Evan Bayh says he feels “melancholy.”
We’re 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, makes clear he will miss his sons. He says 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 says, 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 says.
He explains 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 says 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 talks about the prospect makes evident how deep his reservations run.
He cites 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 jokes that he takes good care of himself, Bayh says he would be 61 when it was time to raise his right hand if he ran again and won in 2016.
But the larger reservation comes from the political environment. He cites rampant and unrelenting partisanship at both the national and state levels and wonders 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 says the political environment now tends to produce highly ideological and partisan officials who see compromise as weakness rather than “as statesmanship.”
Bayh says it wasn’t always that way. He points 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 tells 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 talks, it becomes 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 Evan Bayh is done with politics. When I mention his long friendship with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ask if he hopes Mrs. Clinton will run for president, his answer comes fast.
“Yes,” he says.
When I ask if he’s endorsing her, his answer is just as quick.
He also says he hopes that his friend and the former U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett will run for mayor of Indianapolis and that he will do everything he can to help Hogsett.
Veteran politician that he is, Bayh pays tribute to Hogsett’s fiscal discipline – and points out that his friend reduced the expenditures of the U.S. attorney’s office while Hogsett served there.
I ask Bayh what his advice to his sons would be if they wanted to run for office.
His counsel, he says, would be to know why they’re running.
Bayh says 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 asks, what is all the effort and the sacrifice for?
I ask Bayh what he hopes his boys will think his legacy as a leader was.
He pauses, and then says he hopes they will think of him as a “pragmatic idealist.”
He says he hopes they will see him as principled, but as someone who could work with others.
Because, Evan Bayh says 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 service powered by Franklin College journalism students.