INDIANAPOLIS — Evan Bayh says he feels “melancholy.”
We were talking with each other through microphones and headsets — he from National Public Radio’s studios in Washington, D.C., and I from WFYI’s in downtown Indianapolis.
The former U.S. senator and Indiana governor says he’s sending his twin sons, Nick and Beau, off to college. Both boys are going to Harvard.
Bayh, who never has been a man to show vulnerability with ease, made clear he will miss his sons. He said he is proud of them, but he’ll be sorry not to be a daily presence in their lives.
“I just like being with my boys,” he said, sounding more wistful and unguarded than I’ve ever heard him in more than 25 years of interviewing him.
A desire to keep his family’s focus on getting his sons off to college has kept him from answering the question most Hoosiers — in particular, most Indiana Democrats — have about his plans for the future: Will he run for governor again?
“It’s unlikely,” Bayh said.
He explained he promised to give the possibility consideration because people he respects asked him to and because serving as Indiana’s chief executive was “the greatest honor” of his public life.
Bayh said he plans to make a final decision about making another run shortly after Labor Day because he doesn’t want to keep people hanging, but the way he talked about the prospect made it evident how deep his reservations run.
He cited his age, noting he was only 32 when he ran for governor the first time in 1988 and 33 when he took the oath of office. While he joked that he takes good care of himself, Bayh said he would be 61 when it was time to raise his right hand if he were to again and win in 2016.
But the larger reservation comes from the political environment. He cited rampant and unrelenting partisanship at both the national and state levels and wondered whether the public wants or would accept “my style of leadership” — a centrist-based approach that seeks to build on areas of agreement rather than emphasizing or exacerbating differences for political gain.
He said the political environment now tends to produce highly ideological and partisan officials who see compromise as weakness rather than “as statesmanship.”
Bayh said it wasn’t always that way. He pointed to the examples of Ronald Reagan, who accepted 75 to 80 percent of what he wanted and then vowed to work on the other
20 percent another time.
And he told a story about Lyndon Johnson, who once said anyone who said he wouldn’t accept half a loaf must never have gone to bed hungry.
As Bayh talked, it became clear: Hoosier Democrats who hope he will come back to lead their party out of the wilderness again are going to find themselves disappointed.
Probably right after Labor Day.
That doesn’t mean that Bayh is done with politics. When I mentioned his long friendship with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and asked if he hopes Mrs. Clinton will run for president, his answer came fast.
“Yes,” he said.
When I asked if he’s endorsing her, his answer was just as quick.
He also said he hoped that his friend and the former U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett will run for mayor of Indianapolis and that he would do everything he can to help Hogsett.
Veteran politician that he is, Bayh paid tribute to Hogsett’s fiscal discipline and pointed out that his friend reduced the expenditures of the U.S. attorney’s office while serving there.
I asked Bayh what his advice to his sons would be if they wanted to run for office.
His counsel, he said, would be to know why they’re running.
Bayh said there can be only one winner in any election, so there’s always a chance a candidate will lose. If the goal isn’t about something other than applause or glory, he asked, what is all the effort and the sacrifice for?
I asked Bayh what he hoped his boys would think his legacy as a leader was.
He paused and then said he hoped they would think of him as a “pragmatic idealist.”
He said he hoped they will see him as principled but as someone who could work with others.
Because, Evan Bayh said he would tell his sons, “you have to get things done.”
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.