State of the State: Paul Simon's Writing Offers Lessons in Leadership

Oct 1, 2012

Jamey Dunn headshot
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Though I never met him, Paul Simon has had a profound effect on my life. Some years ago, a fateful visit to the Public Policy Institute he founded at my alma mater, Southern Illinois University, solidified my choice to shift my career path from public relations and take a gamble on journalism, regardless of my fears about finding a job in a struggling industry. Simon was the founder and first director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) program at the University of Illinois Springfield, which taught me the ropes of covering state government as an intern for this magazine, which he also helped found. I met my husband while we were both working to earn our graduate degrees through the PAR program. 

That’s not to say I was unaware of Simon before I became interested in Illinois politics. Since I was a kid, I remember my grandparents referring to him as an honest politician and a man who they felt cared about regular folks. However, with all those connections, I am a little embarrassed to admit that, until recently, I had read only snippets of Simon’s extensive writings. 

It seems I, and many younger than me who perhaps are just beginning to find interest in public policy, are part of the target audience for a new compilation of Simon’s writings. 

“This book is an attempt to unlock all that material for a new generation of readers, as well as for Paul’s old friends. It grew out of discussions in our office about how many who knew Paul are, as they say, ‘getting up there’ in age. Current students and newcomers to Illinois weren’t around when he was in his heyday,” David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, wrote in the forward of The Essential Paul Simon: Timeless Lessons for Today’s Politics. The book — edited by John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, and published by the Southern Illinois University Press — is scheduled for release on October 9. 

Paul Simon
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Jackson said that when he began to poke around in materials for the new Simon archive at Morris Library, he realized he wanted a way to bring some of the writings to people who may never visit the campus. “I got a feel for how big the collection was and what kind of stuff that was stuffed away in boxes over there, and I thought, ‘This is not very accessible.’”

The book contains Simon’s most well-known essay, “The Illinois Legislature: A Study in Corruption.” In the piece, which ran in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, Simon described the General Assembly as “polluted almost beyond belief.” Simon tells how votes were sold as a matter of course. The cost to get a bill out of a committee was between $200 and $500 a vote. Lawmakers ran bills that would hurt one lobby or another simply as a shakedown and then killed them once the groups paid up. Some of the money went into campaign funds, and some went directly into legislators’ pockets. When a big floor vote came up, Simon said patronage ruled the day. “Whoever controls the political jobs in Cook County in effect controls the party. That man now is Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley,” Simon wrote. “When a major bill is considered in the legislature, the floor leader, after getting instruction from Chicago or from the governor’s office, simply announces, ‘We’re for it’ or ‘We’re against it.’ Only a few Democratic members from downstate — of whom I am one — and a handful of independent Cook County legislators dare to take a different position.” 

Simon notes that both parties enjoyed the spoils of corruption. “A bond between the parties is an interest in preserving patronage. ... Never mind the issues, ‘How many jobs can you get us?’ is the theme song of hosts of precinct workers during campaigns. Legislators often collaborate to satisfy the hunger, and the results are often peculiar.” 

Simon recalls that in 1961, Republicans failed to elect a House speaker, despite holding a one-vote majority in the chamber. Two Republicans who held Democratic patronage jobs in Chicago claimed they were too sick to vote, and one Republican lawmaker sided with Democrats on the vote. 

Simon was dubbed “Benedict Arnold” by many of his colleagues for writing the essay. While reading it, one is struck by how much it seems the state truly lived up to its reputation as the Wild West of politics, where anything went. So much has changed. The time Simon describes was before lawmakers were required to disclose campaign contributions. Today, the state not only has disclosure laws but limits on contributions. The days of rampant bribery seem to be behind us. However, lawmakers are still the subjects of investigations and indictments over the awarding of scholarships and grants. Just a few months ago, the House convened a special session to eject a member accused of taking a bribe in exchange for recommending a business for a state grant. Campaign funding instead of patronage jobs is the current cudgel that leaders can wield to keep members in line. The state’s new campaign finance law is geared toward preventing pay-to-play corruption. But it also further concentrated campaign money into the hands of party leaders. There is nothing illegal or inherently corrupt about leaders using their campaign funds and ability to win elections to enforce caucus discipline, but there are also few asking whether it makes for good public policy. It is just a political fact of life. 

Simon weighed in on the issue of campaign finance often and was ahead of his time when it came to disclosing the details of his personal finances. When reading through the essays in the book, one sees that he was ahead of the curve on a lot of things. He warned about an impending energy crisis in 1977. Some of the predictions he made at the time were spot on. He foresaw the coming popularity of bike paths and bike lanes, as well as more energy efficient homes. Simon said that each year, cars would get smaller. The popularity of big sport utility vehicles in the 1990s did not follow that prediction, but in recent years, the trend has been toward smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. 

Shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Simon and former Illinois Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Findley coauthored a piece opposing the Iraq war. In the previously unpublished essay, the two legislators urged then-President George W. Bush to walk back from his war plans. They warned that the cost of the war would outweigh the possible benefits. They predicted a high number of casualties, including Iraqi citizens, and argued that the conflict would cause resentment among Muslims and hurt the world standing of the United States. 

Simon, a veteran of the U.S. Army, supported gays and lesbians serving in the military. A short 1995 essay included in the book sets out the reasons for his then-controversial stance in the straightforward, logical manner of a man who was also a veteran of the newspaper business. At 19, Simon bought a struggling newspaper and eventually owned 14 weekly papers before selling them to make his move into politics. 

Jackson notes that not all the material he sifted through was gold. “Some of these things were banal, and they were written under the pressure of a deadline, and they just don’t stand up. Of course he wrote so much that he didn’t write about profound things every week,” he says. “And yet there are so many gems in there that the balance is good overall.”

While Simon was a progressive in the most basic sense of the word, he also backed some ideas popular with today’s more conservative politicians. He supported a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as giving the president line-item veto power. However, Jackson said that Simon never could present a budget with enough cuts to sell the balanced-budget amendment. “He was never able to be specific enough about where he could cut the budget in order to get to a balanced budget, in order to not spread around enormous pain,” he says. “Paul, I think, failed to convince people that he had enough to put on that side of the ledger for the balanced budget amendment to really work.”

Simon was in no way opposed to government spending, but he did not want to leave the bill for future generations, so he was never a fan of cutting taxes. “Paul was opposed to virtually every tax cut that came along.” However, in the days before hardline anti-tax pledges, some Republicans shared the view that there were times when increased revenue was needed to ensure that government was paying for the things it promised. 

He generally supported addressing social problems through the government. Yet, Simon wrote often of his concerns over the size of government and its level of intrusion into people’s lives. 

It is easy for one to become disheartened in a bitter election cycle such as the current one. The country faces too many serious problems, and both candidates have too few fleshed-out proposals that seem capable of putting us back on track. Partisan gridlock makes the big solutions we need seem next to impossible. 

It is difficult not to imagine that Simon would be a bit disappointed, too. As Jackson writes in his book, Simon likely “would have been appalled” at the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United case. This election and many from this point forward will be marked by faceless super PACs hiding behind innocuous names with millions in donations to back their mudslinging. 

Simon called for leaders to lead and make choices based on what they believe to be sound policy, not popular opinion. But our political culture seems to be moving in the opposite direction as citizens seek out information sources that are echo chambers for their own opinions and require that candidates pass litmus tests without exceptions. 

Writings such as this 2001 essay on leadership make one nostalgic for statesmen with the ability to get things done, like Simon: “A great temptation in political life is to do what is popular, rather than what is in the best interest of a community, a state or a nation. Sometimes, what is popular and what is right coincide, but they do not always mesh. Don’t go to a physician who tells you what you want to hear, and don’t support a candidate or public official who tells you only what you want to hear. Too many in public life follow the Groucho Marx philosophy: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’” 

Illinois Issues, October 2012