Paul Simon and ‘that darned bowtie’

Paul Simon published the newspaper in his hometown of Troy, Illinois. He brought a small-town newsman’s sense of honesty and fair play to the unfair art of politics.

“I’m still learning this business,” he told me in 1972. “And I’ve got a lot to learn.”

He learned fast. Paul Simon was 19 when he dropped out of college and borrowed $3,600 to buy that failing weekly newspaper in Troy. He revived the paper by turning it into a muckraking journal, crusading against the crime and corruption that dominated life and politics in the Metro East area of Illinois, right across the river from St. Louis.

His editorials came to the attention of then-Gov. Adlai Stevenson who sent the Illinois State Police downstate to bust up the gambling halls, whorehouses and loan sharks who controlled the area. Simon’s role drew national media attention and he testified before Congress about organized crime in Southern Illinois.

From that weekly in Troy, Simon built a chain of 16 newspapers, selling them in 1966. His popularity as a crusader brought him to the Illinois State House where he authored the state’s first open meetings law and other bills that forced state agencies to be more accountable to the people.

But Simon’s political crusading brought its own irony. The crusader became a favorite of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the most powerful political boss of the time. That association cost Simon a shot at the governor’s mansion in 1972 when his ties to Daley became the central issue against upstart Dan Walker.

“I was the reformed who got beat by a reformer,” he said after the loss. “That’s politics.”

Simon didn’t stay out of politics long. Two years later, he went to Washington as a new member of the House. In another 10 years, he beat incumbent Chuck Percy in the closest Senate race in Illinois history.

In the Senate, Simon campaigned against TV violence and often championed the underdog. He would follow the liberal agenda of his Democratic colleagues when it matched his beliefs and defy them when it didn’t. Paul Simon was always his own man.

That was Paul Simon’s style. If he thought something was right, he did it. If he thought something was wrong, he crusaded against it. He didn’t modify his positions or his statements to be popular. He didn’t let polls dictate his decisions.

“I’m not done,” he told me in 1986. “There’s still more to do.”

“More to do” meant running for President in 1988. As a presidential candidate, Simon ignored the advice of his consultants and said what was on his mind.

During his campaign, he went to a Chicago White Sox game. A reporter asked the usual question:

“What do you think of the Sox?”

“Don’t know,” Simon said. “I’m a Cubs fan.”

He won the Illinois primary but failed to score anywhere else and dropped out of the race. He left the Senate, choosing to write books and start a public policy center at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale.

Simon always seemed out of place in Washington. His dark hair was slicked back. He wore glasses in unfashionable frames and always wore a bowtie. He came out of Illinois, one of the most corrupt states in the nation, but was, himself, never tainted by scandal. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and didn’t even cuss.

And he always wore that bowtie.

“I’ve got to know,” I asked him during an interview in 1971. “Why do you wear that bowtie?”

Simon took the tie off (it was a clip on) and smiled.

“Look at me,” he said. “I’m the ugliest guy you will ever see in politics. But when I wear this bowtie, people don’t notice my ugly mug. They just see the darned bowtie.”

Paul Simon died Tuesday of complications from open heart surgery. He was 75. He, and that darned bowtie, will be missed.