In modern-day politics, when voices of moneyed interests speak louder than voices of the working poor; when partisanship and vicious attack ads trump community interest and concern for others, it is easy for people to become cynical. At a time like this, we desperately need honorable, trustworthy leaders.
Paul Simon, the bow-tie-wearing former Senator from Illinois was one of them. Simon, who died last week, was an antidote to cynicism about politics.
Simon, whose career began as the nation's youngest newspaper publisher at age 19, used his small-town paper to expose organized crime and the local political corruption that enabled it. As a member of the Illinois legislature, Simon campaigned for reform and openness. Seeing little progress, he eventually wrote an exposé for Harper's Magazine, "The Illinois Legislature, A Study in Corruption." The article obviously was not well received by some colleagues, a few of whom presented him with a "Benedict Arnold" award.
Paul Simon was never a slave to fashion, either sartorially or politically. He stuck to his values and beliefs regardless of the political consequences. He was vocally supporting civil rights, even joining Martin Luther King in Birmingham back in the 1950's when there was both personal and political danger in doing so.
A believer that Government could be shaped to make people's lives better, Simon defeated a long-term incumbent Senator during the anti-government tide of Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984.
When he was running for President, Simon had the courage to stand up to Oliver North, despite North's widespread popularity at the time. Simon explained, "It is absolutely essential for the president of the United States to not hold his finger to the wind and say what is popular today. You really have to say what is in the best interest of this nation and move on it, no matter what."
When Paul Simon received an "Integrity in Politics" award, the sponsors noted that Simon reached out for the best in people. The awards committee quoted Simon's explanation that government leaders can appeal either to baser instincts, often using ugly racial or nationalistic overtones, or they can "appeal to the noble in each of us. Leaders can 'win' either way, although those who appeal to fears and hatred and selfishness sometimes have an easier time of it politically. But leaders who appeal to the better instincts in us show a wisdom and self-restraint and compassion and common sense that we should applaud."
When Paul Simon retired from the Senate he continued his frugal habits, once again returning unused office expenses back to the Senate. In fact, he rented a truck to move his library back to Illinois, because the professional movers' estimate was too high -- even though he knew voters would not have any chance to reward his frugality.
When he learned that he would receive a higher salary for his new position at Southern Illinois University than the university president, he asked them to lower his salary. Taking higher pay just wasn't right, Simon felt.
Paul Simon still had the same integrity he displayed when I worked for him as an intern twenty-five years ago. At his funeral, the bipartisan tributes were filled with references to that unwavering integrity and honesty as well as his compassion. These values are ultimately the antidote to cynicism.
Senator Ted Kennedy expressed it well. He compared Simon's idealism and courage to his brother Bobby's. He quoted Bobby Kennedy's statement to students in Capetown, South Africa in 1966, "Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence, yet is the one essential, vital quality for those who work to change a world that yields most painfully to change." Ted Kennedy added, "Paul Simon had that quality of moral courage in abundance."
"In another era," Kennedy said, Paul Simon "would have been a founding father."
"He was that good."