Simon: common-man image, uncommon politician
Washington — PAUL E. SIMON knows the exact location of every Pepsi machine in Illinois's 22nd Congressional District. He took pains to pinpoint them as he made the rounds in the district he represented for 10 years in the US House of Representatives. Before long Paul Simon, now a United States senator, may know the location of every Pepsi machine in America - or in Iowa and New Hampshire, anyway - as he stumps the nation in pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.
Soft drinks fit in with the common-man image that this uncommon politician has carefully developed.
In an era of Madison Avenue politics, Mr. Simon's trademarks are floppy ears, horn-rimmed glasses, and a bow tie. His suits are baggy and always bargains.
``He is not exactly a slave to fashion,'' Simon's son, Martin, says dryly.
Clothing is not the only point upon which Senator Simon finds himself out of fashion. Politically, he is definitely not part of the mainstream.
``In some things I am considered conservative. I'm for a balanced-budget amendment, I voted for Gramm-Rudman,'' Simon shouts over the roar of a chartered Beechcraft above California's Central Valley. ``You ask me where I stand on civil rights issues, I would be considered a liberal. I decline to say liberal or conservative. I say progressive, or traditional Democrat, because [that] means to me somebody who cares, who is willing to use the tools of government to move on our problems.''
At a recent forum on education in Iowa, the crowd applauded wildly when Simon was introduced as a man who has written more books (11) than Ronald Reagan has ever read. In the latest, titled ``Let's Put America Back to Work,'' he outlines a government program of guaranteed employment. At a time when unemployment is relatively low, most would call his views ``old-fashioned liberal.''
``While the percentage living below the poverty line climbed during the first years of the Reagan administration, the sales of Jaguar automobiles tripled,'' he writes. ``Poor and unemployed people may not know all of these statistics, but they understand the reality. They are frustrated. It is the function of a political system to show them a nonexplosive way of solving their problems.''
Martin Simon, a free-lance photographer before he recently went to work for his father's campaign, acknowledges that ``the liberal tag is without a doubt one of the biggest hurdles that we are going to have to overcome.''
Senator Simon was born in 1928 in Eugene, Ore., the son of Lutheran missionaries, the Rev. Martin Paul Simon and his wife, Ruth. He describes his childhood as pleasant and secure, except, he says, that he ``was always breaking [his] glasses playing basketball.''
``We considered ourselves Republicans,'' Simon says, although he quickly adds that ``there was a very liberal tradition in the [Oregon] Republican Party.'' Remembering the FDR sticker on his family's Model A Ford, Simon describes his father as a progressive, although neither of his parents was politically active.
Simon attended a rural school with three grades to a classroom. In high school he lettered in basketball and baseball. He had summer jobs from the time he was about 10.
He entered the University of Oregon at 16. When his parents moved to Illinois a year later, Simon transferred to Dana College, a Lutheran school in Nebraska.
He was very involved in the school's religious life, including singing in the school choir. ``People used to tell him he should be a pastor,'' says the Rev. Paul C. Johnsen, a Lutheran minister in Huntington Beach, Calif., who roomed with Simon at Dana.
But Simon wanted to be a journalist. ``My aim was to be the Walt Whitman of my generation,'' he says with a chuckle.
According to his brother, the Rev. Arthur Simon, Paul first expressed his desire to run a weekly newspaper while in grade school. His dream came true sooner than he expected. During his junior year at Dana his father heard about a small weekly, the Troy (Ill.) Call, that was closing down.
``They were desperate for somebody to come in,'' Simon remembers. ``They agreed that if I would come down and take over the newspaper ... some of the Lions Club members would sign notes so that I could buy the newspaper with no money down. I was just a broke college student.''
The weekly, with a staff of four and a circulation of about 1,500, was renamed the Troy Tribune, and, at 19, Paul Simon became the youngest publisher in the nation. He never did finish college.
Not long after taking over the paper, Simon stumbled upon a story that would make him a local hero and spark his political career. He was in a Troy hamburger joint when he started talking to the owner about the ``punch board,'' an illegal form of gambling in which customers would pay for chances to punch through holes in the board to win cash prizes. Officially, the board cost the retailer only $3, plus about $30 in prize money, and would bring in $90.
``But in Madison County,'' the young editor found out, ``you [had] to buy them from a fellow named Carl Davis, and you [had] to pay him $30 rather than $3. And if you don't buy them from Carl Davis, somebody comes around from the sheriff's office and tells you punch boards are illegal. I found 13 places in this little town that had those punch boards. You didn't have to be the world's greatest genius to figure out the sheriff had something going.''
He wrote an article. Soon, bigger papers were covering the story, and Simon testified at a televised congressional hearing on corruption held in St. Louis.
When he failed to get anyone to run against the sheriff or state's attorney to put an end to the corruption, Simon decided to run for state representative.
``The executive committee of the Madison County Democratic Party unanimously went on record against me. No one thought I had much of a chance ... but I wanted to show you could beat these guys. I ended up winning; ... that launched my political career,'' Simon says.
Simon served 14 years in the Illinois legislature, four years as Illinois's lieutenant governor, and a decade in the US House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 1984.
Though throughout his career Simon has been regarded as a good-government politician, he has not kept his hands spotlessly clean. A rare political defeat - and a rare dip into machine politics - came in 1972, when he ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with the backing of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. And his successful Senate challenge against the longtime Republican incumbent, Charles Percy, was marked by bitter negative advertising on both sides.
If you ask the first-term senator why he is running for president, he will tell you it is because the other candidates are too light on the social issues and too comfortable with deficit spending. He is, he likes to say, a ``pay-as-you-go Democrat.''
Last year he crafted a narrowly defeated Senate resolution supporting a balanced-budget amendment, and he was one of the few Democrats who supported the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction bill. Simon also takes pride in noting that he voted against the Reagan tax cuts and was one of just three senators to vote against last year's tax-reform bill, which, he complains, did nothing to reduce the federal deficit and actually raised taxes for some middle Americans.
Behind the politics, though, lies a more fundamental motivation to seek the nation's highest office. ``Dad used to always say a position, ... a job, or an office, is not an achievement, but an opportunity,'' says Arthur, Senator Simon's brother. ``[Political office] only has meaning to the extent that you can use that as an opportunity to change things, to help people.''
``Basically,'' says Arthur, who has followed in their father's footsteps as a Lutheran minister, ``that is what Paul has always seen as his goal in public life. To be able to make a difference.''
``I have seen lives changed because of what has happened [in politics],'' Senator Simon says. ``So I know you really can make a difference.''
in his book ``The Glass House: Politics and Morality in the Nation's Capital,'' published in 1984, Simon discusses the role of religion in politics. He complains of ``candidates and officials [who] too often try to wrap their political beliefs in the cloak of religion.'' At the same time, however, he asks whether ``the religious people who think themselves good and virtuous [will] be willing to soil themselves in the earthly world of politics?''
``You are not going to find him telling the world what a fine Christian he is,'' his brother explains. ``He see that as a very distasteful approach. And yet [religion] runs deep.''
Senator Simon does admit that religion has been a major influence in his life. His father ``believed in applying faith to life,'' says the senator. ``He believed that religion was not just to be a Sunday morning sort of thing. ... The greatest words that my dad preached were not from the pulpit, but with his life.''
When talking about the rewards of public service, Simon's thoughts turn to how he has been able to change lives:
``The rewards are the satisfaction you get out of it. I have, over the years, had a number of financial offers for things that paid several times what I am [now] making ... but they have just had no appeal to me at all. I happen to enjoy politics; I'm not making any sacrifice.''
Paul Simon has always had a plan. He wanted to own a weekly newspaper ever since grade school. According to close friends he had his eyes on the presidency before he ever ran for public office.
When asked why he thinks his brother wants to run for president, the Rev. Mr. Simon responds: ``You get wider opportunity as you move into higher office. ... The most fundamental thing for Paul was, he wanted to get things done. Wanted to make the world better.''
``Obviously,'' his brother continues, ``to run for public office and move up that way, you've got to have personal ambition, too. There has got to be a strong ego there.''
Senator Simon ends his latest book, ``Let's Put America Back to Work,'' with the same words used to end his campaign speeches:
``You and I are blessed with living in a great and good country. But it can become a much better country.''
Paul Simon makes it clear that, for him, this message is more than a campaign gambit. It is, he believes, a measure of the candidate himself.
Where Simon stands on the issues
Here are Paul Simon's positions on the main issues facing the country, according to a campaign spokesman: The economy
Reduce the budget deficit through spending cuts and tax increases that do not raise individuals' rates.
Put unemployed Americans to work through a WPA-style Guaranteed Job Opportunity Program; retrain displaced workers.
Improve the US's trade position by demanding fair practices from trading partners, limiting imports under certain conditions, and improving the competitiveness of American business. Foreign relations
Emphasize diplomacy over weapons in dealing with adversaries.
Support democratic trends around the world.
End aid the Nicaraguan contras and Angolan rebels.
Continue support of Afghanistan resistance forces.
Strengthen sanctions against South Africa. Defense
On arms control, emphasize conventional over nuclear forces, end Soviet and American nuclear testing, and stop ``star wars.''
Opposes the MX missile, B-1 bomber, and more aircraft carriers.
Favors the Midgetman missile and the Trident submarine program. Other domestic issues
Increase aid to education; stress foreign-language training in schools.
Expand federal health-care to cover the costs of long-term care for senior citizens and other needy people.