On Thursday, March 14, we lost Senator Birch Bayh. We knew for several months that this day wasn’t far off, as his health rapidly declined. I wanted to let him know one more time how grateful I am for having had the privilege of working for him, and did so when writing in January celebrating his 91st birthday. The column began:
Hopefully, you’ve been fortunate enough—at least once in your life—to work for someone you really admired. That happened to me as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer for Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), who gave me the opportunity that changed my life.
Yesterday, I spoke with a reporter from the Indianapolis Star who wanted to know what it was like working for Sen. Bayh. I said that he was the same person in private that you saw in public. He came to Congress to get things done and had no problem working across party lines. It was a rare Senator who didn’t like Birch Bayh.
For those of us on his staff, if you had a good idea and had done your homework, he’d listen to you. He was also willing to give you a chance to show what you could do. Senator Bayh (and the Chief Counsels who he appointed to run our Judiciary Subcommittee) gave me my shot and showed me the ropes.
I learned a lot watching how he responded in different situations. Admiral Hyman Rickover was the fabled “Father of the nuclear navy” but a fierce foe of the patent system. He was an outspoken critic of Bayh-Dole and asked to testify. He made it clear that he would do whatever he could to kill our bill. Yet when he appeared, Sen. Bayh treated him respectfully, using humor in their exchanges rather than going after an old man at the end of his career.
Years after he’d left the Senate, at my request, Sen. Bayh appeared at a public meeting at the National Institutes of Health when they were considering a request to “march in”” under Bayh-Dole because of a steep price increase in an AIDS drug based on a federally supported invention.
Senator Bayh argued against the petition because allowing the government to regulate prices was not part of the Bayh-Dole Act. The room was packed with mothers, fathers, patients and friends of those suffering from AIDS. Tensions ran high. Sen. Bayh spoke first and could have left immediately. Yet he sat through the entire meeting and spoke with those suffering heartbreaking stories to let them know he understood and sympathized with their tragic situation. When we walked out together, he’d left behind a room full of friends.
We rode the subway back to his office and he said: “Did I ever tell you how we built the Metro?” When I said no, he told me the story. His wife returned from a trip to the Soviet Union and told him how striking it was that Moscow had a state of the art subway but Washington didn’t. That struck him as wrong, so as a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee he got funding approved and before too long dirt was moving. He wasn’t interested in naming the subway after himself—he just wanted to get the job done.
I wrote many speeches for Sen. Bayh and don’t think he ever gave one the way it appeared on paper. He’d start out with the text and soon wander off with a story that occurred to him. I’d be sitting to the side wondering where this was going, but he always tied it neatly back to the theme of the talk. I had to admit that what he said was much more effective than what I’d written.
I’m going to miss those days when my phone rang and a friendly voice said: “Joe, this is Birch, do you have a minute to talk?” Before he got to the matter at hand, he’d ask how my family was doing. To him, that wasn’t a formality; he really wanted to know.
I never called him Birch, although that’s what he’d ask anyone he met to call him. To me, he was always Senator Bayh. He left the world a better place than he found it. I’m blessed to have been able to work for him.
God bless you, sir.