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Let's reflect for a moment on the lives of two extraordinary men
by Charles N. Wheeler III

University of Illinois
at Springfield remembers
Paul Simon>>
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OBIT

Paul Simon dies
Former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Makanda died December 9 in Springfield following heart surgery. Simon, known for integrity and high ethical standards, was 75. A Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, Simon was director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale at the time of his death. The former newspaperman was a founder of Illinois Issues. He also was the first director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at what is now the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, December 10, 2003


Paul Simon

Abner Mikva didn’t like The New York Times’ coverage of the death of his friend, the former U.S. senator who died December 9 at 75. “They made him sound like a goodie two-shoes. He wasn’t,’’ says Mikva, a former federal appellate judge who served with Simon in the state legislature and in Congress.

“He was an incredibly effective politician in the best sense of the word.’’ Simon’s integrity may have looked like naivete in an era when a “gotcha” mentality tends to drive politics and journalism, says Mikva, who was White House counsel in the midst of Simon’s 1985-1997 Senate tenure. “Paul never operated that way. He would try to woo you on his own terms.’’ He was incorruptible, never exhibited ill-will or threw around his clout.

Former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch says she’s been asked frequently about what she believes to be Simon’s legacy. “No. 1, he survived 40 or 45 or so years in politics with his integrity, credibility, compassion and thoughtfulness intact.’’

Simon, the son of Lutheran missionaries, was born in 1928 in Eugene, Ore. At 19, he was urged to buy a dying newspaper that served the southern Illinois region where his parents had settled. He exposed corruption while at the Troy Tribune, reporting that Madison County officials allowed prostitution and gambling to go unchecked. Eventually, he owned 14 weekly newspapers, then decided he could effect greater change from the inside of the political arena.

At 25, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where his first triumph was getting Right-to-Know on the books, requiring government bodies to meet in public.

He also found more corruption to expose. “Members talked openly about certain measures being ‘money bills’ and others being ‘fetchers,’” Simon wrote in his autobiography. The fetcher was lucrative for lawmakers who were willing to introduce a bill, then kill it in exchange for lobbyists’ cash. Mikva remembers Simon incurring the wrath of a fellow lawmaker for interfering with a fetcher. That lawmaker told Simon, “The trouble with you Reverend ... is you don’t know a good bill when you see it.”

Later, when Simon couldn’t convince news editors to investigate corruption in the legislature, he wrote an article himself, knowing he was putting his political career in jeopardy. After the article appeared in the September 1964 edition of Harper’s magazine, some fellow lawmakers labeled him “Benedict Arnold.’’

After writing the piece, he served four years in the state Senate. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974, serving until his election to the U.S. Senate a decade later. Simon’s only election setbacks were in primary bids for the governor’s mansion in 1972 and the U.S. presidency in 1988.

Exposure, wrote Simon, is the best way to stop unethical behavior. Simon died the afternoon Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a strong ethics bill. Netsch said when she spoke with Simon two days earlier, he told her it was too bad he wouldn’t be able to attend the signing ceremony. “He was certainly there in spirit.”

Simon was the first state official to require financial disclosure of his staff, their spouses and even minor children, remembers Gene Callahan, who served as Simon’s press secretary after he was elected lieutenant governor in 1968. Simon disclosed his own sources of income right down to the $1.58 refund from a clothing store. He did so throughout his career in elective office, which ended with his decision in 1996 not to run for the Senate again.

“He tolerated no dishonesty or lying. His basic philosophy was if you’d lie, you’d steal,’’ says Callahan. “You’ll never meet a man with more integrity, but there was more to him than integrity; he was kind and compassionate.’’

That compassion informs Mikva’s assessment of Simon’s stature among Illinois’ greatest statesmen: “I think he’s the best we’ve ever had. We’ve had some fine government officials, but none as absolutely decent as Paul Simon.’’


Illinois Issues, January 2004

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