Politics: Simon on the Stump | Essay | Chicago Reader

Politics: Simon on the Stump 

For Paul Simon, who styles himself a friend of farmers, Iowa is an essential first step. If he doesn't win there or finish a strong second, he'll quickly drop out of sight.

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The bank sign in Ottumwa, Iowa, flashed 93 degrees. Senator Paul Simon sat in the back of his air-conditioned campaign car, insulated from the mid-morning heat. He was speeding to a luncheon with Wapello County Democrats. It was June 16, the last day of a four-day sweep through this midwestern state, and Simon was trying to win the hearts and minds of the people. Time for a politician to shine.

His two-car motorcade pulled into the hotel parking lot. Reporters and staff piled out. Simon strode into the lobby and down to the basement where tables were set and the Wapello Democrats were waiting. He entered the room, smiling, and about 20 people looked his way. He began shaking hands.

"Hi! I'm Paul Simon. Who are you?" he went around the room, asking people individually. After each response, he asked, "What do you do?"

Each replied.

"Well good for you," he answered. "I'm running for president."

Iowa will hold the nation's first presidential caucus February 8. Candidates from both parties will be vying for a fast start on the campaign trail. Ever since Jimmy Carter won the 1976 Democratic caucus in this state of less than three million, Iowa has been considered a springboard. Iowa losers, unless they finish a strong second, drop out of sight. So for Simon, the caucuses are a serious matter. "We have to do well in Iowa," he said while driving to the luncheon.

Iowans share his seriousness. While speaking to a crowd in Des Moines on Simon's behalf, former Iowa congressman Berkley Bedell's voice had warbled and filled with emotion, saying that God has bequeathed to this modest state the power to help choose the next leader of the free world. Bedell, a former fishing-tackle manufacturer, was forced to leave his 12-year career in the House last year after suffering a rare disease contracted from the bite of a wood tick. Now recovered, Bedell said his faith in Simon is so strong that he wonders whether his affliction was a divine detour sent to reroute him from public office onto Simon's campaign.

As Simon and his wife, Jeanne, made the rounds at the luncheon, Wapello County attorney William Appel said most Democrats, including himself, won't say whom they support until every candidate has been heard. "They don't want to be stampeded by anybody," he said. Wayne Millard, president of the Letter Carriers Union local, was also noncommittal; Most Democrats have a wait-and-see attitude, he said.

Twenty minutes after Simon's entrance, nearly every hand has been shaken. Mouths began to fill with crustless sandwiches and carrot sticks. A union man in work boots and blue jeans pushed his pin-studded baseball cap back on his forehead and stared as Simon rose to speak.

"We are at the edge of a cliff," the candidate said. "In a matter of minutes, we can create a world where the laughter of a child will never be heard and where a blade of grass will never grow."

Simon said his first priority if elected will be to stop testing nuclear weapons and to ask the Soviets to do the same. The first step toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons stockpiled by the superpowers, he said, would be to ratify a mutually verifiable test-ban treaty. If the Soviets refused to join the test ban, the United States would have no choice but to resume testing. But a ban on testing doesn't mean an end to building bombs. "There's one good thing about nuclear weapons," he said. "They wear out with age." Maintaining a deterrent to Soviet attack means maintaining the U.S. panoply of nuclear weapons. "You always have to modernize," said Simon.

In the so-called nuclear triad (land-, sea-, and air-based missiles), Simon favors the submarine. "I believe that of the three forms of . . . the triad, the one that is environmentally the safest, the one that offers us the most security, the one that has a number of other advantages, is the submarine side of the deterrent," he said.

He also favors cruise missiles, the airplanelike missiles that fly below radar at a slow speed. Cruise missiles are safer than other nuclear weapons, he said, because they are "more easily recallable." He said, "You have substantially more time to recall cruise missiles and, at the same time, provide a defense."

Later, a reporter asked Simon what he meant. "There are a lot of things that are recallable, but the difficulty is that the time is so short," he said. "Most of the larger missiles are recallable." To recall, said Simon, doesn't mean actually returning the weapon but causing it to self-destruct, or to be disarmed, or in some other way to not detonate at its target.

(Simon's ideas on recalling missiles were later disputed by Frederick Lamb, physics professor and nuclear-weapons specialist at the University of Illinois. Weapons makers have the technology to create recall mechanisms, said Lamb, but they refrain from using it because they fear that the Soviets may infiltrate the system and neuter U.S. missiles once they are launched. The Soviets are certain to follow the same logic in not deploying recall technology, he said, although they don't announce it.)

Simon told the Iowans what he would do if alerted that the Soviets had launched a nuclear attack. "The immediate issue is to get on that red phone to see if Soviet missiles can be recalled." He refused to elaborate on the hypothetical attack scenario, saying real-life reactions depend on variables lacking in hypotheticals. While driving to a campaign stop in a car stuffed with reporters the next day, Simon picked up his dictaphone and made a note: "When we use the term 'recallable' on a nuclear missile, get me a definition of exactly what we mean on that."

If elected, Simon would put an end to Reagan's Star Wars plan, or Strategic Defense Initiative. "The last thing we need is to arm space," said Simon. The proposed space-based antimissile system would be too expensive, and even if it were as effective as its proponents project, it could be easily evaded by existing Soviet technology. Cruise missiles, for example, are impervious to the Star Wars defense. If only 10 percent of the Soviets' strategic arsenal were to penetrate the proposed space shield during a full-scale attack, Simon said, about 1,050 warheads would still reach U.S. soil. "That's an end to civilization as we know it," he said. "You can put a nuclear device in the back of a pickup truck in Des Moines, push a button a thousand miles away, and there is no more Des Moines."

The phenomenal cost of the Star Wars plan is another reason to stop it, he said. The most expensive project in. the history of humankind was the U.S. interstate highway system, which cost $123 billion. Cost projections for SDI range from $500 billion to $2 trillion.

Simon also said he would lower defense spending overall, but waffled on the amount. At one point he said he would lower the yearly defense budget by about $25 billion, but later said he didn't know how much it should be lowered. "I don't want to be giving, off the top of my head, numbers that are irresponsible." Simon said he favors improving U.S. conventional, or nonnuclear, forces.

Diplomacy is another topic dear to Simon. "Why do we pile up all these weapons?" Because we fear each other. Why do we fear each other? In large measure because we don't understand each other." Simon said he wants to increase foreign exchange and foreign-langdage programs as well as the education budget. (Increased funding for education was important to at least one of Simon's listeners. Gloria Ann Swanson, Mahaska County's Democratic chairwoman, said she was pleased to hear his proeducation stands. But that wasn't enough to win her support. Swanson said she, like most other Iowans, is not ready to endorse anyone. "They want to visit with them and find out what their views are on a lot of things before they make their decisions," she said.)

Simon elaborated on the need for education, particularly about foreign cultures. "Security is more than simply a collection of weapons systems. If we have a foreign policy built upon caring and not on viewing people as pawns in some kind of East-West struggle, I think we'll find our foreign policy infinitely more effective.

"Foreign policy also has to be levelheaded. Foreign policy also has to be built on preserving freedom. Foreign policy also has to be built on dealing with tyrants once in a while," Simon added. "I am not a pacifist. I believe there may be times when weapons have to used." Simon would not say just when those times were. He did say he favors an increased military role for the United Nations. The United States and other countries could contribute more troops to the UN peacekeeping force, deployed to trouble spots where a buffer is needed between hostile countries.

The luncheon crowd was quiet as Simon continued to speak about nuclear war, trade, unemployment, and another of his favorite subjects: how far south his hometown lies. "My home on Route One, Makanda, Illinois, is 175 miles from the Mississippi border. It is 331 miles from the city of Chicago. It is south of Louisville. It is south of the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. When I speak of the south, I say I am from the land of grits and gospel singing," he said. "My roots are rural," he added later. "I've baled hay; I've milked cows. . . . I have an understanding of what farmers go through and of rural life."

Iowans aren't southerners but seem interested in Simon's southern appeal because of their concern for his "electability." Fourteen southern states will hold their primaries on the same day next spring. In the strongly Democratic south, the coordinated primaries will be a key test for Democratic contenders. Several careful Iowans said they want to be certain they nominate someone who won't be rejected out of hand in other states.

Besides Makanda's latitude, Simon also speaks often about his trademark bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses. They accent his appearance: a face flush and full, eyes sharp, oversized ears and lips. He stood before the Wapello Democrats, suit coat off, sleeves rolled up, his front pocket overstuffed with pens and notes. Simon told the group he has refused the advice of campaign consultants who told him to drop the bow tie and glasses. It may be the idiosyncrasies of his wardrobe that bring Simon the most attention. "He's certainly going to be his own person, even as far as his appearance," said Gloria Swanson.

Having a strong sense of his own identity means he feels no need to please critics or supporters, Simon said. "Leading doesn't always mean just doing whatever is popular," he said. "I am not a person who is insecure," he added later while driving through Knoxville, a town southeast of Des Moines. "I know myself, and I think that is an essential part of good leadership."

Simon actually thrives on the distinction the media give him for his appearance, claiming he's the antithesis of a "blow-dried" candidate. At his Iowa campaign headquarters in Des Moines, as he sat next to his wife and posed for photographers, he loosened the bow tie knot then refastened it, explaining with a smile that "it's just like tying your shoe."

To explain his brand of leadership, Simon compared his management style to those of recent presidents. Reagan's style is marred by his lack of awareness of what is happening in government, said Simon. "That's not my style." Jimmy Carter paid too much attention to details and had no sense of direction--also not his style. Gerald Ford, on the other hand, was not bogged down by details and knew what was happening in Congress. Ford's problem--one that Simon said he won't repeat--was that he established no program to follow. "I think the Gerald Ford style of knowing enough about a program that you could provide direction and, second, working closely with members of the House and Senate is the kind of management style that I'll be following."

When Simon had finished speaking to the luncheon crowd of Wapello Democrats, he shook more hands, answered more questions, and moved into a side room for a quick interview with a local television station. His staff pulled down the "Paul Simon" banner and prepared the two cars for a quick departure from Ottumwa. Along the way to his next campaign stop, in Oskaloosa, Simon asked to bend the day's schedule so he could speak to workers who were picketing a foundry. Later that day he would address a group of Democrats in Mahaska County, give an interview at the Oskaloosa Herald, drive back to Des Moines, and in the evening fly to Nashville, Tennessee, for a meeting with the U.S. Conference of Mayors the next day. Already that day he had eaten breakfast in Knoxville with several labor leaders, state legislators, and townspeople and been interviewed by two newspapers and a radio station.

When Simon finished his last interview, at about 4 PM, staff members and reporters piled back into the two cars and wheeled out of Oskaloosa's city limits and onto the highway. It was one hour back to Des Moines. As we crossed Iowa's rolling landscape, a staffer leaned into the backseat and said the schedule would allow an hour for dinner before the plane left for Nashville. Simon and his wife seemed relieved. He began a final question-and-answer session with a reporter, then announced he wanted respite for a five-minute nap. As the car passed over the Des Moines River, Simon leaned his head against his wife's shoulder and fell asleep.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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