On Friday, I posted part one of my interview with Roger Simon, a former Sun-Times columnist and South Sider, now the chief political columnist for Politico. The 63-year-old, who suffered a catastrophic illness two years ago that resulted in the amputation of both his legs below the knees, described his medical nightmare and explained how he landed his Oval Office interview with President Obama, his first comeback column. Below, he discusses his Chicago roots, his friendship with Roger Ebert, his addiction to Twitter, and more.
CF: Your roots are in Chicago; tell me how deep they go.
RS: I grew up on the South Side, most of that time in South Shore, went to Bradwell Elementary School and South Shore High, class of 1966. I got a great education there. We had wonderful teachers. People were actively working in both the white and black communities to keep it an integrated community, but they were fought by the infamous [School Superintendent] Ben Willis, who had no real interest in that. In my senior year, the high school was 33 percent black; by my sophomore year in college, it was 98.6 percent black.
CF: Your parents?
RS: My father was a truck driver, my mother a housewife—a term she would use—until they got divorced and she had to find a job after many years of not working outside the home. She got a job in the mailroom of Encyclopedia Britannica.
CF: Are either of your siblings journalists?
RS: My sister is a college administrator at DePaul, a PhD, faculty director/university internship program. My brother was both a child genius and an adult genius—a nuclear scientist, electrical engineer. He designed the control rooms for nuclear reactors.
CF: You met Marcia at the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois?
RS: Yes, she was at the DI with me [Simon was campus editor and executive editor] and with Dan Balz [now the Washington Post’s national political correspondent]. He met his wife at the U of I also.
CF: Why did you and Marcia leave Chicago?
RS: We left in 1984, not long after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times. Marcia left as soon as Murdoch bought the paper and went to the Tribune. I had to wait until my contract ran out about four months later. The Tribune had a nepotism rule so we both couldn’t work there. She went to the Washington Post, and I went to the Baltimore Sun. [After 22 years at the Post—chief of the metro copy desk for most of that time, ending as a food writer—Kramer took a buyout and started a copy editing company called Kramer Editing Services.]
CF: So you weren’t willing to work for Murdoch?
RS: I went to a group dinner that the editors of the Sun-Times hosted for Murdoch and I knew from a brief conversation that this was a bad guy. These were the days when Murdoch instantly crashed the paper downscale—for what kind of imagined readership, I don’t know. “Wingo” [the lottery promotional game] on page one, and reporters were told to go out, go to their sources and get big public names to hold up a Wingo card and we’ll put them on page one. (For more on Simon’s experience with Murdoch, see his column of last July titled “The evil of Rupert Murdoch.”)
CF: And your time at the Chicago Tribune?
RS: I went in 1998 to cover the White House. It turned out to be the year of Moncia Lewinsky, although I didn’t know it when I took the job.
CF: Do you read the Chicago papers these days?
RS: I don’t sit down very often and scroll through the Tribune or the Sun-Times. I did it to follow the Blago story, and I thought both did a good job on that. The Tribune broke a huge story, the [admissions] scandal at the University of Illinois, which is the first time I have ever been ashamed of my university. In the era I was in Chicago journalism both the Sun-Times and the Tribune had really well deserved reputations for great investigative reporting. They didn’t know about it on the East Coast because the East Coast still considers Chicago a flyover city. When I got to Baltimore people asked me about Chicago as if it was Belgium or it was Melbourne, a place they had never been to.
CF: You still have ties to the U of I?
RS: I gave the commencement speech to the College of Communications a few years ago [Simon was an English literature major]. I am very nostalgic about the University. My wife and I give money, which is the only thing that alums are really supposed to do.
CF: You’re very friendly with another Daily Illini veteran, Roger Ebert. Are you in touch with him?
RS: Just recently, we went to Chicago for my sister’s wedding, and my wife and I stopped by the Eberts’ house to see Roger and Chaz. He communicates via a laptop hooked up to a speaker. His speech was taken from past tapes of his television shows; they put together every English syllable. It’s not exactly his voice, but it’s a very good voice—not robotic, a voice with expression. Also he communicates by gesture, replies with a bounce of the eyebrows, his hands, a shrug of his shoulders. He has become very emotive through his body.
CF: Have you interviewed Rahm since he became mayor?
RS: No, but I’d love to. I interviewed him when he was a congressman and in 1997 for The New Republic when he was Clinton’s Senior Adviser to the President for Policy and Strategy. He’s a very interesting figure in American politics, famous in Washington for his call list.Very, very good at working the phones. He knew how to give a little, get a little, knew how to plant a story. He is as media savvy a guy as you will meet.
CF: So what’s the difference between writing a city column like the one you wrote for the Sun-Times andwriting a national political column as you do now?
RS: When I was writing for the Sun-Times people would come up to me and tell me that they had taped a particular column to the refrigerator or sent it to a son or daughter. Their ability to reach out to you was much easier. Back then at the Sun-Times, people reached out to you by letter. I had a secretary really just to help me answer the mail. Nobody writes letters anymore.
CF: Do you read the emails you get from readers?
RS: Oh, sure. I don’t always read all the comments, which is different. The emails tend to be more useful than the comments only because …comments are not really to you; people are talking to each other. People are forming a community around what you wrote, but they’re not necessarily talking to you.
CF: Do you read paper newspapers?
RS: We get the Washington Post and the New York Times on Sunday. I have enough guilt toward The New Yorker, which is my favorite magazine in the world. I have a week to get through that, and it piles up and I feel guilty enough, but when I come home and see there’s six New York Times unread. I read it online every day. I read lots of papers online, but in print we are down to the Washington Post.
CF: What newspaper websites do you read?
RS: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
CF: And political websites—what’s your favorite?
RS: Politico, obviously, but also politicalwire.com.
CF: You have started to use Twitter. How’s that working out?
RS: I really am totally hooked, that’s one step short of obsessed. I started last May 30, reluctantly. I figured what is the point of writing before you think, and isn’t that the opposite of what we were trained to do. But in fact Twitter is only as stupid as you want it to be. The people I follow, to name one, Mark Knoller of CBS News. And I get almost all my breaking White House news through my Politico breaking news feed and through Mark Knoller. He’s just on top of it. You can follow all sorts of wonderful people and learn wonderful things, or just amuse yourself. There are sites that just do one-liners. Almost every major comedian in America, I’m guessing, has Twitter.
CF: You mentioned that one of your favorites is John Dickerson of CBS News and Slate, and that he was one of the first to use Twitter and has almost 1.4 million followers. How many followers do you have?
RS: I have more than 3,000 followers, which ain’t bad since May 30. I’m following 222 people and I have done more than 1,700 tweets. I just tweeted about an hour ago that I’m finally done with my column; now I can get back to my real job, reading the 736 tweets I missed because I haven’t been reading Twitter. I have really cut down on my television watching, and also my scrolling through my bookmarks. I spend less time on the Web [scrolling through news sites].
CF: What happened to your Simon Says columns? I don’t see those regularly anymore.
RS: I don’t do those much these days. I will get tweets from people reminding me of a Simon Says item I did god knows how many years ago. The only answer I have for why I don’t do them anymore is Twitter is pretty similar to Simon Says; 140 characters is probably about the same length as a typical item.
CF: Can you name three things you miss about Chicago?
RS: Number one would be everything. It’s just the feel of the city. It’s the best city in the United States, and maybe the most beautiful. I love Millennium Park. It’s the best blending of green space and public art in the United States. It’s absolutely breathtaking.