The man behind the bow tie embodied decency in politics

December 16, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm

WE THE people just lost one of the good guys.

Paul Simon, the Illinois Democrat who always wore a bow tie and a smile, served in the state legislature and then spent 22 consecutive years in Congress - 10 in the House, 12 in the Senate. He died last week at age 75 after undergoing heart surgery and endorsing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for president from his hospital bed.

Mr. Simon ran for president in 1988. He also sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee that heard the riveting testimony of Clarence Thomas and his accuser, Anita Hill, during Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. After the national crash course on sexual harassment and a conversation with Ms. Hill, Mr. Simon voted against Mr. Thomas' confirmation as a justice. It passed the Senate, 52-48.

That was part of a pattern. As a lawmaker, he was often on the side of losing causes. A balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and desalinization of water were two things he believed in deeply. Neither is on the horizon anytime soon.

Mr. Simon's magic was in person and on the page, as the author of 22 books. What relatively few knew about this former small-town newspaper editor and publisher is that when the Senate wrapped up for the evening, he retreated to an old-fashioned typewriter and tapped away until midnight. His solitary night work was as important as the public work of giving speeches, shaking hands and listening to colleagues and constituents.

Then there was what the late great Chicago columnist Mike Royko once characterized as Mr. Simon's idea of a wild evening: "reading a biography of Lincoln."

The retro clothes, including the glasses, did make the man, in Mr. Simon's case. He sometimes looked like the class nerd on the Senate floor. His hearty bass voice made an impression. He had a knack for remembering names and faces and making friends fast. He was as sincere as he seemed - not always the way it is in Washington.

The son of a Lutheran minister steeped in the Progressive Party and the New Deal, Mr. Simon lived and breathed bedrock Midwestern Democratic values of fairness and decency. As a representative of southern Illinois, which has a Southern flavor, he was attuned to civil rights early on and became friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s.

One book stands out among all those authored by Mr. Simon: his own favorite, Freedom's Champion: Elijah Lovejoy.

In the 1830s, Mr. Lovejoy was an anti-slavery newspaper editor. His views did not sit well with some citizens in Alton, Ill., in southern Illinois, and a mob tossed his printing presses into the Mississippi River. Mr. Lovejoy did not give in, and for his troubles died during mob violence in a warehouse as he and some friends struggled to protect his fourth printing press. Mr. Lovejoy is considered America's first martyr for freedom of speech.

"The people who really killed Lovejoy were not those who fired the bullets but rather `middle of the road' straddlers, most of them honorable people in the community. They were all the clean, decent, honest people who stayed neutral between the two opposing forces and who were too timid to stand and be counted," Mr. Simon wrote in his Lovejoy biography.

Above all, friends at his funeral said Sunday, Mr. Simon deplored cynicism in society. In a letter to The New Yorker, he remarked that the worst vice of journalists in his day was whiskey; now it is cynicism.

In a rare bipartisan sendoff to the senator when he retired seven years ago, all 99 other senators wore blue polka-dot bow ties on the Senate floor and managed to surprise Mr. Simon as he walked in. He complimented then-Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina on being "unusually well-dressed today."

"Everyone enjoyed the occasion, no one more than I did. Small things in life make a difference," Mr. Simon recorded in P.S., his autobiography.

Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun.

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