A Time for Reflection: An Autobiography
by William E. Simon, with John Caher
352 pp., $35
Businessmen, politicians, and philanthropists alike often admit the truth of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famous observation: “Both when they are right and when they are wrong, ideas are more powerful than is commonly understood. In fact, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back . . . . Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
The late William E. Simon, though he differed from Keynes on the market’s proper relation to government, nonetheless lived out this observation on the power of ideas in his work as an investor, his service in government, and perhaps above all in his philanthropy. That trait, along with a taste for risk-taking and life on the edge, made Simon one of the bracing figures of late-twentieth-century American business, political, and philanthropic life.
Memoirs by public figures (especially self-made public figures, and even more so self-made public figures who seek quotable testimonies from friends and family) are often dull. A Time for Reflection, which was completed after Bill Simon’s death in 2000 by journalist John Caher, is very much an exception. It’s a cracking good read, in part because Simon is often brutally honest with himself about his successes and failures, professional and personal. His friends and family, in excerpts scattered throughout the book, are similarly frank. In fact, A Time for Reflection reads the way those of us who knew Bill Simon remember the man: breezy, sharp-tongued, sometimes abrupt, occasionally volatile, and yet able to take it as well as dish it out—a man whose bristling exterior masked a gentle corner of his soul. Fans of the early “Doonesbury” cartoons will remember Simon the “energy czar” whom Garry Trudeau pilloried as someone who’d sell his own kids to make a buck; readers of A Time for Reflection will discover a Bill Simon who worked as a lay chaplain with AIDS patients in a Harlem nursing home—and who loved the “Doonesbury” caricature of his alleged ruthlessness.
Simon’s risk-taking new ideas about philanthropy did much to set the course for modern notions of giving. Convinced by Andrew Carnegie’s famous essay “The Gospel of Wealth” that philanthropy was a moral and civic obligation of those with substantial resources, Simon was just as convinced that a lot of philanthropists hadn’t thought through their benefactions seriously enough. As someone whose work long benefited from the generosity of the John M. Olin Foundation, which Bill Simon led until his death, I can testify personally, perhaps rubbing a mild bruise or two, that Bill Simon played philanthropy for keeps—just the way he leveraged buyouts, or the way he sailed the world on a yacht he built himself.
What got Simon involved in the Olin Foundation takes us back to Keynes and ideas. As he puts it in his memoir, Simon had become convinced that U.S. business leaders were “surrendering the battle of ideas and ideals that were so crucial to our founding and our freedom.” As the culture lurched to the left from the late 1960s on, too many business leaders and philanthropists lurched with it, Simon thought. In tandem with the foundation’s benefactor, industrialist John M. Olin, Simon decided that a strategy similar to the one he was using in business could be used in philanthropy: “leveraging” large results by a judicious application of resources at a point of maximum impact—in this case, on public arguments.
Thus, while the John M. Olin Foundation under Simon’s leadership never had a fraction of the resources of the MacArthur, Ford, or Rockefeller foundations, it has arguably had a larger impact on the battle of ideas in American public life over the past quarter-century—precisely by supporting scholars, writers, and activists committed to defending a free economy as an essential component of the free society, and doing so in virtual guerrilla campaigns waged on campuses, in the magazine world, and in think tanks unbeholden to the statist clichés of the American academy. Thus Simon does not exaggerate when he suggests that his “leveraged” philanthropic work at Olin resulted, over time, in “a far greater appreciation for markets and the benefits of the free enterprise system”—and the evidence comes from a perhaps curious source. When in the mid-1990s a Democratic President announced the end of big government, Bill Simon could justifiably claim part of the credit for that new consensus in American public life.
Simon also insisted on “sunset” provisions in the philanthropies he led; thus the Olin Foundation will spend out its assets by the end of 2005, and the William E. Simon Foundation, now led by Simon’s children, will last only as long as that generation of Simons is alive to lead it. Part of the reason for this, it seems, was cautionary: having seen other donors’ intentions flouted by successor generations of trustees and family members, Simon (again following the lead of John M. Olin) wasn’t going to repeat that mistake. But another part of Simon’s philanthropic ethic was at play here, I think—his sense of “edge,” of keeping sharp, of not settling into comfortable grooves of giving. That same concern for “edge” led him to write into the by-laws of the Simon Foundation a provision that his children, the trustees, “must perform charity work—hands-on work, not just writing a check—to retain their seats on the board and to earn the generous stipend that comes with the position.”
A Time for Reflection is also an important contribution to contemporary American history, offering revealing anecdotes about the Nixon and Ford administrations in which Simon served, the 1973-74 impeachment crisis, the post-Yom Kippur War energy crisis, and the 1980 Olympic Boycott, in which Simon found himself caught between his patriotism and his devotion to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Personally and historically, I was most struck by Simon’s winsome, and surprising, recollection of his last meeting with a dying Hubert Humphrey in 1976. The Minnesota Senator took Simon around a ward of late-stage cancer patients like himself, making the introductions in these inimitably Humphreyesque terms: “This is my friend Bill Simon, secretary of [the] treasury. It’s his job to print money, and mine to spend it!” But after a 45-minute tour, an exhausted Humphrey had one last message for Simon: “Now, look, I want you to tell Jerry Ford something for me. We can’t allow Carter to win. He’d be a disaster! Here are ten things he’s got to do to prevent Carter from beating him.”
It was entirely appropriate that Bill Simon was America’s first “energy czar,” for he was a man of ferocious energy who constantly admonished family and friends, “Life is NOT a dress rehearsal.” That energy could seem manic in some personalities; it bespoke a roughhewn but genuine joie de vivre in Bill Simon—no better captured than in this story from his cardiac surgeon, Dr. O. Wayne Isom:
“I operated on Bill about ten years ago, replacing his aortic valve. He had reached a point where he could drop dead. He just zoomed right through the operation . . . . About three weeks after the surgery, my secretary pulls out this Time magazine article with a picture of Bill Simon scuba diving off the South Pacific at 100 and some odd feet. I thought, ‘My God.’ When he came back I said, ‘Bill, what the hell were you thinking?’ He said, ‘You told me I could resume my normal activities, and that’s one of them.’ That kind of summarizes what I’ve known about Bill, about his lust for life and his determination to go all-out and get things done.”
Get things done he did. And one of the last things he got done, or almost done, was this engaging memoir, which, with John Caher’s help, brings back to the mind’s eye, and to the heart, the sometimes maddening, sometimes inspiring, always energizing, human dynamo that was William E. Simon. Catholics like Bill Simon and me pray that our dead may “rest in peace.” I pray that he does, but it seems, somehow, a curious request.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.