William Simon, treasury secretary to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, died in Santa Barbara Saturday at age 72 of complications related to pulmonary fibrosis. While he is being remembered for his public service, including an Army stint in Japan and his tenure as “Energy Czar” in the early 1970s, Simon also was a major player in the world of conservative and free-market ideas.
After leaving the public sector, Simon wrote A Time for Truth in 1978 and A Time for Action in 1980. These bestsellers advocated government belt-tightening in an age when Washington gained weight daily.
At about that time, Simon began a long association with the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s premier conservative think tank. “His involvement and commitment were absolutely seminal,” recalled Heritage president Edwin Feulner in an interview. “He was on my board for 23 of our 27 years. He gave us credibility with senior political people when we didn’t have it.”
Feulner called Simon “a practical kind of a guy as well as a man with a theoretical commitment to the free society.” Feulner noted that Simon suggested that Heritage publish its Mandate for Leadership “which really put Heritage on the map.” These detailed, how-to guides on tax cutting, deregulation, and fiscal restraint were studied and, in the case of many proposals, implemented by the Reagan administration.
Feulner added that Simon was “the one who was pushing us on the Index of Economic Freedom that he said ought to be a textbook for every economic student in every university in the whole world.”
Between the late 1970s and the time of his death, William Simon also was the sole president of the John M. Olin Foundation, a major backer of free-market causes. Among many other programs, Olin provided funding to conservative and libertarian professors. Simon was careful to provide direct support to people like Walter Williams at George Mason University and the late Alan Bloom at the University of Chicago rather than create endowments which later could be re-directed to leftist faculty members.
Indeed, one of Simon’s accomplishments was “insuring that John Olin’s donor intent was carried out,” explained Herbert London, himself the John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University and president of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute.
“The Olin Foundation has done extraordinary things to support free-market institutions in various places in the U.S. and elsewhere,” London said by phone. This includes funding for the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Legal Foundation and the Center for Individual Rights.
“In his time,” London added, Simon “clearly represented the free-market position as effectively as anyone in public life.”
William Simon supported and encouraged think tanks and publications with which I am affiliated. While this touched my life indirectly, I had but one direct contact with the man.
As a 16-year-old Youth for Reagan delegate to the 1980 Republican National Convention, I attended an issue forum featuring William Simon, National Review publisher William Rusher and NR’s founder, William F. Buckley, one of my heroes. I was given permission to meet Buckley backstage at a Detroit auditorium just before the event began.
I shook Buckley’s hand in a holding room and asked if he would mind posing for a photograph. He agreed, and I handed my simple, point-and-shoot camera to the closest person I could find, namely William Simon.
Simon, who I later heard was not the best person with machinery, looked flummoxed. He turned the camera upside down, not quite sure what to do.
Buckley quipped: “The day William Simon cannot use a Kodak Instamatic is the day America must reindustrialize!”
When I got my pictures back, I fished out my coveted photo with one of the godfathers of American conservatism. There it was, a colorful, nicely shot picture of a window and a few trees outside the building. Way-off-center stood William F. Buckley beside me, nearly squeezed off the side of a Kodak print.
Thankfully, William Simon leaves behind a far more impressive legacy than that.
— Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.