popular Democrat in a red state, and most of his efforts seemed to be devoted to keeping it that way. In practice, that meant talking a lot about the deficit, taking occasional potshots as liberals and avoiding any overly courageous legislative stands. “An ordinary politician,” I wrote when he retired.

But he was a very interesting near-retiree. When he decided not to seek reelection in 2010, he published a precise and devastating broadside against the institution in which he and his father had served. Instead of merely condemning the bitter partisanship of the place, he proposed to close the loopholes that had enabled polarization to metastasize in paralysis. “Filibusters should require 35 senators to ... make a commitment to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory,” he wrote. And “the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster should be reduced to 55 from 60.” Strong stuff. He then went after money in politics, calling for “legislation to enhance disclosure requirements, require corporate donors to appear in the political ads they finance and prohibit government contractors or bailout beneficiaries from spending money on political campaigns,” not to mention “public matching funds for smaller contributions. Bayh had no record of leadership on any of these topics. But, in part for that reason, it was particularly potent to hear him speaking out on them.

An acknowledged moderate who’d taken on these crusades wouldn’t have just been a good senator. He’d have been a great one. This new incarnation of Evan Bayh, I wrote, should stay in the Senate, where he could do some good. But he didn’t want to stay in the Senate, he told me in subsequent interviews. He waxed rhapsodic over his time teaching at Indiana University’s Graduate School of Business. “It was real, it was tangible, and it was making a difference every day,” he said. He wanted that feeling again. He wanted to come home at night, he told me, and say, “Dear, do you know what we got done today? I’ve got this really bright kid in my class, and do you know what he asked me, and here’s what I told him, and I think I saw a little epiphany moment go off in his mind.” For a United States senator to explain his retirement by saying, “I want to be engaged in an honorable line of work,” was the single most persuasive and devastating critique I’d ever seen of the Senate as an institution.

But Bayh did not return to Indiana to teach. He did not, as he said he was thinking of doing, join a foundation. Rather, he went to the massive law firm McGuire Woods. And who does McGuire Woods work for? “Principal clients served from our Washington office include national energy companies, foreign countries, international manufacturing companies, trade associations and local and national businesses,” reads the company’s Web site. He followed that up by signing on as a senior adviser to Apollo Management Group, a giant public-equity firm. And, finally, this week, he joined Fox News as a contributor. It’s as if he’s systematically ticking off every poison he identified in the body politic and rushing to dump more of it into the water supply.

The “corrosive system of campaign financing” that Bayh considered such a threat? He’s being paid by both McGuire Woods and Apollo Global Management to act as a corroding agent on their behalf. The “strident partisanship” and “unyielding ideology” he complained was ruining the Senate? At Fox News, he’ll be right there on set while it gets cooked up. His warning that “what is required from members of Congress and the public alike is a new spirit of devotion to the national welfare beyond party or self-interest” sounds, in retrospect, like a joke. Evan Bayh doing performance art as Evan Bayh. Exactly which of these new positions would Bayh say is against his self-interest, or in promotion of the general welfare?

I should say, for the record, that I got in touch with McGuire Woods to give Bayh an opportunity to comment, or offer an alternative interpretation of his career decisions. I didn’t hear from them, but I got a call back from a PR person at Fox News. “I’m going to decline the interview for Mr. Bayh,” the flack said. And I guess I’m not surprised: It’s one thing to take the positions Bayh took without much of a record on them. It’s a whole other to try to sustain them when his paychecks are being signed by people who profit from the very forces he lamented.

In our last interview, Bayh complained of the poor opinion the public had of him and his colleagues. “They look at us like we’re worse than used-car salesmen.” Yes. They do. And this is why.

 
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