Politics & Policy

Simon Says

One screenwriter's political transformation.

We are seated in the kind of comfortable, southwestern-style Hollywood Hills home with a magnificent view that is the rightful entitlement of every successful Hollywood player. This one belongs to Roger L. Simon: Oscar-nominated screenwriter, award-winning crime novelist, influential weblogger. And right now he can’t stop smiling at some private joke.

Pressed, he reveals the source of his amusement: “I may be the first American writer who was profiled both by Mother Jones and the National Review,” he laughs.

From the 1960s until somewhat recently, Simon was a radical left-winger who supported every trendy cause of the era: the civil-rights movement, Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers, Latin American revolutions, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro. He hobnobbed with other leftist writers and frequently traveled to Communist countries.

His first big break as a struggling novelist came with The Big Fix, featuring lead character Moses Wine, a one-time hippie turned private eye who exuded a hip, liberal attitude and dealt with the hot-button social issues of the day.

At a time when most other crime writers were still mired in pale Philip Marlowe knock-offs, Simon’s radical twist appealed to ’70s Hollywood, which was then engrossed in subverting traditional genres much as Simon had done with his novel.

Simon penned the script for the movie version, which starred Richard Dreyfuss, and his screenwriting career took off. In 1989 Simon earned a best-screenplay Oscar nomination for Enemies: A Love Story, based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel.

Nowadays, however, this lanky, genial writer with many hats (and one favored fedora, in which he is pictured on his website) is better known for yet another career. With over 200,000 visitors a month, he’s rapidly become one of the most popular political bloggers on the Internet.

Simon’s somewhat glamorous background helped in the beginning. “It gave me a leg up on the average blogger,” he says. But what really turned heads was his remarkable political transformation–from a former radical leftist into a die-hard Bush supporter. His blog entries make frequent mention of his own amazement at this 180-degree change of heart.

One recent entry reads: “I can’t believe that these days I turn to The Wall Street Journal before The New York Times, but I do. (Hey, I used to rely on the alternative press–what can I say?)”

Simon elaborates on this in our interview. “I grew up a New York Jewish boy. To those people the New York Times is right behind the Bible–sometimes ahead of it.”

Some of Simon’s popularity undoubtedly stems from his ability to render complex, deadly serious subjects in a disarmingly breezy, conversational writing style. Simon believes his blog took off because there are so many others searching for a home somewhere between traditional conservative and doctrinaire liberal.

“It caught on because I’m a disaffected liberal,” he muses. “There’s a lot of others like that out there.”

He also stands out as one of the few Hollywood players who support the war on terror, including the war in Iraq. Has this affected his career in any way? “I don’t know,” he responds frankly.

Despite his avid support for Bush’s reelection, though, Simon doesn’t consider himself a conservative. In fact, he hates ideological labels. “They’re just an excuse not to think,” he declares.

On foreign policy and defense, Simon is a fierce hawk. On economic issues, he says, “I am puzzled. I’m more pro-market than I was. I’m pro-free trade, pro-NAFTA. Socialism has failed. There’s no denying it; it’s empirical. “

But when it comes to social policy, he continues to lean hard to the left. “I’m very liberal on social issues: pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, separation of church and state,” he says. “I think racism and sexism are the greatest evils in the world.”

Simon is presently juggling several projects at once, including two books in progress. One is non-fiction, “a sort of memoir,” he says, based on his personal political metamorphosis. He also reads 20 to 25 newspapers online, from all over the world.

Asked how much time he spends on his blog, he laughs. “Too much,” he allows ruefully. “Sometimes I feel like I have a DSL line running into my veins.”

At present he’s also co-writing a screenplay with Michael Ledeen, a foreign-policy expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is also an NRO regular. Simon is keeping the project close to his vest, and will say only that it is a thriller related to the war on terror.

Simon’s last Moses Wine novel, Director’s Cut, which was published in June of 2003, served as the catalyst for the creation of his blog. The new novel also marked a political transformation in Wine that mirrored Simon’s own change of heart.

Simon saw the Internet as a means to supplement his publisher’s marketing efforts. Already an avid reader of others’ blogs (Instapundit Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan were two of his early favorites), Simon also saw a weblog as a chance to scratch a long-untended itch.

“I’ve always had a secret journalist jones,” he confides, smiling.

Simon says the seed of his political conversion was planted well before 9/11. It actually began during the O. J. Simpson trial in 1995. Like millions of others, he watched incredulously as the jury acquitted Simpson despite overwhelming physical and circumstantial evidence against him. “I think a lot of people changed during the O.J. trial,” he says. “It changed our perception of truth and fiction.”

He was newly married to Sheryl Longin, also a screenwriter, at the time. (Longin wrote the 1999 comedy Dick, starring Kirsten Dunst, which poked fun at favorite liberal whipping boy Richard Nixon.) As Simon began to doubt his left-wing preconceptions, he confided in Longin, who was a liberal as well. It turned out they were both having similar doubts.

“She kept me sane,” Simon says with a laugh. “I’m glad I was married, because I would probably have thought I was going crazy.”

Then September 11 came along. “It was the point of no return,” Simon recalls.

“We are in a titanic struggle,” he adds. “I think it’s bigger than the Cold War, because God is in it.” In other words, the Islamist terrorists believe God is on their side, and so will fight even more fervently than did the Communists. “It’s like the 30 Years’ War,” says Simon. “It’s going get worse before it gets better.”

Simon clearly relishes blogging. He says, “It’s the first time in my life that I have no editor, no publisher, no movie star editing what I write.” He believes blogs have contributed considerably to the widening awareness among the public about media bias. “All journalists are propagandists for their point of view,” says Simon.

To receive Iraq news unfiltered by our mainstream media, Simon frequently links directly to native Iraqi sources. As NRO readers know, Iraqi blogs such as Iraq the Model sing a different tune than our own media. They are far more sanguine about their country’s prospects, and far more appreciative of American efforts, than our media ever let on.

A world traveler, Simon lived in France for a few years, and had considered moving there again. But the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism and corresponding entrenchment of reflexive anti-Americanism have soured him on its appeal.

He recently journeyed to France to conduct research, and found anti-Americanism to be rampant. “To them, it’s almost like breathing.” He continues, “Some of it is inevitable because we’re so powerful. The French are masters of envy.”

Simon supports Bush’s reelection because, he says, “I don’t want the world to see us repudiate what he’s done.” Moreover, Simon’s distrust of Kerry has roots in his college days in the ’60s. He attended Yale at the same time as Joseph Lieberman, Oliver Stone–and John Kerry.

The Vietnam War debate was raging then, and “I was militantly antiwar,” Simon recounts. So was Kerry, publicly and vocally. But Kerry really threw Simon for a loop when he volunteered for service. Among those opposed to the war, it was a matter of principle to avoid serving: “If you were at Yale and you didn’t want to go to Vietnam, there was always a way out of it,” Simon recounts.

So when Kerry volunteered it struck Simon, then and now, as a supremely hypocritical act. Because Kerry’s actions didn’t match his expressed convictions, “it proved [to Simon] that his values weren’t really deep.”

It’s not uncommon for Simon to net 200 or more comments from his readers. It may be because his comments section features some of the most intelligent and civil political discussions online. It’s remarkably free of the expletive-filled rancor and childish name-calling that is so prevalent in the world of blogs.

“I get email from all over the world,” he says–hundreds daily. “I had people from 106 countries last month visit [my blog].”

But he just can’t keep up with the sheer volume of correspondence on top of his other duties as screenwriter, novelist, husband, father, and rabid Lakers fan. He says sometimes his readers seem to think he has more clout or resources than he actually does.

He shakes his head at the absurdity of it all, and laughs. “They don’t realize I’m just one guy sitting behind a computer trying to write my screenplays and novels.”

Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.


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