But in the year of the Ronald Reagan landslide, my dad voted for his first Democrat, U.S. Senate candidate Paul Simon.
My father disagreed with probably 90 percent of Simon's policy stances. But it wasn't Nicaragua, or abortion, or the defense budget, or welfare cuts that counted when it came to voting for Paul Simon. It wasn't even the fact that Simon's opponent that year, incumbent Charles Percy, was one of the last of the "Rockefeller Republicans" that the Goldwater crowd so despised. Dad had voted for Percy before, and he probably would have done so again if Simon wasn't on the ballot.
Paul Simon, dad explained back then to his completely astonished sons, was honest. Unlike most politicians, dad said, you could trust Simon's word. Barely out of high school, Simon bought a newspaper and used it to rail against the mob and its political allies in the St. Louis Metro East area. He had real guts, dad said. Simon eventually owned a string of newspapers throughout southern Illinois, demonstrating a considerable business savvy, which my father admired.
I've always found it astonishing that a staunch conservative and Dillard Republican such as my father would have so much respect, even reverence, for one of the most liberal Democratic senators this state has ever produced. But dad's opinion helped me to understand that Simon's voting record wasn't why voters gave him two terms in the Senate and would have gladly given him as many as he wanted.
It was the fact that voters believed they were electing an honest, decent, intelligent, thoughtful man to represent them to their nation's highest legislative body. It wasn't about sound bites, or good hair, or the latest wedge issue. It was, instead, about the pride in knowing that they were sending one of their state's very best citizens to Washington, D.C. They trusted him to do the right thing, even if they didn't always, or usually, agree with him.
People like Paul Simon, who died last week, don't come around very often. Just take a quick gander at the current crop of U.S. Senate candidates if you have any doubts.
We've got a notorious political fixer (Mayor Daley's trusted hack Gery Chico); some blow-dried wealthy preeners (Jack Ryan among them); the clueless (in a year when Democratic voters are growing ever more frustrated with their national party's refusal to stop the Republican momentum in Washington, Democrat Maria Pappas' assertion that she wasn't going to Washington to pick a fight with President Bush is perhaps the most self-destructive statement uttered by anyone in this race to date); and people paralyzed by the fear of saying anything too controversial (Dan Hynes could put a room full of cranked-out methamphetamine junkies to sleep).
Nobody stacks up, although Democrat Barack Obama has the potential to at least step into Simon's shoes, if not actually fill them, and Republican Steve Rauschenberger is in the ballpark.
And I guess that's the whole point. Simon was popular because he was such a rarity. He didn't have to remind us, as Peter Fitzgerald's people do all the time, about how honest he was. We knew it.
A few years ago, Simon returned to Springfield and demanded that the General Assembly pass an ethics-reform bill. The powers that be at first tried to ignore him, then, when that didn't work, they attempted to co-opt him. But Simon stayed focused and kept the heat on the legislature. Eventually, the General Assembly approved the most sweeping ethics reform law in the state's history. The law has since been greatly strengthened, but the update wouldn't have been possible without Simon's initial work.
Some ex-politicians become lobbyists, others join corporate boards and spend their sunset years golfing. Simon chose a different path. And we are all the better for it.
By the way, my father, still a Goldwater Republican at heart, is now supporting Howard Dean for president.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).