August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

Should a politician who is locked in a tough reelection campaign—and running for his life, he insists—take on any more problems than he already has? The conventional wisdom says no, but Birch Bayh isn’t listening. This week the three-term senator from Indiana is expected to gavel into session a special Capitol Hill panel investigating Billy Carter’s Libyan connections.

Aides urged the 52-year-old Democrat to refuse the chairmanship of the nine-member subcommittee when it was offered by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bayh overruled his staff. “If it is done right,” he says, “it will help me politically.” He was less than judicious, he admits, when he publicly called Billy Carter “a boob” after the $220,000 Libyan payment was disclosed. Bayh apologized, sort of. “Most people think Billy is a boob,” he explained. “I probably shouldn’t have said that, if I am to be an objective judge.” Bayh now refers to the President’s brother as “a warm, personable guy.”

The senator expects to call as many as 20 witnesses during the inquiry, but doubts that either Rosalynn Carter or her husband will be asked to testify in person. (Depositions are possible.) Bayh was irritated, and said so, when the White House asked to sit in on the committee’s closed sessions (the request was turned down). Still, the senator is inclined to accept the President’s televised explanation of Billy’s latest imbroglio. “The media are conditioned to a Watergate cover-up, but I just don’t think we have that here,” Bayh says.

Though the senator favors the reelection of President Carter, he remained diligently aloof from the pre-convention skirmishing between the incumbent and Ted Kennedy. He and Kennedy have been personally close for decades, and in 1965 Bayh pulled the Massachusetts senator from the wreckage of a small plane in which both had been flying. Bayh avoided the convention altogether, staying home to campaign against his estimable Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Dan Quayle, 33. The congressman’s power comes in part from his uncle, Eugene S. Pulliam, who publishes the state’s two largest papers, the Indianapolis Star and News. “I don’t expect them to give me a fair shake,” grouses Bayh.

As a liberal Democrat in a staunchly Republican state, he has been a stubborn survivor. Born near tiny Shirkieville on a 340-acre spread, now farmed by a tenant, Bayh was educated at Purdue and Indiana University Law School. At 31 he was elected speaker of the Indiana House and three years later became the youngest U.S. senator in the state’s history. Throughout his political career his mainstay was Marvella Bayh, his wife for 27 years, who died from breast cancer 17 months ago. “I’ve never known anyone who had a better feel for the people of Indiana,” he says. “I miss her terribly.” Their only child, Evan, 24, is taking time off from law studies at the University of Virginia to campaign 18 hours a day for his father. “We are best friends,” Evan says. “If I could have a wish, it would be to become a combination of both my parents.”

The senator’s liberalism—he supports the licensing of handguns and a woman’s right to abortion—has made him one of six Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat by the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Bayh expects Ronald Reagan to sweep Indiana and is plainly worried. Traveling the economically troubled state in a rented station wagon, he is the consummate campaigner, with an attractive aw-shucks manner. He refuses to be comforted by a recent poll that shows him leading 56 to 38 percent. “We are in good shape now,” he contends, “but this year, who the hell knows? It scares me.”

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