Don”t be an idiot.
That was the message of former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon yesterday as he addressed an audience at the Law School for the 19th Annual Kauper Lecture.
Referring to the ancient Greek definition of the word “idiotes,” which means “someone who does not participate in civic life,” Simon focused his lecture on how students and citizens can get involved in the American political process.
“We have too many idiots in our original definition of that word today,” he said.
Simon, a Democrat, served two terms in the U.S. Senate from 1985 to 1997. His career in politics spanned over 40 years, including stints in the U.S. House of Representatives, as Illinois” lieutenant governor and as a member of both houses of the Illinois General Assembly.
Simon offered several lessons on how people can get involved and be proactive in American politics. His first lesson was to be informed, not just about domestic issues, but also about international issues. He also urged those gathered to write letters to their legislators and also to newspaper editors letters which he said have can broaden the views of the officials and of the newspapers” readers.
Another lesson he offered was to “start now” to do what you have always dreamed of but have never gotten around to, such as writing a book.
The former senator also discussed the need for elected officials to sometimes do what may be unpopular but what they know to be right.
“You have to be willing to spend some of your political capital. You have to be willing to do the unpopular,” he said.
Doing the unpopular may have saved an uncountable number of lives in 1994, he argued.
At that time, Simon was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chaired the committee”s Subcommittee on African Affairs. He told the audience of being horrified by the massacre that was beginning in Rwanda at the time and conferring with the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Sen. James Jeffords. He and Jeffords called up the commander of about 500 United Nations troops in Rwanda who told the senators, “If you can get 5,000 to 8,000 troops here soon, we can stop this.” The senators urged for American military support to prevent the massacre.
Simon said the White House told him “there just isn”t a base of public support.” It is now believed that approximately 800,000 civilians were subsequently massacred a lesson, he said.
The former senator also touched on the importance of federal campaign finance reform legislation, a version of which was passed by the Senate last year and will be debated in the House this week.
“It may be that our friends at Enron have performed a great public service, unintentionally. It may be that we will get campaign finance reform,” he said, referring to the now-bankrupt energy conglomerate and its use of campaign donations to develop close ties with lawmakers.
During his lecture, Simon lamented that, prior to the events of Sept. 11, he did not perceive a great interest in international affairs among Americans. He cited news organizations closing foreign bureaus and the fact that only .5 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.
But Simon said he has seen some positive signs regarding American interest in international affairs since Sept. 11.
“I don”t think there is any question there is a greater interest in international affairs now,” he said. “It is important in our national interest that we continue that interest.”
Rebecca Blank, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, agreed, explaining that government is “a necessary force, and the question is, “How do you use it effectively?” I do think September 11 did make somewhat of a difference in that.”
Simon is currently the director of the Southern Illinois University Public Policy Institute.