October 7, 2009
By Andrew Mitchell
Illinois Politician Paul Simon
While people like former Governor Rod Blagojevich represented for many the worst aspects of Illinois Politics, historian Robert Hartley focused instead on one of Illinois's most beloved politicians, Paul Simon during a presentation Thursday morning.
Hartley recently published a book about Simon's life and legacy, titled, “Paul Simon: The Political Journey of an Illinois Original.” For many young people, Paul Simon's career is a distant memory. Before he died in 2003, he served in various political offices, starting in Illinois House of representatives in 1955 until his retirement from the U.S. Senate in 1997.
Still, he remains a relatively underrated figure in Illinois history; “When I told one of my good friends from the newspaper business that I had written a biography … of Paul Simon,” Hartley said, “his first comment was to ask if my next book was going to be about Art Garfunkel.”
From the podium in the Brookens Auditorium, Hartley shared stories of Simon's past, showcasing the politician’s unique dedication to public service.
“[He was] not perfect, because frankly, I don't know of any who are perfect or have been,” Hartley said, “but he was about as close as anyone could get.”
Hartley told of Simon's early work as a southern Illinois newspaper reporter and editor, including an incident where he helped shut down two houses of prostitution by visiting them and writing about the experience in the first person.
“Oh yes, he escaped with his virtue intact,” Hartley said.
Simon continued writing columns even as he rose to prominence as the politician with horn-rimmed glasses and bow tie, and even though he declared himself to be a loyal Democrat, he had no problem criticizing prominent members of his party, as he did in 1979 with a column titled, “Why I Support Kennedy.”
In it, Simon criticized the leadership skills of then president, Jimmy Carter and threw his support behind Ted Kennedy. Kennedy would get crushed in the primaries, but Simon never wavered from his support, which Hartley said showed a man who was true to his beliefs.
Simon would also found and be the first the director for UIS's Public Affairs Reporting program before he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and a Senate Seat in 1984. He would also unsuccessfully run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1988.
Throughout it all, Hartley says, Simon was a unique politician in that he showed a visible determination to act on his principles, take unpopular positions and explain them in his own words via his written work.
Before there were any meaningful campaign finance laws, Simon would report his spending for public scrutiny, while others did not. UIS Junior English major, Ashleigh Hall, said that was the most impressive thing she learned about Simon.
“He reported his spending when he didn't have to,” she said. “I think most people wouldn't do that if they didn't have to.”
Hartley said it's just one example from, “a public life worth imitating. His political story is as current as a Twitter message.”