Roger Simon: Wildcatter of political reporting

By Shelbi Thomas
Iowa Presidential

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 the Press to conducting exclusive interviews with front-runner candidates like 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 presidential 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 up.”

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 four years.

“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 get another 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 a week.

Then it’s back on the bus and back on the plane to repeat the whole process.

“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 trip.”

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 accommodations, 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, like in 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 Bush, 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 human beings.”

After being on the road covering the candidates for eight presidential elections, Simon said his view of both politicians and journalists has not drastically changed.

“I always had a skeptical, not cynical view, towards politics,” he said. “I 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 fairness and accuracy.

“It’s like serving jury duty,” Simon said. “The judge doesn’t 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 do.”

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 bad.

“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 season.

“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.”

E-mail Shelbi Thomas at [email protected].

Copyright © 2003 by Iowa Presidential This site produced by the "Presidential Politics" class in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.