Poli-sci with Paul

Senator Simon is too much of a gentleman to be president. When I offered him fivebucks to shove a kid off a ride, he didn't even consider it.

I only became really interested in politics a few years back. For me it has been like coming into a theater in the middle of a movie. Most people who share my interest are too far along for me to ask them all of the embarrassing beginner questions I have. I try to watch the news and read some informative periodicals, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes I see an article in a newspaper or a magazine that I feel I should know about, and I put it beside my sleeping area. Time passes and eventually there's a pile of periodicals filled with things I know nothing about mocking me while I'm trying to sleep. Even if I take the time to read these old articles, new ones are always piling up in the on-deck circle.

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I haven't given up. I take pride in trying to educate myself as an adult, but I'm a busy (and sometimes lazy) person. Seven weeks ago I became a foster parent to a newborn, and it seems clear that I'll never have time for anything else ever again. I recently took a moment to put the magazines and newspapers beside my sleeping area into the recycle pile.

I've had this sneaking suspicion that I'm not the only person who has felt the responsibility of citizenship but lacks some basic political data. Therefore, as a segment on my Saturday ABC show, I asked Senator Paul Simon of Illinois to answer some simple questions about government while enjoying the rides, food, and fun at Wild World Theme Park in Maryland. Here's the weird part--he agreed.

Paul Simon is a really good guy. But I'm not such a good interviewer. When I get nervous I can't shut up. So, although the senator may have had some valuable information to share, it was difficult for him to squeeze it in between my delightful recollections of "Mary Tyler Moore" episodes. I think he agreed to join me because he understands the problem I've spelled out and agrees on the importance of remedying it. I think that's why, but it's hard to tell. He started to say that, "Even for members of the Senate you can't keep on top of everything. You have to rely on your colleagues who serve on other committees." I cut him off to make a joke about my hair. I was really nervous. The guy's a senator and I had him holding bright blue cotton candy in front of the Python roller coaster on a hot, sweaty day.

Senator Simon made it clear when he arrived that he wouldn't go on any of the high roller-coaster rides. I was a little disappointed, but certainly grateful for his indulgence in being there at all. So I tried to put on a good face. However, when he turned me down on the bumper cars, there was sort of an awkward moment. I made a quick change to a more casual subject. "Who was the first person you ever voted for in a presidential election?" I asked. "Adlai Stevenson," was his reply. "How about you?"

"Dukakis."

I thought he looked a little hurt and then I remembered: that was one of the guys he ran against. "Oh, great," I thought, "why not just say, 'Not you.' It's no wonder he won't go on the bumper cars with me."

The fact is I first knew of Paul Simon from his presidential campaign and I liked him. I'm not surprised that he didn't become president, though. He doesn't seem like he could do what it takes to become president. He's too much of a gentleman. At one point I found a penny on the ground and I offered it to him as a gesture of friendship. He recoiled. He wouldn't even accept a lucky penny. I offered him five dollars to shove a kid off a ride. He didn't even consider it. Does anybody run against him in Illinois?

I was constantly afraid that he would get his fill of my little project and go home. There was one moment--when a photographer snapped a picture of the senator just before he began explaining NAFTA from high atop a zebra on the merry-go-round--when he looked like his whole career was flashing before his eyes, perhaps followed by visions of Dukakis in the tank. He might have bolted, too, but a little while before that we were joking with Vinnie, "the weight and age guesser," about using his ability with numbers to work out a plan for deficit reduction. Vinnie said, "What's a deficit?" This graphic example of the problem of the uninformed voter probably made Senator Simon redouble his efforts.

I asked him how the average busy citizen is supposed to be involved. He replied: "That average citizen can take an interest in just one subject, try to hear both sides on that subject and then write to legislators, attend Democratic and Republican meetings--you know, really take an interest. These kids that are on this merry-go-round, their future is being determined by politics. It is not enough for parents to clothe and feed and have a nice home for children. We have to be talking about making sure that those children have freedom." Then Senator Simon swung his legs back over his zebra, dropped to the ground, and headed for some funnelcake.

Letters to Paula

Johnn Tan, e-mail: I am on an e-mail list for vegetarians and vegans called VEGGIE. We want the straight truth: is Hillary Rodham Clinton a vegetarian? Someone on VEGGIE said he saw her eating chicken once, but it couldn't be substantiated.

A: Johnn, your letter indicates that this is a burning question among the vegetarian community. It's news to me that there even is a vegetarian community--diet seems like a strange characteristic to form a community around. I don't hang out in the snack-food aisle of the grocery store looking for new friends. What kind of little chats could people in the vegetarian community possibly have?

"So, did you eat meat today?"

"Nope. D' you?"

"Nope."

"D' you eat any yesterday?"

"No, sirree. And you?"

"No, no."

"Stay away from that meat now."

"You too."

Please alert the community that I called David E. Dreyer, the deputy White House communications director, to ask. He has not eaten meat since 1978, but he does not believe that our first lady is a vegetarian. Apparently he hasn't run into her at any of the community meetings.

Susan Lehman, e-mail: I don't really have any weird questions for you to answer.

A: Susan, your comment embodies a common misconception about my role here at Mother Jones. I'm not singling you out, but I'd like to know where you got the idea that I answer "weird" questions. I think if you review my work, I've answered questions about art ("Why, with the proliferation of oldies radio stations, do I never hear any disco?"), physics and health ("If I were to fall off a two-hundred-foot cliff, would I die from shock before hitting the ground?"), psychology ("Why do guys always have to be in the front of the line?"), and politics ("What do you think of the big deal the mainstream media has made of Hillary Clinton?").

Keep in mind you guys write the questions, not me. I think you should ask me stuff I'd have to go to the Smithsonian to answer, but don't let me tell you what to do.