October 29, 2008
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
It was Rahm Emanuel's suggestion, actually. "Why," asked the Chicago congressman, "don't you look at this presidential election through a different lens?"
Exactly what lens would that be?
"Paul Simon," he replied.
No, not the guy who used to sing with Art Garfunkel.
The other Paul Simon. The crusading young newspaper publisher from Southern Illinois who carved a political path from the state Legislature to lieutenant governor to Congress to the Senate and along the way, in 1988, ran for president. OUR Paul Simon.
You could argue that before Barack Obama ever stepped onto a political stage, was a community organizer or editor of the Harvard Law Review or ran for the state Legislature, Simon created the infrastructure of his presidential campaign.
Start with Illinois' senior senator, Dick Durbin, who today is the second most powerful person in the United States Senate.
Durbin as a young attorney was Simon's parliamentarian when he was lieutenant governor. Mentored by Simon throughout his career, Durbin's run for Simon's seat in 1996 came with his predecessor's blessing. A blessing that was transferred to Barack Obama when Durbin became the first Democrat in the Senate to urge Obama to run for president.
But the list of Simon acolytes who propel the Obama presidential effort goes on.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, was recruited in 1984 to leave his newspaper job at the Chicago Tribune to run Simon's first general election campaign for the Senate. It was Axelrod who then helped Simon, a mere first-term senator with big ears (sound familiar?), run for president in 1988.
"David and Rahm were in Dad's first Senate race back when Rahm was just a youngster," recalls daughter and law professor Sheila Simon.
Rahm Emanuel was just cutting his teeth on becoming one of the party's most prodigious fund-raisers, not to mention a member of Bill Clinton's inner circle. Back then, said Sheila Simon, it was Rahm's job to force her father to make the fund-raising calls Paul Simon hated to make. "It was a hard job. He would sit with Dad."
Emanuel, who sat out the primary, siding publicly with neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama, remains close to Axelrod, is relied upon for advice, and today is the fourth most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But even before Axelrod and Emanuel started working with Simon, Forrest Claypool had signed on. A journalism major just out of college, Claypool offered enthusiasm in place of experience.
"When I joined the campaign in the primary . . . he was not the establishment candidate," he said. "The Machine had endorsed Phil Rock. . . . I liked that he wasn't the organization's choice."
Claypool, who joined Axelrod in founding his political consulting empire, has helped prepare Obama for presidential debates. And Claypool knows something about running against the regulars himself. He is a Cook County commissioner who ran a close but unsuccessful campaign in 2006 for Cook County Board president against the endorsed candidate of party bosses, Todd Stroger.
Other Simon proteges, now Obama advisers or supporters, include former Bill Clinton campaign manager David Wilhelm and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Claypool argues there has been a Simon "slingshot effect, creating experience, a platform and relationships" now ingrained in the Obama effort.
If Paul Simon walked in the shoes of great Illinois progressives such as Adlai Stevenson II and Paul Douglas, it might be argued that Obama now stands on Simon's shoulders.
Paul Simon, too, dreamed of being president, but the dream ended after Iowa.
The lessons his loss taught Axelrod and company may constitute one of the cornerstones of Obama's ultimate success.