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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 07:30 pm

Behind the bowtie, a politician of uncommon integrity

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In 1988 U. S. Sen. Paul Simon campaigned for the Democrat nomination for president, finishing a surprising second place in the Iowa caucuses.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL FRYER/MCT

Paul Simon kindles memories of Frank Capra’s classic 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The fictional drama features Jefferson Smith, a wholesome idealist played by James Stewart. Maintaining uncommon integrity while occupying a seat in the United States Senate, Smith emerges as a lonely voice against the corruption and unbridled cynicism often rampant in American politics.

Fast forward to the long political career of Paul Simon and one can easily see a real-life incarnation of Jefferson Smith. In his years as a leading state political figure and then as a congressman and United States senator, Simon held the high ground with a ferocious consistency that stamped him in the public eye as a politician who never, ever betrayed or lost the public trust. That put him in select company. It made him, well, an Illinois original. Robert E. Hartley realizes this originality and incorporates it in the title of his first-rate book, Paul Simon: The Political Journey of an Illinois Original.

During his 40 years in public office, Simon received heavy press coverage, beginning in 1954 with his surprising election to the Illinois House of Representatives (when he was a 25-year-old newspaper publisher), through his final term in the U.S. Senate in the 1990s. His virtues and political triumphs were extolled, and his several political setbacks — such as his failure to win the Illinois governorship in 1972 and his abortive bid for the White House in 1988 — were chronicled.

Still, an objective analysis of Simon and his career (irrespective of his own autobiography published in 1999) was lacking. Until now.

Hartley has filled this void with an incisive dissection of the background, influences and experiences that shaped Simon’s independent mindset. He does so in a telling fashion because of a knack, demonstrated in his previous books, for scholarly research and tapping resources that produce heretofore unknown insights. Hartley’s skill as an ardent digger for information was readily visible in his books on other major Illinois political figures, including Charles H. Percy, James R. Thompson and Paul Powell. Some readers who think they already know a lot about Simon are in for a detailed, but never boring, surprise.

Hartley’s writing style is an appealing mix of the down-to-earth journalist (which he once was) and academic interpreter. Yet, he is in no way ivory-towerish. His manner with words is encompassing, quite suitable for the bulk of folks who are not political junkies.

Most likely, this will be the seminal book on Simon, particularly where the first part of his life story is concerned. Most of the book deals with his political career in Illinois — the years in which, after reaching the Illinois House, he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, the office of lieutenant governor and finally to a seat in Congress. Frankly, these are the years of greatest interest to most Illinois readers. It was the era in which Simon, a son of a Lutheran pastor, displayed the courage and political candor that made him a virtual folk hero for many individuals, especially in downstate Illinois.

The book retells with engrossing detail Simon’s use of the Troy Tribune (the small paper he purchased for $3,500 in 1948) to fight political corruption in Madison County. This journalistic fervor won him acclaim, which he translated six years later into his successful race for the Illinois House as a Democrat. His victory surprised none more than the old-line Democrats who ruled the party in that part of the state. It launched the start of Simon’s never-ending independence from party machine bosses.

In the House, Simon became part of a cadre of Young Turks or Democratic mavericks who challenged their own party’s entrenched leaders (like Paul Powell), as well as Republicans, on questionable doings or issues. A compatriot of Simon in those years was Belleville’s Alan J. Dixon, another young Democratic upstart in the House. The political careers of Simon and Dixon would be intertwined from that point on, as each progressed in a parallel fashion to the Illinois Senate, then statewide office and, lastly, to Washington (where Dixon went directly to the Senate while Simon served first in the House before election to the Senate). After decades, the two continued to be viewed as political boy wonders.

Simon never lost the innocent look of a bespectacled choir boy. He also never abandoned his journalistic roots, putting together a chain of small newspapers (eventually sold), and writing numerous newspaper columns and books. The ink in his veins abetted his unusually close ties to the press, first in Illinois and then in Washington.

Simon’s name appears on little landmark legislation. But in Illinois and in the nation’s capital the media easily recognized that he stood out because of his dogged pursuit of ethical behavior by elected and appointed officials. Insisting on the transparency of government operations, the man never ceased to be a good conscience of authority.

Bob Hartley brings all of this home in a book that certainly will bolster Hartley’s reputation as a master recorder of modern Illinois political history.

Taylor Pensoneau is the author of books about Illinois political leaders and gangsters. His next book, set for publication early in 2010, is Dapper & Deadly: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris.

Paul Simon: The Political Journey of an Illinois Original by Robert E. Hartley. Southern Illinois University Press, 296 pp.

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