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Voters Identify : Simon: Deep Roots for a High Reach

January 27, 1988|DAVID LAUTER | Times Staff Writer

CLAREMONT, N.H. — Outside, bright morning sun glinted off mid-December snow and the fresh chill turned political speeches into visible wreaths of steamy breath. Inside, in a high school gymnasium draped with red, white and blue bunting, more than a thousand students chattered and joked and bobbed their heads as a loudspeaker played one of singer Paul Simon's hits.

A few minutes after 10, the singing ended and the students began to applaud as the other Paul Simon, the presidential candidate, stepped quickly and jauntily down the aisle. The high school band, slightly hesitant and a little out of tune, struck up a new song.

Few of the students seemed to know the music. But the teachers, veterans of New Hampshire primaries past, recognized it as a song indelibly associated with another candidate and another era: "Happy Days are Here Again."

Hubert H. Humphrey, 1968. Paul Simon, 1988.

Roosevelt's Theme

Just as Humphrey had used the song made famous as Franklin D. Roosevelt's triumphant theme from the 1930s to establish his roots in the Democratic Party's New Deal tradition, so Simon now uses it to stake his ideological and cultural claim on the White House.

Eight months ago, pundits and prognosticators, Republican opponents and Democratic rivals--they all laughed when the Illinois senator sat down to play. "I am not a neo-anything. I am a Democrat," he declared in his radio-perfect baritone when he announced his candidacy last May. Another naive liberal, purveyors of the conventional wisdom said. A fake, the more skeptical insisted.

Campaign comedians joked about his bow ties--"The man who let the bat die on his chest," gibed Republican Alexander M. Haig Jr.--and about the pendulous earlobes that make his silhouette resemble that of a Buddha. He was, the experts said, rumba in the age of rock 'n' roll. Few expected his bid for office would rate more than a footnote in the history of Campaign '88.

Funny Thing Happened

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity.

In a presidential campaign well populated by candidacies seemingly grounded in little more than the candidates' own ambition, Simon appeared to stand out as a man with roots. On the basis of that distinction, a candidate who initially aroused only condescending smiles among the political pros began to gain surprising support among voters--especially among Iowa Democrats, who share more than a little of Simon's particular heritage and who provide the first major test of the 1988 campaign with their Feb. 8 caucuses.

And, whatever the eventual outcome of the Democratic contest, the skeptics are wrong about one thing: Simon's roots are genuine. They are the strength of his campaign. They are its weakness, too.

At age 59, Simon still has the aura of an earnest young man, one who once wrote a book advising lonely teen-agers of the benefits of long showers and who still likes to speculate about how different the world might be if only the young Mikhail S. Gorbachev had had a chance to study as an exchange student in the Midwest. That kind of earnestness is honest and appealing to some, sanctimonious and ineffectual to others.

A legislator for 28 of the last 34 years, his colleagues recall Simon as a man who mastered issues and understood process, but often appeared uncomprehending of power.

Today, he insists that the issues of the election call for a candidate who hearkens to the party's liberal tradition, and he professes unconcern about the fact that this tradition has seemed notably unsuccessful in recent presidential elections.

Those who profess to find the motivations of public persons in the unresolved conflicts of their private lives may find Simon an unrewarding study. "Of all the people I've ever known in politics, Paul has had fewer identity crises than anyone," says a former legislative colleague and one-time house mate, Federal Appeals Court Judge Abner J. Mikva. He is, Mikva says, among the "few who never needed an analyst."

He is not a driven man, but a man with great drive. Not a deeply original thinker, but one who is thoughtful. Not a great legislator, but one who understands the legislative process. Not an advertising man's candidate, but one who knows the value of advertising. There is no inconsistency in noting that while he has retained his principles Simon has developed a fine-honed instinct for gaining publicity to advance them--and himself.

His drive, say long-time friends, relatives and opponents, comes not from internal demons but from an older source, and a simpler one. "His father (a Lutheran pastor from Wisconsin) wanted him to become a minister," recalls a long-time friend, Illinois state Judge Anthony Scariano. "This is Paul's ministry."

"Politics," Simon wrote in December, 1953, when he announced his first bid for public office, "always has seemed somewhat exciting to me . . . . It was--and is--much more exciting than any baseball game could be."

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