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Blast from the Past: Paul Simon and Axelrod

Blake D. Dvorak


Paul Simon

A friend tipped me off to an interesting passage in Robert Hartley's 2009 biography of Paul Simon, "Paul Simon: The Political Journey of an Illinois Original." (Humorous side story: The friend thought he was getting a book on the other Paul Simon, and got this instead.) Since Sheila Simon is in the news a bit lately -- almost solely because of her famous father -- Hartley's account bears some relevance.

The background is Paul Simon's campaign for Senate in 1984, in which he beat three-time incumbent Charles Percy. After dismissing his first campaign manager, Simon hired journalist James Wall, whom Simon said knew how to get along with the "regulars" -- in this case, the "regulars" meaning the Chicago Democratic machine.

Hartley picks up the story from there (p. 207):

Wall feared the strong Israel lobby's influence with Simon, but the candidate had a long history of support for Israel, and the alliance was comfortable and mutually satisfying in terms of financial assistance. When Simon's backing by Israel's supporters became an issue in the general election contest, he said, "I'm not going to kow-tow" to the Israel lobby. Percy claimed Simon entered the contest primarily because of Jewish support. Long after the contest, Simon admitted he strongly supported Israel and denied Percy's insinuation that Jewish friends had undue influence with him. He acknowledged that they had urged him to run for the Senate, however.

Wall had a history of his own with the Israeli lobby in the United States. "I had been writing editorials for eleven years critical of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land," he related. This background led to an incident involving David Axelrod, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Wall knew Axelrod and had tried to bring the reporter on board the campaign. Hoping to be named political editor of the Tribune, Axelrod did not want to leave the paper. Wall said, "Axelrod called and said we should know [word of Wall's columns] was being circulated" and could embarrass Simon. Wall told Simon he would step down to avoid embarrassment. Simon said he could weather the situation. When the Chicago Sun-Times asked for comment, Wall said Simon replied, "I hired Jim Wall as my campaign manager, not my foreign policy manager."

That was not the only time Axelrod did a favor for Wall and Simon. Wall related, "Axelrod called me one day and said, 'Your man is scheduled to go to a waste dump owned by Waste Management.'" The firm had contributed money to the Simon campaign. Axelrod said he planned to write a story the next day that would include the information, but if Simon returned the check to Waste Management it would "take the edge off the story." Wall told Simon about the call and that "Axelrod was doing us a big favor. I said he would have to return the check." Simon disagreed and refused. Wall recalled, "He said, 'They will not tell me what to do,' and said he wouldn't do any favors for the company." With Simon not budging, Wall called David Doak, a Washington-based campaign consultant who was being paid by the campaign to help shape Simon's message and strategy. He asked Doak to contact Simon and persuade him that keeping the money would be damaging. Doak made the call. "Paul paid attention to professionals; he agreed to return the check." Wall had to make the rejection call to Waste Management, "where fortunately, the executive how handled campaign contributions was an old friend from the Carter White House. He knew how the game was played. We told Alexrod [sic] the check had been returned and the item did not appear in the article."
I won't pretend to be outraged at the casual assistance a top reporter of the largest paper in

David Axelrod

the state was giving to a politician. As the Waste Management executive knew, that's how the game is played. And Hartley's account doesn't say anything terrible about Paul Simon, much less his daughter. But it says loads about David Axelrod, who, as Hartley recounts, quickly gave up the facade of reporting after this episode and started his own political consulting business. (A business, Hartley adds, that Simon wasn't too impressed with later on.(p. 221))

I'm also reminded of Axelrod's (and the Obama administration's) recent critique that Fox News is "not really a news station" and its reporting is "not really news." As he told George Stephanopoulos in October:

"It's really not news -- it's pushing a point of view. And the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we're not going to treat them that way. We're going to appear on their shows. We're going to participate but understanding that they represent a point of view."
Say what you will about Fox News, at least David Axelrod knows what he's talking about. After all, he wasn't really a reporter.

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