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Paul Simon's New Public Policy Institute
Former senator's clout helps attract big names to policy conferences

By Carl Irving

Carbondale, Illinois

Former U.S. Senator Paul Simon
Former U.S. Senator Paul Simon runs a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University that tackles such subjects as U.S.-China relations and America's burgeoning prison population.
AN UNPRECEDENTED EVENT with international impact almost occurred on this quiet, rural campus last month: Leading officials from both China and Taiwan were to share a platform at the student center here at Southern Illinois University (SIU).

But it never quite happened, despite the best efforts of faculty member and former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. The State Department declined to let Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan enter the country, and then the Chinese government ordered their ambassador, Li Zhaoxing, to stay away as well.

"Why is a freely elected vice president put into the same category as a convicted felon for purposes of visiting the United States?" Simon asked indignantly at the opening of the conference he had organized for his new Public Policy Institute, to discuss keeping the peace between China and Taiwan. "The Taiwan Straits are one of the potential flash points in the world today. But we had an easier time getting Israelis and Palestinians together for talks here two months ago."

Despite failing to get the "two Chinas" in the same room for debate, Simon's constant presence and encouragement helped to steer the conference toward what several participants saw as a thoughtful, useful conclusion.

Simon, after a long legislative career that fine-tuned his ability to speak out and make a point, has been welcomed home as a needed stimulant at Southern Illinois.

"Paul Simon is a man who thinks globally, yet is rooted here, in a rural, economically depressed area," SIU President Ted Sanders said.

Unlike most retiring senators, Simon had rejected options to stay in Washington, as well as dozens of invitations to join more prestigious campuses, including Northwestern University.

Since January 1997, when he retired after 40 years in politics -- the last 12 as a Democratic senator from Illinois -- Simon has been teaching classes each semester at SIU, while organizing conferences of experts to formulate advice about solving current political and social problems at state, national and international levels.

He and his wife, Jeanne Hurley Simon (who recently retired as chairwoman of the National Council on Libraries and Information Science and now serves as a volunteer adjunct professor in library affairs at SIU), have settled permanently in their long-time home in the nearby town of Makanda, population 402. A daughter, her husband and two grandchildren live in Carbondale.

Mike Lawrence, Simon's associate director at the institute who formerly did press-related work for two decades in the state capital of Springfield, said a number of faculty members have told him that Simon's presence has been "one of the most positive developments in the recent history of SIU." Sparked by interest in the conferences he has organized, the senator has been repeatedly interviewed on National Public Radio. The Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post Dispatch, and other major newspapers also have reported on some of the sessions.

"Our aim is to make a positive difference in policy today and establish a pattern on how to make a difference tomorrow," Lawrence said.

"Success breeds success," he added. "Foundations are more interested in results than research reports. We will establish ourselves as an institute willing to work on different projects and with people on a bipartisan basis to get things done. If we carry out our mission successfully, we will leave a legacy."

Students have not yet flocked to Simon's gatherings, but some faculty -- especially those in political science, history and law -- have joined in inviting experts and personally participating, as the events he organizes receive increasing attention. Simon and Lawrence attribute this to keeping a focus on current and future issues.

"We differ from most public policy institutes at universities, because our bottom line is where we say it's possible to accomplish something concrete, and not just have an intellectual discussion," Simon pointed out during an interview. He conceded there has been "a little adverse reaction" to some of his sessions, such as the one last year with two noted ex-convicts on hand. "But I don't want this institute just to do soft things," he said.

Simon had to undergo emergency heart bypass surgery early in January, which may require postponing his plans for inviting experts in February to explore whether Congress should renew the law authorizing independent prosecutors, such as Kenneth Starr.

The conference about that issue will take place in St. Louis, across the Mississippi from a smaller SIU branch in Edwardsville. Most of the conferences are held at the Carbondale campus, which is located, in President Sanders' words, "as far as we can get from either coast." The region has been depressed for a decade, since new air quality rules closed down the principal industry -- mining high-sulfur coal.

The Carbondale campus now is the most important employer and economic stimulant in the area. Founded as Southern Illinois Normal University in 1869, the campus expanded after the Second World War and now has nearly 20,000 full-time students, about 25 percent of them doing graduate work. Renamed Southern Illinois University in 1947, the campus began to attract students from Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. By the early 1990s, SIU had the nation's tenth largest number of foreign students, a ranking that faded only recently because of the economic downturn in Asia, according to John Haller, vice president of academic services.

For his latest gathering, which cost the institute about $60,000, Simon had invited China experts to seek ways to avert violence -- and American military involvement -- in the Taiwan Straits that separate the People's Republic of China from the island where the government still calls itself the Republic of China. The 30 scholars, diplomats and journalists argued for two days before agreeing on a number of suggestions to the three powers. Simon sent them to Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

Participants included an old Simon friend and colleague, Republican Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, second ranking majority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who gave a detailed address about the pressures on Congress from business and government regarding U.S. policies toward China.

Orville Schell, a frequent writer about China and graduate dean of journalism at UC Berkeley, pointed out that "the truth can hurt, and it's a problem of history and old ideology." Schell drew the heartiest applause of the meeting when he criticized the U.S. government for blocking the Taiwanese vice president from taking part: "Do we believe in freedom of speech or don't we?" he asked.

"There are too many ghosts of the past that can't be eliminated without resolution of what China is today," he added.

Winston Lord, former ambassador to China and an expert on American diplomacy in the Far East, praised President Clinton for maintaining an effective policy to deter warfare in the Straits. He advocated more U.S. peacekeeping policies which occasionally lean on "ambiguity" to avoid flareups. Other China experts from Washington, Taiwan and several universities, including Brown and Chicago, took part in intense discussions for two days and nights.

"We have good people attending, and it's useful bringing them together from afar, because ideas have legs," observed one of the participants, Bette Bao Lord, a member of the board of governors for United States Information Agency.

Bao Lord, who served for many years in Beijing with her husband, Winston Lord, rejected any suggestion that the conference was a waste of time. "There's an advantage in bringing people to a rurally isolated campus, where they won't be distracted. There's more togetherness. They speak more freely than they would in New York or Washington," she said.

Simon and Lawrence and the rest of the staff -- a fund raiser, researcher and two administrators -- operate out of a suite of offices near the student union. Despite lack of facilities and staff, Simon has lured a wide range of views and topics to the campus, which is located 350 miles south of Chicago and 100 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Earlier last year, a diverse group of religious leaders came to discuss how to be most effective in dealing with poverty. Participants included Pat Robertson, chancellor of Regent University in Virginia Beach, and Imam Wallace Deen Mohammed, international spokesman for the Muslim American Society. After what Simon describes as an amicable debate, the group agreed on steps to promote job programs with the joint aid of government, private charity and business.

In one of their first ventures, Simon and Lawrence (once press secretary for former Republican Governor Jim Edgar) directed a bipartisan legislative effort to overhaul campaign disclosure requirements. Edgar signed the bill into law last August at the SIU campus, commending the pair for having led the way.

Last year, Simon and three other former senators -- Alan Simpson of Wyoming, John Danforth of Missouri and David Pryor of Arkansas -- drafted proposals to conserve the Social Security retirement fund.

Another conference in October sought alternatives to the national prison-building binge that began in the mid-'70s. "We had the chief prosecutor in the trial of Timothy McVeigh, three federal judges, two state prison directors, and Webster Hubbell and Dan Rostenkowski -- the full gamut," Simon recalled.

Paul Simon and his wife Jeanne talk to a former U.S. Senate colleague, Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, at a recent conference on U.S.-China policy
Paul Simon and his wife Jeanne talk to a former U.S. Senate colleague, Republican Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, at a recent conference on U.S.-China policy
Hubbell, a former deputy attorney general who was one of Hillary Clinton's law partners in Little Rock, Arkansas, served time in jail after his prosecution by Kenneth Starr. Rostenkowski, a Chicagoan who had been one of the most influential members of the House, was imprisoned for misusing his office stamp allowance.

The meeting produced alternatives to prison sentences, which, according to Simon, interested officials in at least six states, including New York and Pennsylvania. The sessions also revealed two facts that, Simon notes, subsequently received wide publicity: First, the United States imprisons far more people than any other nation, and each ten-year sentence costs taxpayers $250,000; second, 14 percent of U.S. prisoners are illegal immigrants who were deported immediately after serving their time. Simon contacted Senator Simpson at Harvard University's Kennedy School about that, leading, he said, to an inquiry by an informal task force of Harvard faculty.

Before the end of his term, Simon, now 70, had said during an interview on National Public Radio that he wanted to quit the Senate "while I'm still eager, enthusiastic and working hard." Simon's past reflects those goals. Son of a Lutheran minister, he had dropped out of Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, in 1947 at the age of 19, to purchase and edit a newspaper in Troy, a few miles from where the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in 1837 beside his printing press.

Two of Simon's 17 published books were about Lovejoy. In a preface to the second book, Simon wrote: "His was a life of days filled with service, not of years filled with emptiness; a life of heart, not hate; a life of faith, not fear. I could wish no finer destiny for anyone."

Simon sold a chain of rural papers he had accumulated, after beginning his political career: 14 years in the Illinois legislature, four as lieutenant governor, ten as a representative from this region, and two six-year terms in the Senate. With his calm, solidly flat Midwestern dialect, Simon had unusually wide appeal for an Illinois Democrat -- he won statewide contests with majorities in traditionally Republican voting areas downstate and in the Chicago suburbs.

He learned about national politics first hand in 1987–'88, when he spent a year seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He dropped out after winning the Illinois primary, but trailing the winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and in the South.

In Congress, Simon took the lead on some conservative financial issues, such as a losing effort for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, and sponsored liberal actions on educational issues, such as funding for "school-to-work" programs; bypassing the banks to create direct college loans program; sponsoring the national literacy act, which paid for instruction in reading and writing through VISTA, and extra funding for libraries.

Amidst the laudatory remarks at SIU regarding the Public Policy Institute, there lingers some regret about failure to do more long-term planning. Joe Foote, dean of mass communications and one of Simon's biggest boosters, concedes that such proposals have been ignored so far.

The institute, Foote said, could develop seminars and generate books and interdisciplinary work, and encourage "methodically growing faculty-student involvement." Such planning, he recalls from personal involvement, helped launch a wider range of activity at the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma in 1979, named in honor of the late Oklahoma Democrat who was the 46th speaker of the House. The Albert Center and its three faculty members today provide congressional fellowships, scholarship programs for faculty and students in Washington D.C., exhibits and publications.

"We haven't been able to rise to that necessary level of planning here so far," said Foote.

Despite that, Foote remains immensely grateful for having the former senator on the campus: "He's here every week. You can get a guy who's a tired politician, but rarely one with this kind of intellect and far-reaching breadth of interest...When we first pitched this to Paul, we said, ‘You can do this just half a year. We won't preclude you from other activities.' And to our surprise he dug in and wanted it to be a full-time job."

Assuming Simon makes a swift recovery, as his physicians predicted, the institute will hardy slacken its pace. After the meeting about independent prosecutors, Simon and Lawrence plan conferences about the environment, the Korean conflict, violence on television, and, at the request of former President Jimmy Carter, issues affecting several African nations.

Carl Irving is a former political and higher education reporter for the San Francisco Examiner.

Photos by SIU Photo Communications

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