Paul Simon Biography

Born Paul Martin Simon, November 29, 1928, in Eugene, OR; died after undergoing heart surgery, December 9, 2003, in Springfield, IL. United States senator. Paul Simon, who spent 12 years as a United States senator from Illinois and ran for president in 1988, earned a reputation for honesty, fiscal responsibility, and a belief that government can improve people's lives. The son of missionaries, he fought against corruption as a newspaper editor, then was elected to the Illinois legislature, where he got the nickname "Reverend." His bow ties and horn-rimmed glasses became symbols of his forthrightness, helping create an image that may have hurt his presidential campaign but brought him immense respect. "I never served with anybody else who voted his conscience every time," Dale Bumpers (D-Arkansas), another former senator, told the New York Times.

Simon was born on November 29, 1928, to Reverend Martin and Ruth Simon. Both Lutheran missionaries, they had returned from China and settled in Eugene, Oregon, while Ruth was pregnant. They instilled a social conscience in their son. Later in life, Simon recalled his father opposing the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II, an unpopular stance that embarrassed his teenage son, though he later decided his father was right.

Simon enrolled in the University of Oregon at age 16, then transferred to Dana College in Nebraska, about the same time his parents moved to Illinois. He was elected Dana College's student body president and helped create a racially integrated admissions policy for the school. He left college at 19 when the Lions Club of Troy, Illinois, convinced him to buy the town newspaper and use it to fight local gambling interests. He exposed illegal casinos and brothels, and testified before the Senate Crime Investigating Committee in 1951. Though the gambling rings had bought off legislators in both political parties, reformers in the Democratic Party convinced Simon to run for the Illinois House in 1954.

He won a seat in the House, and joined with other reformers to pass an open meetings law and rewrite adoption and penal laws. He released his personal financial records to prove his honesty, long before it was common for politicians to do so. He married a fellow legislator, Jeanne Hurley of Wilmette, in 1960, and they went to the Democratic National Convention for their honeymoon.

In 1964, Simon wrote "A Study In Corruption," an article for Harper's magazine, that alleged several fellow Illinois legislators were bought off by organized crime and the racing industry or extorted bribes from special interest groups. That made him a lot of enemies in the legislature—but he had powerful friends, too. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago helped Simon become the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 1968, and he won. But when he tried to move up to governor in 1972, he lost in the Democratic primary after being attacked for his tax reform plan, which would have raised one tax while cutting another. He bounced back quickly, though: after spending some time teaching journalism, he ran for U.S. Congress in 1974 and won.

Among his fellow congressmen, Simon was not very popular; he finished third when he ran for chairman of the House Budget Committee. But he spoke out on education issues such as literacy programs and college loans and championed political morality. "The path upwards in politics is a slippery, stumbling one for both the officeholder and the public," he wrote in his 1984 book, The Glass House, according to Ray Long in the Chicago Tribune . "But unless there are those willing to tread the slippery path, willing to stumble, willing to expose themselves, warts and all, willing to give the nation something good and noble toward which to strive, we will follow the downward path ."

In 1984, he became a star in the Democratic Party when he challenged incumbent Illinois Republican senator Charles Percy and won—in a year that brought a Republican landslide in most of the country. In the Senate, he was a strong liberal, believing in government social programs. "Government is not the enemy," Simon said, according to "Government is simply a tool that can be used wisely or unwisely." But he also supported a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution at a time when many liberal Democrats felt that eliminating the country's large budget deficit would keep them from providing enough social spending.

Simon took that mix of government activism and pay-as-you-go caution into the 1988 presidential race, where he failed to excite people. He did fairly well in the early Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, but the only primary he won was in his home state, and he dropped out, short on campaign money. During the campaign, his bow tie and proper manner seemed to attract the most attention, and he played with his public image, appearing on the TV show Saturday Night Live with the singer Paul Simon in a comedy routine where both pretended to be confused about who was supposed to be the guest host.

After leaving the presidential race, Simon continued his work in the Senate for eight more years, winning reelection easily in 1990. He kept supporting a balanced-budget amendment and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

When Simon retired in 1996, almost every member of the Senate, including conservatives, wore a bow tie in tribute to him. Dick Durbin, a fellow Democrat and former aide of Simon's, succeeded him in the Senate. Simon became director of a public policy institute named after himself at Southern Illinois University. During his life he wrote 22 books, including his autobiography which was published in 1999. His first wife, Jeanne, died in 2000, and he married Patricia Derge, a former high school government teacher, in 2001.

In early December of 2003, Simon endorsed presidential candidate Howard Dean—another fiscally responsible liberal—from his hospital bed in Spring-field, Illinois, just before undergoing heart surgery. He died on December 9, 2003, due to complications from the surgery. He is survived by his second wife, Patricia; his daughter, Sheila; his son, Martin; and six grandchildren.


Chicago Tribune, December 10, 2003, sec. 1, p. 1, p. 6., (December 12, 2003).

Independent, December 11, 2003, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2003, p. B12.

New York Times, December 10, 2003, p. A29.

Washington Post, December 10, 2003, p. B6.

—Erick Trickey

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