Simon: Wildcatter of political reporting
Iowa Presidential Politics.com
Roger Simon began his political reporting career investigating the buzz behind
a mosquito abatement control meeting for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Four years later, he was covering the presidential campaigns of 1976, an experience
that would forever change how he would spend national election years and gain
him acclaim as one of the premier political reporters of the time. Today Simon
does everything from providing commentary for television shows such as Meet
Press to conducting exclusive interviews with front-runner candidates
former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
“With every major figure he discusses, Mr. Simon manages to come up with
some bit of material, some nuance, that provides at least a hint of what is behind
the façade,” Nicholas Lehman of The New York Times Book Review said
in reviewing Simon’s 1990 Road Show, which was about the 1988
campaigns. “Mr. Simon’s achievement is akin to that of the wildcatter
who drills one last producing well in a field that everybody thought was dried
Throughout his journalistic career, Simon has worked for the Sun-Times as a columnist
and investigative reporter, the Baltimore Sun as a staff columnist, and the Chicago
Tribune covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a White House correspondent.
Since 1999, however, he has been best known as the chief political correspondent
for U.S. News & World Report, a national syndicated columnist, and a New
York Times best-selling author. He draws his inspiration from the “traveling
zoo” he becomes a part of in covering the presidential elections every
“It’s like summer camp for adults,” Simon said. “I’m
on an expense account.”
At a first-class rate plus 50 percent, Simon is able to fly on the same airplane
as a presidential candidate, check into the same luxury hotels, eat the same
cuisine, and travel across the country as the candidate makes stump speeches
to thousands of Americans.
Though this might sound glamorous, there is a downside to political reporting
of this magnitude. Days are long, ending at 1 a.m. with the campaign staff giving
the reporter an itinerary of the following day’s events and beginning again
with a baggage call in the hotel lobby at 5 a.m. Often these journalists will
get by on two to three hours of sleep a night.
“Some reporters go to baggage claim and then go back to their rooms to
half-hour or so of sleep, but I don’t usually do that,” Simon said. “So
you go down to the lobby and no one’s talking to each other, because it’s
too early in the morning.”
After baggage call, the reporters load onto a van or bus to head to the local
airport, where they will fly out to the next campaign stop. The vehicle drives
straight out to the airplane, the 737’s rear door opening to lower a ramp
for the reporters to board.
“It looks like a flying dorm room. The campaign staff has pasted pictures
to the walls, there are toys hanging from the ceiling, balloons, crepe paper
and stuffed animals everywhere. It’s a mess,” Simon said.
Aboard the plane, the flight attendants announce the usual safety message to
deaf ears, as reporters stand around in the aisles. Breakfast is served, but
the journalists’ minds are on whether the candidate will come out from
the front section of the plane to talk with the press.
During the event, journalists establish offices in a room known as the filing
center, where they have access to telephones, power strips and Internet connections
for their laptops, in order to get articles written and sent to their respective
news organizations. Working for a news magazine, Simon typically files one to
two articles a week, while daily newspaper reporters write as many as eight in
Then it’s back on the bus and back on the plane to repeat the whole
“You get to the hotel after the restaurants and everything else have already
closed,” Simon said. “The worst way to see America is on a campaign
It’s also not the best way to see the rest of the world. Though Simon
enjoys the lack of a regular routine, the candidate meetings and the deluxe
his only minor complaint about the job is not being able to do much foreign
travel. The exception is when the assignment is related to domestic politics,
2000 when he was invited to accompany Republican presidential candidate John
McCain on his trip to Vietnam.
For Simon, the highlight of reporting on the presidential campaigns has always
been personal interviews with the candidates. Simon has captured his best interviews
riding in limos with candidates such as Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson, while
the rest of the reporters are cramped in the bus. One of the most memorable
experiences came after former vice president Al Gore’s 2000 campaign took a dive while
the candidate was in Chicago.
“Most of the time, the candidates are well-guarded and they don’t
show themselves as human beings. But he was unguarded and that’s the
best time to get an interview with them,” Simon said.
A similar experience occurred that same election year when George W. Bush had
just lost New Hampshire to McCain by 19 points, a landslide, and was headed
to South Carolina, which he had to win to stay in the race. On the bus with
Simon asked him what was most painful about the loss. Bush told him calling
his father that night to tell him he had lost New Hampshire.
“When you’re one-on-one with a candidate, you remember they have
parents to talk to and answer to,” he said. “They are running for
the most important office in the land, but you realize they are just ordinary
After being on the road covering the candidates for eight presidential elections,
Simon said his view of both politicians and journalists has not drastically
“I always had a skeptical, not cynical view, towards politics,” he
do think things can be improved— most journalists are optimists, hoping
their stories can lead to improvements.”
Simon also has made friends with much of his competition, the reporters with
whom he spends the 20-hour days. The best of these political reporters, Simon
said, are driven by curiosity and an analytical mind, able to put what they
see into context for their readers. He said they are especially dedicated to
“It’s like serving jury duty,” Simon said. “The judge
say you can’t have an opinion. You put it aside, so you can render a fair
judgment based on the evidence. That’s what good jurors and good reporters
Throughout his years of reporting, Simon has discovered some secrets for working
with difficult sources in politics, whether at the local or national level.
Though candidates and campaign staffers often like to dodge reporters’ questions,
Simon said they can only avoid answering so many times before it makes them look
“I don’t do pieces to please people, so I just am fair and accurate,” he
said. “Even if they don’t like it, if they think it’s fair,
they’ll talk to me again.”
This seems to work for the award-winning journalist, who has taken home more
than three dozen first place awards, including honors from United Press International,
the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the National Association of
Black Journalists. The Associated Press, for example, has called his work "sensitive,
relevant and written with understated elegance."
For Simon, however, it’s all in a day’s work. After covering the
California recall elections in fall 2003, the political correspondent is back
on the national campaign
trail. With the 2004 presidential race under way, the reporter is grateful
to return to the Hawkeye and Granite states to begin another caucus and primary
“Iowa and New Hampshire are the only two states where the general population
actually knows there’s an election taking place,” Simon said. “I
go to other states a week before their primaries, and everyone asks me what I’m
in town for. They have no idea there’s an election.”
Shelbi Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.