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At Home With the Senator

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"Hello, this is Paul," said the man who answered the phone.

The voice was unmistakably Senator Simon's. I reached him last summer at a number I'd gotten out of the phone book. I paused, then launched into my spiel--I'd been a supporter during his presidential run in '88 ("Thank you," he said) and my wife and kids and I would be in the Carbondale area soon, on our way to and from a weekend camping trip in Kentucky. We'd love to meet him, if only for a few minutes.

"Nice of you to call," he said. "Let me look at my calendar. Well, Friday's out. Saturday's out. Hmm, Sunday might work. I'll be coming back the night before from an event in Saint Louis. Tell you what, call my scheduler, Pam, and ask her if Sunday afternoon will work."

Pam got back to us with the news that we could have about 15 minutes at the former senator's home on Sunday between 1 and 1:30. She sent a map.

Even with the map we had some trouble finding his road in rural Makanda, and we didn't pull into his driveway till after 1:15. As we hurriedly unbuckled the kids, he appeared on the porch. The trademark bow tie was unknotted, hanging around an open collar. Our four-year-old daughter was hopping a bit, and after he ushered us inside I had to tell him she needed the toilet. He led the way around the corner, explaining that they'd had some plumbing trouble recently and that he'd have to tinker with it. He entered the bathroom ahead of us and got down on his hands and knees next to the bowl to adjust the valve. Our daughter hovered at his hip, peering over his rounded shoulder--not exactly the scene I'd anticipated. He rose, nodded, and apologized for the delay.

Back out in the living room he told us about the house. He and his first wife, Jeanne (who died in 2000), had had it built about 30 years before. "All passive solar construction," he said, motioning to the picture windows positioned to catch morning sun. "We were pretty involved in the designing. I asked the contractor what R-value he recommended. He told me, and I said, 'Double it.'"

The property was large, kept well but simply, in harmony with the surrounding woods. Most of it could be seen from the windows. He gestured toward a small lake covering several acres at the northeast corner of the land. "On mornings when it's not too cold, I swim over and back," he said.

Predictably, the den was lined with books, most of them about politics or U.S. history. An adjacent hallway was devoted to U.S. presidents, with signed, framed photos and documents from many administrations. The conversation turned to the Iraq war. "War on terror?" he asked rhetorically, shaking his head. "What's the connection? A few meetings at a hotel? With that as the standard you could attack anybody." Would congressmen who'd opposed the war be in a weaker position next year? "Oh no, I think they'd be stronger." He mentioned his upcoming book, tentatively titled Politics in an Age of Pandering. "It's not so much whether people agree with you," he said, "but whether they think you're leveling with them."

After demonstrating to the kids the delights of his big reclining chair, he added that he was leaning toward endorsing Howard Dean for president--which he did from his hospital room, in a conference call with reporters in Iowa five days before he died.

It was after 2 by the time he walked us back out to the driveway. Our two-year-old had been holding our car keys and we couldn't find them immediately. The former senator cheerfully joined us in a brief, successful search.

I sent a letter when we got home, thanking him and lamenting the state of political affairs. He wrote back promptly: "Many thanks for your thoughtfulness in both stopping and sending me your generous letter.... There are reasons for pessimism. And the nation has gone through these droughts in intellectual ferment and compassion. But leadership that appeals to the noble in us, I hope will emerge one of these days and the American people will follow that just as they will follow greed if someone appeals to greed. The alternative for you and me and others is to give up. That really is no alternative."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Jeff Balch.

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