When the news broke that Susan Bayh had died, several memories of her floated to the forefront.
Strangely, the most prominent one may have been the most trivial.
It was from 1992. She and her husband, Evan, were campaigning in Evansville as part of a bus tour with the newly anointed Democratic Party ticket.
Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore were traveling across Southern Indiana in the company of the Bayhs. It was one of those charged moments in American history, a time when the nation was poised to make a generational shift in power. Bill Clinton was about to become the first baby boomer president.
The presumption was that Al Gore likely would succeed him in the Oval Office. And Evan Bayh, who was just in his middle 30s then, already was being touted as a future presidential prospect.
The future shimmered like gold for the three seemingly charmed couples.
I’d interviewed both Bill Clinton and Al Gore but was lingering to gather more color when Susan Bayh spotted me. She was walking with Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore. She motioned for the two of them to come with her so she could introduce us.
The four of us chatted for a few minutes.
As we talked, I thought about the way things were changing in this country.
And the ways things weren’t changing.
It became clear within the space of just a few minutes that these three women were at least as capable—and, in fact, were probably more capable—than their husbands.
Yet, they were the ones struggling to determine what roles they could play as their spouses strode destiny’s stage—just how many of their gifts these women could reveal without offending a state and nation that both wanted and feared change.
Flash forward nearly three decades to now.
Hillary Clinton is a lightning rod for much of the terrifying animosity loose in this land.
Tipper and Al Gore live apart, their union a casualty of their high-profile and high-stress lives.
And Susan Bayh, sadly, tragically, is dead.
She was only 61.
In these hours just after her passing, I find myself thinking about the heavy toll we impose on those who step forward to lead us. Too often, we strip them of their humanity. We consider them caricatures, rather than people who breathe and bleed just like the rest of us.
Susan helped me realize that.
I did not know her as well as others did, but she and I had some substantive conversations when she was Indiana’s first lady. In one, she described what making big decisions did not just to leaders, but also to those close to them. The emotional costs imposed on the entire family, she said, could be overwhelming.
At the time we talked, Susan and her husband often were dismissed in Indiana political circles as animate versions of Barbie and Ken dolls. People focused more attention on the fact that she had been a beauty queen—Miss Southern California, no less—than on her sterling academic record at two top-flight schools, Berkeley for her undergraduate work and the University of Southern California for her law degree. Nor did they seem to notice that, despite her youth, she held her own with the finest legal minds in the country.
Physical attractiveness can be both blessing and curse. The sheer sunniness of Susan Bayh’s appearance, the radiance of her smile, in some ways obscured the depths of her character.
In death, the tendency is to caricature people once again, to sweeten memories of them to help make grief more palatable. This is particularly true when the departed could be as charmingly affable as she could be.
But to do so denies Susan Bayh’s immense strength.
The guess here is that she watched over those she loved—her husband and her twin sons, especially—with the ferocity of a warrior priestess. She nurtured those she cared about, but she also saw that they were protected.
Susan Bayh did it with a smile on her face because that’s what people expected from someone who looked like her. She did so because she was smart, certainly wise enough to understand that much.
Her family says her passing leaves this world a darker place.
Yes, it does.
May she rest in peace.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.