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Bob Simon: An appreciation for the '60 Minutes' correspondent

Bob Simon attends

Bob Simon attends "The Central Park Five" New York special screening at the Dolby 88 Theater in Manhattan on Oct. 2, 2012. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jason Kempin

Bob Simon, who died Wednesday in an automobile accident on the West Side Highway, was a beloved guy at CBS News where “love" -- as at all news divisions — is not exactly a commodity in plentiful supply.

 But what's “love” got to do with it anyway? He was one of the supreme practitioners of a demanding and perilous job, and as such, was a living reminder to colleagues — particularly younger ones — that such a job might be a “higher calling” after all.

  The stories — countless ones. The commitment. The craftsmanship. The passion for precision bordering on obsession. The ferocious sense that the story he was working on at that very moment was the greatest story that he had ever done or ever would do.

  The paralyzing fear that it would not be.

 The living-in-the-minute-and-for-the-minute drive. The joy.

 Plus, the awe-inspiring span of time and accomplishment.

 Bronx-born, Brandeis-educated, a brief sojourn in the foreign service, he began reporting for CBS in Vietnam, got his first pieces on Walter Cronkite's “Evening News,” and wouldn't stop for the next 40 years.

He is the last of the great TV war correspondents from the Vietnam era, the others long retired, or long gone.

Simon reminded everyone who ever saw one of his pieces, or passed him in the hall, that journalism, and TV journalism in particular, possibly was the grandest, gaudiest pursuit on earth after all or — echoing Mencken — that maybe this was “the life of kings.” Simon certainly lived that line.

Not to say that Bob Simon was “lucky” or a member of the privileged few — although he would be the first to admit he was both. But rather he had survived and thrived in a profession where most do not.

 Or — after years of mismanagement, or the cultural malaise of TV news, or the pervasive sense that even the bricks holding up the building seemed to be dying — a few others fall into a bottomless well of cynicism. TV news will do that, sometimes.

Simon never did or never could. His human dimensions exploded off-screen, but they were largely hidden to public view. He pulled up to the offices in a motorcycle. He smoked, or used to smoke (Kool was his brand). He suffered periodically from depression, and fought — successfully — prostate cancer. His depression intensified in the years after he was released from an Iraqi prison in 1991.

Everyone now says he has been happy for years, or the happiest he's been in years. He has a grandchild.

He planned on working until he no longer could.

Associates say he loved opera (Verdi, passionately). He loved food. He loved wine. He loved Israel, where he spent maybe half of his working life. He loved his wife, Francoise, his daughter, Tanya, who is a producer at "60 Minutes.”

Love was a common denominator with Simon.

But what's love got to do with it? To viewers, his on-screen style is all that mattered. Projecting a certain Zen calm, his own face or presence were only sporadically seen, as required by the dictates of the story. He used words sparingly, but precisely.

There were a lot of wide open spaces in a Bob Simon piece. He didn't believe in cramming, but in telling. His pieces were elegant, but they also shimmered with a sense that madness was crowding the frame, trying to break through into the precisely controlled inner-sanctum of the story Simon was telling.

Simon pieces always seemed to offer an implicit recognition that the world was mad, but at least during this small journey you were about to take with him, sanity would prevail.

 Possibly that's because Simon really had seen it all — battlefields, death, nearly his own on several occasions. The “thump-thump-thump of bullets around” him — a line from some forgotten piece reported in the midst of a raging firefight.

CBS wanted to bring Simon back from Israel after Menachem Begin's electoral victory in 1977. The story was done. Bosses wanted Simon stateside. “They brought him back saying the story is over, peace has broken out, and Bob said, 'I'm going back to Israel whether you like it or not — Israel will always be a story,' ” says Tom Bettag, the former executive producer of “CBS Evening News,” and a longtime Simon colleague.

“There was nothing willy-nilly about this guy, but just the opposite — an enormous sense of responsibility that 'I've got to get this right,' and a responsibility to the story and to the people he was covering. He wasn't afraid of CBS, but he was afraid of letting down the story and the people in the story. He really cared about the relationship he had with the people he was covering. He was great with people, and always came away saying, 'I'm not going to let these people down.' That was what he was worrying about always.”

  On the surface he may “have had this devil-may care swashbuckling thing, and outwardly lots of laughs and was very funny, but underneath all that was this very intensely caring person, and underneath that a worrier. He really wanted to get it right."

“He was driven by a natural curiosity,” says Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes,” who has worked with Simon for decades. “I don't think he spent a lot of time second-guessing his storytelling, but he did have a natural curiosity, and when you put those things together, that's what great reporters have.

“What I loved about him as a journalist were multiple things — storytelling, the observations, the things he would notice that others didn't, the turn of phrase, the enthusiasm he brought to the story — but he was also easy to work with. You hear a lot about difficult personalities in this business, but he wasn't one. Very thoughtful, think things through and then take viewers to someplace they've never been.

 “He was the very best of what we do.”

His incarceration “had a dramatic impact on him. He suffered from it. We know he had depression” but started to come out of it over the last three or four years. “He would glide through stories, he would just glide through them. He didn't want himself in them. He was really irritated when he saw reporters who put themselves in stories. He liked to be just on the outside, making this observation, but not getting in the way of this story or the observation. "

 Joel Bernstein was Simon's producer, and friend of forty years. They worked for decades together in the Middle East and Israel. When Simon was held in an Iraqi prison during the first Gulf War, or “Desert Storm,” it was Bernstein who produced his obituary for the network. Bernstein wanted the job, firmly believing that if he produced it, it would never be used.

“He was a driven guy, driven to succeed — maybe fear of fear of failure, I don't know, I'm not a psychologist, but he was really driven and had to do every story he did in his own way,” said Bernstein earlier Thursday. “He was a great writer and he could sum up things, like those artists who draw a stroke and you've got something like a nose or whatever. He had that ability too. He was terrific television writer, as good as Morley [Safer.]"

"We worked together in Israel, did countless number of pieces for hard news. It was [later] the biggest story in the world at the time. [Menachem] Begin was elected, Labor lost an election, so we had to cover the peace, which is a lot harder than covering war — you send over the crew, get close enough to the fighting as possible and pray that you get good stuff.

“But with peace you had to do a lot of hard work. It was also the beginning of the settlement movement ..." Simon and Bernstein also covered both Intifadas. 

But Bernstein says his boss in New York wanted to put Simon in the State Department [in D.C.] "He hated that he had to wear a suit, and sit in some room and wait for the their daily report — he just couldn't stand it.”

He finally — and quickly — got back to Israel. He loved the post, says Bernstein, “because he couldn't stand being around so many other reporters fighting for news. He needed to be away from that. He really needed to be away from the bosses [in New York] and on his own, doing his own thing, and in Israel, the hours were such that we'd go out and do a story and finish it just as people in New York were coming to work.

 “We already had our story shot and done, and said 'this is what we have for you ...'"

But there were frictions with Israeli authorities. “We had this cameraman who in his spare time shot pictures of birds with his long lens. He used it take [footage] of four Israeli soldiers kicking and beating these young Palestinian kids who had been throwing rocks. The beating just went on and on and we filmed it and it went viral all over the world.” Simon got enormous heat from the military, says Bernstein. 

“But the fact is, Bob was [later] regarded as a hero in Israel because of his captivity [in Iraq] during the war. He was THEIR correspondent, and when he came out of captivity, anytime he went to Israel, everyone knew him. He was more recognized there than here."

“He was his own man there — he loved the sun, the beach, he did like the people — not everyone."

 Says Bernstein, “It's amazing how fast things happen now in the world. It [the reporting of his death] was all over the television last night, but I found out earlier. Someone had called me around nine. It was an incredible shock.

“But I'm so glad I didn't see it on television, so glad someone called. If I'd seen it, I would've had a heart attack, I swear.”

Simon, “was almost killed many times covering stories" -- in the Middle East, Vietnam and dozens of other conflicts, wars, revolutions, and battles, said Bernstein.

  “Then he's killed on the West Side Highway. It's obscene.”

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