From his office on the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University, Paul Simon contemplates the nation, and he worries.
The state's former senior senator, retired from public office but not from public service, sees his country moving into the future without plan or purpose, its civic leaders too willing to take the path of least resistance.
"We just tell people what they want to hear," Simon says. "We're being told by everyone that we can drift into becoming a better nation and having a better world -- and I don't believe that."
It's a theme that Simon, who is just a few weeks shy of turning 75, explores in his just-released book, Our Culture of Pandering. And it's a theme he is likely to broach at a public appearance in Springfield on Saturday. In this book, his 20th, Simon engages major public institutions and faults the leadership of each for taking the easy way out, failing to challenge Americans to do what is needed to build a better society.
For Simon, this culture of pandering is more than a public-policy problem; it's a moral problem. It means we lack leaders who are able and willing to tell the truth. "If I want to improve my home, I have to be willing to sacrifice a little bit. If we want to improve our state, our nation or our world, we have to be willing to sacrifice. But we're not being given that message," Simon says.
Case in point: President George W. Bush championed a major tax cut at the same time he led the U.S. into war. The result is an unprecedented federal deficit and an uncertain commitment to rebuilding Iraq.
"For the first time in the nation's history, we've invaded another country, started a war and had a tax cut at the same time," Simon says. Members of the armed forces are being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, Simon notes, but the public is not being asked to pay the cost of the war -- right now,anyway.
That's the easy way out, Simon says; that's pandering.
And it's not just a condition unique to the public sector. The problem, Simon insists, is pervasive throughout major civic institutions -- schools, media, and even churches: "There is kind of an invisible sign on the front of most churches that says, 'Do not disturb.' We need to be disturbed."
The matter of religious leadership is vital to Simon, the son of a Lutheran pastor. As his brother Arthur followed his father into the ministry (and later founded and headed the charity Bread for the World), Simon pursued journalism and politics. They traveled different paths, but both sons took early lessons to heart, Simon says.
"One of the things we got from primarily my father -- and my mother, to some extent -- was a belief that you have to help people who are impoverished," Simon says. "I think all [major] religious faiths have stressed helping the poor."
Yet the call to serve the less fortunate is missing from too many churches, Simon says,something that may explain why he sees so few young people at the churches he visits. "They [young people] don't see the practice of faith as being relevant. I don't think that means they're not religious -- my guess is, they're just as religious as their parents or grandparents. But we haven't demonstrated that the structure is helpful," Simon says. The religious community, he adds, has an obligation to provide the mechanism for people to help those in need. That makes the practice of faith relevant.
This is weighty stuff from any ex-politician, but Simon's never been just any politician. From his early days in the 1940s as a young newspaper editor who exposed illegal gambling in the Metro East, to his years in the state legislatureas a champion of open government to his years in Congress, when he frequently took positions that were out of sync with those of his party and his constituents, Simon was typically the guy pushing to do the right thing precisely because it was the right thing to do.
He broke with the Democratic leadership by becoming an early proponent of a balanced budget. He bucked popular opinion by leading opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. He took a pro-free-trade stance that cost him traditional labor support and contributed to his disappointing second-place finish in the Iowa caucus during the 1988 presidential contest. When he stood for reelection to the Senate in 1990, he was considered vulnerable because he'd taken unpopular positions. The handicappers were wrong: Simon easily beat back a challenge from U.S. Rep. Lynn Martin. "The strange thing is, voters appreciate people who tell them the truth," Simon says. "It's easy to just follow the polls, but it's unwise."
When Simon left office in 1997, saying he was tired of a Washington consumed by fundraising and finger-pointing, he didn't remain in the nation's capital to lobby his former colleagues. Instead, Simon returned to his home in Southern Illinois and launched a think tank in the unlikely location of Carbondale -- more than 100 miles from the nearest metropolitan area. There, Simon and the staff of the Public Policy Institute work on what he describes as "cutting-edge" issues -- how to provide safe drinking water in developing nations, capital punishment, the role of the armed forces in peacekeeping and nation-building, the incarceration of the mentally ill.
Simon, who teaches classes every other semester, has brought prominent guest lecturers to SIUC -- among them former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, who earlier this month told a Carbondale audience that the attack on Iraq was the "worst policy decision this nation has ever made."
The Institute shares a campus building with scientists who are busy studying new uses for soybeans. Though it's far from centers of public policy in Washington and the Northeast, the location seems perfectly matched to an offbeat public servant who has almost always appeared content to march to his own drummer.
This Saturday, Simon is scheduled to speak on the topic "God's Children ... How Can We All Live Together?" at First Presbyterian Church. His appearance is part of the first session of the Academy for Faith in the New World, a project of the church's Vision 2003 Team. The session will cover several topics, including global poverty, world trade, and Islam.
For their first keynote speaker, academy organizers were looking for someone who was not only "in tune" with the issues but also was a "person of faith," says Ann Kelson, academy director.
Paul Simon, she says, more than fit the bill.
Registration for the Academy for Faith in the New World begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, at First Presbyterian Church, 321 S. 7th St. Simon is scheduled to speak from 10:15 a.m. until noon. The event, which is free, continues until 4 p.m.
Here are excerpts from a recent interview Simon gave Illinois Times:
On President George W. Bush: "For a long time, there was this image: 'Here's a guy who's not very smart.' That's inaccurate. Does he have limited background, for example, in foreign policy? You bet, but I have to add we have chosen, fairly regularly, presidents with very limited background in foreign policy.... That lack of background ends up costing us."
On continued involvement in Iraq: "We have no choice: We have to do everything we can to get it into shape.... We're going to have to pay attention to basics -- getting electricity to people [and] getting safe water.... We have an obligation [to rebuild Iraq] because we went in and helped destroy it. We just can't walk away from this now."
On current Democratic presidential candidates: "I'm not ready to make an endorsement. Carol Moseley-Braun is from Illinois, and I'm sympathetic to her. [Campaigning] gives her a chance to project her views to the nation, and I think she's being constructive. In terms of who's in the top tier of candidates, Howard Dean strikes me as the one who's the gutsiest, the closest to being a Harry Truman.... I would not be uncomfortable with any of the major possibilities."
On legalized gambling: "I don't object morally if you and your friends want to go to your home and play a little poker. That's okay with me. But to have this legalized, organized appeal to people and prey on their weaknesses, it's something government shouldn't be doing."
On media coverage of violence: "Research is just overwhelming that entertainment-television violence does harm to our kids. There's just no question about that -- the evidence is just as strong as it is on cigarettes' doing damage. You read in the newspapers and see on television a lot about cigarettes [but] hardly anything about this other part of violence because these people [broadcasters] are in bed with these people, making money."
Paul Simon at a glance
Born: Nov. 29, 1928, in Eugene, Ore., to Martin and Ruth Simon
Education: University of Oregon and Dana College (Blair, Neb.)
Career Highlights: In 1948, buys and edits the weekly Troy Tribune. Testifies in 1951 before a congressional committee after his newspaper exposes illegal gambling in Madison County.
Serves 1951-53 as a corporal in Army counterintelligence.
Runs successfully in 1954 as a reform candidate for a state legislative seat. After four two-year House terms, wins a seat in the state Senate. In 1964, after failing to interest statehouse reporters in exposing legislative corruption, writes "The Illinois Legislature: A Study in Corruption" for Harper's Magazine. Wins race for Illinois lieutenant governor in 1968. Runs for governor in 1972 with the support of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley but loses to Dan Walker.
Spends two years at Sangamon State University, where he creates a graduate course in public-affairs reporting that's still offered by UIS.
Wins a seat in Congress in 1974; beats Charles Percy, the incumbent U.S. senator, in 1984; runs for president in 1988 but comes in second in the Iowa caucus to U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). Defends his Senate seat against U.S. Rep. Lynn Martin in 1990 but leaves Congress voluntarily after the completion of his second term in 1997.
Personal: Marries Jeanne Hurley, a former legislative colleague, in 1960. He and Jeanne Simon have two children. She dies of cancer in 2000. In 2001, marries Patricia Derge, widow of former SIU president David Derge.