Simon Embodied Obvious But Forgotten Truths

Posted December 12, 2003 at 3:54pm

When Paul Simon (D-Ill.) died last week, the nation lost far more than a former Senator. In his more than 40-year career, Paul Simon came to embody for millions of Americans some obvious but often forgotten truths about our public life.

Honesty and integrity are values, not sound bites. Defending the powerless is a moral imperative, not a fashion statement. Idealism and pragmatism are a pair, not a choice. The way to reach millions with a message is to speak from the heart, not to take a poll. Public debate is about ideas, not production values. Political credibility is an asset to be used to make a difference, not a commodity to be hoarded for the next campaign. Written and spoken words, used with conviction, can change minds. Individuals, working together, can change the world.

Paul served in the House for 10 years from 1974 to 1984, and in the Senate from 1984 until his retirement in 1997. In 1988 he ran for president, competing in the early Democratic primaries and bowing out shortly after his only victory in his home state.

Throughout his public career, Paul fought for the causes of working people, poor people and minorities. He believed fundamentally that government could be a positive force, especially for low- and moderate-income Americans who need help most. He also believed that an active government did not have to mean a fiscally irresponsible government. His pay-as-you-go philosophy ruffled friends on both sides, such as when he supported tax increases for government programs and championed the Balanced Budget Amendment.

Paul compiled a diverse and impressive record. He was a consistent champion of education programs. He authored the National Literacy Act. He established a direct lending program for higher education, which has saved college students billions of dollars in higher education costs. While he fought to shift the nation’s budget priorities to increase spending on domestic needs and reduce spending on the military, he was active in international issues, such as fighting world hunger, ending human rights abuses and providing aid and support to the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe. He was a champion of increasing the U.S. role and presence in Africa. He brought national attention to the problems of TV violence while still respecting the First Amendment. He pioneered efforts by federal law enforcement agencies to use DNA testing. He passed a law requiring federal agencies to maintain statistics on hate crimes.

Paul’s impact went far beyond his legislative achievements. Paul’s personal integrity and independence were evident in the way he conducted himself as a Senator and in his personal life. He disclosed his finances every year, long before it was mandatory. He fought for unpopular and overlooked causes and took on powerful special interests. In debates on campaign finance reform, he suggested that money buys access, “access spells influence,” and money “too often dictates what we do.”

Representing a state where the vast majority of the voters support the death penalty, Paul always spoke out against it. In a state with a tiny American Indian population, Paul served on the Indian Affairs Committee and signed a petition to ban an offensive American Indian figure as the mascot of the University of Illinois football team. He would spend town meetings patiently explaining to hostile audiences why he supported gun control, mandatory motorcycle helmet laws or a woman’s right to choose. As he ran for re-election in 1990, he was the only major political leader who opposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning.

Despite these unpopular stances, voters loved him. He won re-election in 1990 by almost 1 million votes. He was frequently approached by voters who told him, “I don’t agree with you on a single issue, but I am voting for you because you always vote your conscience and tell us exactly what you’re doing and why.”

Paul was not afraid to stand alone on an issue. He was one of three Senators to vote against the popular tax reform act of 1986. (He believed that the rate reductions on the most affluent taxpayers would be permanent while the elimination of loopholes would be temporary. He was right.) He was the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted against sending Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination to the floor after the committee failed to approve it on a tie vote. He turned down a leadership position when he was in the House because he felt it might limit his ability to strike his own course.

Despite Paul’s progressive philosophy and strong convictions, he was not partisan or dogmatic. He worked closely with Republicans on the Labor Committee, on immigration issues and collaborated with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on human rights issues. He called issues as he saw them, even when it meant parting company with friends. After studying the issue carefully, he supported the North America Free Trade Agreement. Responding to angry statements from trade unions and other NAFTA opponents in Illinois, who had been among his most loyal and longstanding supporters, he shrugged. “I’m sorry they feel that way,” he said, “but I will continue to fight alongside them for the needs of working people.”

Paul’s integrity and decency were also evident in his unpretentious personal style. He wore bow-ties and rumpled suits in the age of Armani and Gucci. In the age of the Internet, he banged out weekly newspaper columns on a manual typewriter. In a political world surrounded by advance men and speechwriters, he balked at being overstaffed and almost always wrote his own speeches. When he left the Senate, he rejected lucrative positions as a lobbyist or consultant and simply packed his car and drove home to a teaching position at Southern Illinois University.

Paul’s staff developed a phrase to capture his political and personal values. To behave ethically and decently, to fight for the powerless, to act with conviction and without pretension, was to be “bow-tie.” In discussing issues or problems among staff, we would often discuss whether a particular idea or strategy was “bow-tie”: Is it consistent with Paul’s values?

For the many people who worked with him, who worked for him, who knew him or who knew of him, Paul Simon represented the highest ideals of public service. He helped make it possible to be optimistic about the political process. He reminded us by his actions that public service could be a calling, not a charade. He once said, “Some of us still think we can change the world.” His life was an example to us all. Without him, all of us will have to try to be a little bit more bow-tie.

Jeremy Karpatkin is a former chief of staff to Simon now living in Colorado.