September 30, 1974 12:00 PM

In the year of the final bust-up of the John Mitchells and the Marvin Mandels (and of the much publicized nervous problems of Joan Kennedy and Betty Ford), it is assumed that politics makes strained bedfellows. But in the heartening case of Indiana Democratic Senator Birch Bayh, 46, and his wife Marvella, 41, politics can make intermittent strangers of a couple, but doesn’t necessarily create other complications. Scrambling for reelection to his third term, the Bayhs figure (says an aide) “that it’s a waste for both of them to be somewhere at the same time. Two different Bayh bodies in two different places means twice as many votes.” The Bayhs have extended that concept of public service to Capitol Hill, and as a result, Birch’s constituents have very nearly gotten two senators for the salary of one.

Though not on his payroll, and while also involved in running the American Cancer Society Crusade (she had breast cancer herself), Marvella sits in on all of Bayh’s staff meetings, edits his speeches and campaign broadsides, and is a key policy adviser. “I respect her judgment more than anyone else’s,” says Bayh. She even fills major speaking engagements. “I’ve seen her bring down the house with applause,” says a hardened Indiana reporter, “when the audience expected the senator, not the pinch hitter.”

It was that talent that brought the Bayhs together in the first place at the 1951 finals of the National Farm Bureau extemporaneous speaking contest—which she won. She was Marvella Hern, daughter of a Democratic county chairman from Oklahoma, president herself of Girls’ Nation and a freshman at Oklahoma State. Birch, a farmer’s son and Ag major in his senior year at Purdue, offered her his seat, she recalls, with the corny line, “Oklahoma, come on over and join Indiana.” He blushes, “It was just plain old love at first sight.”

After several months of home-and-home visits, the two college kids were engaged, and within two years of their marriage, the new political team got him elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. A state legislator made $1,200 a year then, so Birch fed the family (which included their son Evan, now 18), by farming the acreage in Shirkieville, Ind. that his family had first settled in a covered wagon. By selling off about a quarter of the 460 acres, Birch financed himself through law school. And by the time he was admitted to the bar, Bayh was 33, had risen to speaker of the house, and was just one year away from unhorsing Indiana’s venerable U.S. Senator Homer Capehart in a shock upset.

There have been family tragedies, as well, along the way. The Christmas before Birch’s first election, Marvella survived a head-on auto collision that left her in a coma for three weeks (she still sees double when overtired). In 1964, they barely escaped death in a small plane crash with Sen. Edward Kennedy. (Birch pulled Teddy, who suffered his back injury then, out of the flaming wreckage, and thereby cemented his membership in Camelot.) Marvella’s father became an alcoholic and shot himself and her stepmother in 1968. And three years ago, when Birch was making a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Marvella’s malignancy was diagnosed and a mastectomy was prescribed. That night he resigned from the race.

Some of official, which is to say cynical, Washington, regards the Bayh marriage as too successful to be true. There were innuendoes that he quit the presidential campaign because he was losing, and gossip that he is the senator whom woman-about-Georgetown Barbara Howar describes having a fling with in her autobiography. Yet, unmistakably, the Birch-Marvella relationship is felicitous. He constantly writes her odes, sends her flowers and even has impish little billets-doux slipped into her speech texts with personal drawings of cupids’ hearts captioned, “Guess who loves you?” At Potomac balls, where they are invariably the star performers (“Which,” says a friend, “comes from having to entertain yourself in a small town”), he dances only with her. “Why,” he asks, “settle for second best?” His family priorities have always been in order—as in flying back home early from a European junket for one of his son’s critical Little League games.

She is constantly forcing him into new suits and shoes (“He’d still be happy in overalls”) and subtly raising his consciousness. “My vote usually wins,” he says, “but she did convince me of the fairness of the Equal Rights Amendment. I was born in the old school and thought motherhood was the most important thing in life. But a woman yearns for all sorts of experiences, just as a man does. Ours has never been a ‘yes, honey’ relationship,” says Bayh. “We have strong disagreements on issues. She’s certainly not a doormat, but who wants a doormat for a wife?”

If they lose in November to Republican challenger Richard Lugar (PEOPLE, Aug. 5), Birch says he could become “a country lawyer,” and Marvella now feels, “It’s about time I really did my own thing.” (She trained to teach social studies.) But political fate notwithstanding, the Bayhs, says a friend, “are as tightly bound as a couple can be. I just cannot imagine one without the other.”

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