The display leading into Evan Bayh's Senate office doesn't show the awards he's won or the most important people he's stood beside in a photograph: It's a wall of art by his twin sons, Beau and Nick - most recently, a pinto-bean flower, a crayoned zebra, and "I Love You Dad" hearts.
This place reserved for kids echos what is becoming the signature policy concern in his life: the "epidemic" of father absences. Some 17 million American homes are without fathers, the highest percentage in the world, he writes in his new book, "From Father to Son: A Private Life in the Public Eye."
"As governor [of Indiana], I began to see that we are spending a lot of our time and resources dealing with problems that are just superficial manifestations of a deeper issue: that we are not nurturing our children the best we can," says Mr. Bayh, who cochairs the bipartisan Senate Task Force on Responsible Fatherhood.
But even for fathers who are, statistically, in the home, staying involved in their children's lives is a struggle - one that many senators know as well as their constituents. Today, more senators are talking openly about it, even at the risk of looking a tad less committed to their jobs. Their efforts to juggle parenthood and a career provide a window into the challenge faced by all America's working parents - single or married.
For Indiana's junior senator, the effort to be present in his sons' lives is measured by the invitations and opportunities he turns down, including a run for the presidency in 2004. His scheduler works around school and family events. Bayh agreed to give a speech last Saturday night on condition that the sponsors get him home when the kids woke up the next day. His flight landed at 2 a.m., but he was up for breakfast.
"I wanted them to know they were a priority for me, and I would bend over backwards to be there for them," says Bayh. The son of US Senator and presidential candidate Birch Bayh, he has seen the struggle from both sides.
"[My father] was gone a lot, but I always had the impression that I was important to him," he says. "I have this memory of him taking the redeye to be back for my baseball or basketball games, and sometimes being the only father in the stands.
As a sophomore in college, Bayh once wrote that it was his mother's reluctance that delayed his father's entry into the 1976 presidential campaign - and cost him the election. It's a view he now deeply regrets. "Politics isn't everything," he says.
For most of its history, the Senate has been a tough place for families. Successful senators are the ones always there, always prepared, always working the angles. Late nights, unpredictable schedules, and the demands of the "permanent campaign" have often trumped family ties. And the lions who used to rule the Senate didn't understand missing votes for piano recitals.
"Your children grew up and saw you on the move, but you had precious little time with them," says former Sen. Edward Brooke (R) of Massachusetts, who recalls working with Bayh's father in 1970 to topple President Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court.
The arrival of more women on Capitol Hill in the 1990s brought many of these family issues to the attention of leadership. Other legislators with young families, especially in the House of Representatives, began lobbying for more predictable schedules and votes. Soon, venerable Senate traditions, such as the marathon filibuster and all-night sessions, quietly yielded to demands on the home front.
"No one would have even considered a child-care facility in the Senate 30 years ago. [Senate leaders] Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirkson would have rolled their eyes," says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, another son of a famous US senator, Thomas Dodd.
Interviewed walking through the halls outside his office, Senator Dodd, a new father, says he has just returned from a quick 10-block walk home to be with his toddler, Grace. As a boy, Dodd lived in Georgetown, too far away for drop-in visits from his father. And until recently, he says he rarely saw children in the Senate.
Now kids (and dogs) are a more common sight. Potluck caucus dinners encourage the presence of families. "Grace loves to run up and down this hall and hear her voice in the corridor. It echos," says Dodd with a chuckle. Bayh, just down the hall, has the family in for pizza when the Senate is running late. Once, when an office party got too dull for the kids, he brought them out into the hall to toss a football.
Still, family ties have never been a formula for Senate success beyond a useful shot for campaign posters or holiday greeting cards. Being present in the lives of your children takes a toll on both women and men in the Capitol. "You can do it, but you have to give up other things. I say no to many, many speaking engagements," says Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, whose children are 5 and 10 years old. "Sometimes, I can't read every briefing paper, because I have to cook breakfast."
Now, as Congress begins a new round of welfare reauthorization, Bayh and others are urging even more emphasis on the role of fathers. As lobbies go, the fatherhood one is still in its infancy. Most of the groups started in the last decade. And Bayh and others say it's important to not send the message that single mothers are the problem, or that women should stay in abusive relationships. Politicians who support fatherhood initiatives often find themselves on the receiving end of attacks on these points.
"There are, in the end, few clear political benefits for the elected official who decides to champion fatherhood initiatives," says Bayh. But he adds that it's worth the fight.