National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 19, 2003

Tribute to a rare public servant


Several weeks ago I received a copy of the late Sen. Paul Simon’s book, Our Culture of Pandering (Southern Illinois University Press), with a handwritten note that I might want to check out the chapter “Pandering in Religion.” He signed the note, “A reader, Paul.” I didn’t know he was. Inside, he signed the book “with gratitude for your forceful voice.”

It was flattering. As I was sketching out a letter acknowledging the book and the note, I interrupted the task to check e-mail and saw the notice that he had died at age 75 following heart surgery Dec. 9.

I am sorry, of course, that we did not have chance to engage in any further correspondence, sorrier still for the loss of one more in what seems a dwindling group of high profile public servants (I think here, too, of the late Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota) who really believed that government at its best serves a broad notion of the common good, who were guided by much more than campaign donations and rigid ideology in debt to special interests.

In the introduction to Our Culture of Pandering, Simon described significant progress he had seen in the United States in such areas as racial and religious tolerance, in education and research, in awareness of ecological threats. “But there is more to the picture,” he continued.

“We have spawned ‘leadership’ that does not lead, that panders to our whims rather than telling us the truth, that follows the crowd rather than challenging us, that weakens us rather than strengthening us. It is easy to go downhill, and we are now following that easy path. Pandering is not illegal, but it is immoral. It is doing the convenient when the right course demands inconvenience and courage.”

In the book the media comes in for some severe criticism from this former newspaperman. He cites lots of chapters and verses regarding media pandering to popular taste and taking the course of least resistance. He chides newspapers for remaining provincial in their coverage and pandering to entertainment rather than reporting serious news and greater international coverage.

And he chides television for the amount of violence used to create audiences. Opposing excessive violence on television is a cause he has championed for years.

In the chapter on pandering in religion, this son of a Lutheran pastor wrote:

“To what extent are today’s religious communities social clubs rather than agents of change?” Meeting the spiritual needs of individual members is fine, he says, “but we should build on that base. Many people look for a religious home that approves their comfortable way of life. Too often, that desire is catered to, while any message of concern for the poor and miserable that most religions profess is muted.”

Not only does he burst the balloon of comfortable religion, he challenges the general assumption that we live in a generous culture when it comes to other countries. “We lag behind all the other wealthy nations in helping the world’s poor.” Even an additional $800 million for the impoverished and U.S. foreign economic aid “still will total less than one half of 1 percent of our budget.”

Inconvenience and courage: two words that likely aren’t circulating among the spin staffs of the 2004 presidential hopefuls. Not in an era when the admonition to the public at the start of an open-ended war was to go shopping.

Paul Simon was a rare public servant. So rare that former Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas told The New York Times, “Not once in 12 years together in the Senate did I see him trim his sails or hedge his thinking to accommodate a political purpose. I never served with anybody else who voted his conscience every time.”

Tom Roberts is editor of NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2003

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