An old-fashioned senator on the move

MARCI McDONALD December 7 1987

An old-fashioned senator on the move

MARCI McDONALD December 7 1987

An old-fashioned senator on the move


On the outskirts of Shenandoah, a farm town of 6,000 in southwest Iowa, a crowd had gathered in the Depot Deli and Lounge to hear from a

Very Important Visitor. It was not an impressionable audience. Shenandoah was once the home of Don and Phil Everly, the 1950s rock ’n’ roll stars, and residents have seen many celebrities in their time. Indeed, a back wall of the Depot serves as a photographic shrine to the Everly Brothers. But now an adjoining wall is testimony to other kinds of stars who have recently visited the town—the candidates in the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Three of the six current candidates—all of them young and photogenic—had already come in to sign the Depot’s gold wallpaper and talk about new ideas. And last week Shenandoah’s citizens turned out to hear the fourth and oldest candidate talk of old ideas that he says should be revived. At 59, he wore a striped red bow tie and hornrimmed glasses that reinforced his outof-date air. But when Illinois Senator Paul Simon ended the town meeting with a call for his countrymen to dream and “stretch themselves,” the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

For the man from Illinois, it was one more victory in an increasingly successful campaign. Across the country, Simon— the onetime darkest horse in the Demo-

cratic race, who launched his candidacy on May 18 with the declaration, “I’m not a neo-anything”—has been defying conventional party wisdom. Four weeks ago he emerged as the front-runner in Iowa, where the 1988 campaign’s first test of electoral strength will be held on Feb. 8 at a caucus vote. And a recent poll in New Hampshire—site of the second contest on Feb. 16—shows him gaining on the favorite, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Said Helmut Mueller, a cattleman from Osceola, Iowa: “Simon’s obvious sincerity and understanding of the issues seem to impress people. In this part of the country we don’t understand that word, charisma.”

Still, the best gauge of Simon’s success may be a sudden surge in public scrutiny of his campaign platform. Recent press articles have called into question the arithmetic of his program, which includes both increased social spending and a balanced budget. Portraying himself as a latter-day Harry Truman, a traditional Democrat who believes that government can and should solve social problems, Simon says that his job-creation plan— which would cost $13 billion over two years—would ultimately save money. He says that the plan would create new taxpayers, leading to a reduced federal deficit and lower interest rates. And he adds that his proposal for extending long-term health care to the elderly will either be self-financing “or we won’t do it.” But

said a recent story in the conservative Wall Street Journal: “It doesn’t add up.” Simon first distinguished himself from his rivals last July during the Democrats’ opening televised debate in Houston, Tex. There, the candidate who shuns hair stylists in favor of an old-fashioned barber and writes his own speeches on a battered Royal typewriter, stood out from his carefully coiffed competitors, turning his eccentric appearance into a badge of authenticity. “If you want a slick, packaged product, I’m not your candidate,” he said. That declaration led the Washington Post’s TV critic Tom Shales to describe Simon as the “bright new star; the most unassuming of the bunch.”

But Simon’s appearance of old-style simplicity is at least partly deceptive. His longtime friend Illinois Senator Alan Dixon says that Simon understands better than most politicians how to use the media to his advantage. And the candidate shows a keen understanding of his own appeal. Said Simon: “What we’ve learned is: if you’re comfortable with yourself, that is conveyed.” After three decades in politics, Simon is so relaxed with a camera that his only rehearsal before a campaign debate is a stopwatch session to time his answers with his son Martin, 23, a photographer. Explained Simon’s 26-year-old daughter Sheila, a lawyer who is spending her honeymoon campaigning in Iowa with her new husband: “Dad is so calm that the

people around him get keyed up.”

For Simon, swimming against the current is a lifelong habit. As a preacher’s son—born in Eugene, Ore., to a Lutheran missionary couple who had spent years in China—Simon had a different upbringing than most of his contemporaries. His father, Rev. Martin Simon, made a point of inviting black colleagues to visit, and he published Christian pamphlets out of his drafty parsonage. Said Simon: “Doing things apart from the mould was something I learned from my father.” His father’s death in 1969 from leukemia was “the toughest personal thing I’ve been through,” said Simon.

His mother, Ruth, 80, lives in Collinsville, 111. And she recently produced yellowed newspaper clippings to prove that at age 3, her son—regarded as the Democrats’ ugly duckling candidate—won the Eugene, 111., Register-Guard’s “prettiest baby boy ” contest. Simon says that his mother was more practical than his father, and he traces what others call his dual political vision back to his parents’ differences of personality. Said Simon: “I’m kind of a combination of the two— the fiscal conservative of my mother and the idealistic side of my father.”

Simon’s parents wanted him to be a minister, like his father. But at 19, just a year short of his graduation in a bachelor of arts degree program at Dana College in Blair, Neb., Simon heard that the weekly newspaper in Troy, 111., had gone bankrupt. With the help of a $3,600 loan, he dropped out of college and became the crusading boy publisher of a new paper, the Troy Tribune (circulation 1,000). With his column entitled “Trojan Thoughts,” Simon led a campaign against local corruption. Simon’s twoyear anti-vice campaign earned him a report in Newsweek, and the crusading southern senator Estes Kefauver called him to testify before his 1951 congressional investigation into organized crime.

But in 1954, after two years’ military service in Europe as an intelligence officer, Simon took up another challenge. Running for the Illinois state legislature at 26, he scored a stunning upset over a longtime incumbent, in the process also winning his first headline as “the candidate with the bow tie.” At a political rally in 1957, he met a vivacious young Catholic lawyer and Democrat who had just been elected to the legislature. Three years later, defying both their parents’ wishes, he married Jeanne Hurley, and they later coauthored a book entitled ProtestantCatholic Marriages Can Succeed, published in 1967. She remains one of his closest advisers.

In 1962, after running successfully for the state Senate, Simon made what he rates as his bravest stand. He coauthored an article for Harper’s magazine entitled “The Illinois Legislature: A Study in Corruption.” His colleagues ostracized him,

and under the strain he developed a bleeding ulcer. But he also became a role model for a generation of Illinois youth, such as Terry Michael, 40, who is now Simon’s campaign press secretary.

The only real stain on Simon’s reputation as a reformer resulted from his unsuccessful 1972 campaign for governor of Illinois with the endorsement of the corrupt machine headed by then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley. In 1974 he won the first of five two-year terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then, three years ago he challenged Illinois’ respected Charles Percy for his Senate seat, winning another upset after a bitter campaign with intense mudslinging by both candidates.

But the main threat to Simon’s credibility now comes from his dual economic vision, which some critics have described as unrealistic and fanciful. Still, Simon has already exploded Democratic party theories that the current election belongs to a slick baby-boom candidate with a centrist message. Indeed, despite remaining true to many of the party’s left-wing ideals, Simon is drawing Republican sympathizers as well as the young to his town meetings. Said Simon: “I want to appeal to the noble, to the very best in the American people, and not to the greed.”