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New book collects the late Sen. Paul Simon's essays, columns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - WASHINGTON – In October 1949, the 20-year-old editor-publisher of the Troy Tribune walked into the shady “Club 40”on Highway 40 in Madison County, Ill., and ordered a Coke. He ended up with a muckraking story.

A young lady “picked some lint from my suit coat, stroked my back" and asked if he was “interested in entertainment,” the editor wrote later. She invited him to “one of the bedrooms [to] talk things over,” and motioned to a bed with a cigarette-burned spread.

When he asked what was being offered, the woman mentioned the $5 basic charge and added: “For $10, I can give you a nice long party, honey.”


The writer demurred, went back to this newspaper office and typed out a hard-hitting column: “ ‘Closed’ Houses of Prostitution Again Operating.” He wrote that he “walked out of the place with a still lower opinion of the activities of our county sheriff ... and the state’s attorney.

"With five dollars per person and ... with the mass production that seemed to be going on there, the operators might even afford to pay county officials a little.”

That expose – and other crusading articles that followed, including blistering attacks on corruption in the Illinois Legislature – launched the young editor, Paul Martin Simon, on a career that led him to the Illinois House and Senate in Springfield, the office of lieutenant governor, and eventually to the U.S. House and Senate in Washington. Simon became nationally known – characterized by his deep voice, his bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses – when he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president in 1988.

Simon, who died in 2003 at age 75, was an inveterate writer, authoring 22 books and an astounding number of columns, newspaper articles, essays and editorials. Some of the best of those works have been collected in a new book, “The Essential Paul Simon: Timeless Lessons for Today’s Politics,” published by Southern Illinois University Press.

The collection -- which includes a few of the early columns from the Troy Tribune -- is ably edited by John S. Jackson, a longtime friend and supporter of Simon who is an emeritus professor of political science at SIU Carbondale and a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Jackson has written illuminating introductions to the individual chapters, which group Simon’s writings according to themes, including “Leadership and Courage,” “Culture, History and Politics” and “The Budget and the Deficit.”

“Read some of his pieces today, and he could just as well be writing for a blog or a Facebook page, although his writing was a lot more civil than much of what you read on the Internet,” writes David Yepsen in the book’s Foreword. A former Des Moines Register journalist, Yepsen now directs the Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU Carbondale, which is bringing some of Simon’s wisdom to new generations.

While Simon was known more as a thoughtful analyst than as a stylist, many of his essays, columns, and book chapters hold up well today. Consider, for instance, Simon’s preface to his 2003 book, “Our Culture of Pandering”:

“We have spawned ‘leadership’ that does not lead, that panders to our whims rather than telling us the truth, that follows the crowd rather than challenging us, that weakens us rather than strengthening us.”

Over the years, Simon tackled an amazingly wide range of topics, from world hunger to Illinois corruption, federal budget deficits to Abe Lincoln’s legislative achievements. Journalists like me who covered the senator’s speeches and his news conferences on Capitol Hill were often impressed by his eloquence as well as by his ability to get to the heart of the matter in a concise, hard-hitting manner.

Those qualities – as well as his political and moral courage – are reflected in many of the essays and columns collected in the book. “He was a crime fighter in Madison and St. Clair Counties before he became a corruption fighter in the Illinois legislature,” writes Jackson in his introduction. “He earned early on the reputation for a fearless truth-telling and unbending morality, which became his trademark throughout his career.”

Of course, Simon was also a politician, and few of them are exempt from at least some level of pandering. During his presidential campaign, for example, the serious Simon once co-hosted a "Saturday Night Live” show with musician Paul Simon. (If one googles “The Essential Paul Simon,” what come up first is a compilation of the singer Simon's songs.)

Like the best journalists, Simon often sought to explain to average citizens how the government works (or doesn’t work), what the big issues are, and how he proposed to solve those problems. But he also showed his expertise in foreign affairs, the judiciary and history. He advocated for the U.S. deployment of “soft power” rather than military ventures abroad; he worked hard for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced-budget; and he fought for reforms in the nation’s prison system.

Many of those issues remain highly relevant today. As Yepsen writes, “The only thing you’d have to do to freshen up many of Paul’s columns today is just add a few more zeroes to any numbers he used. Deficits and debts are higher; the money in politics is bigger; poverty is greater and global temperatures are rising.

“Had people done some of the things [Simon] suggested years ago, we wouldn’t be having a repeat of those discussions today.”