Bill Simmons, Democrat-Gazette Political Editor, Ex-AP Bureau Chief, Dies at 71

by Kelly P. Kissel, The Associated Press  on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 9:12 pm  

LITTLE ROCK — Bill Simmons, a former Associated Press bureau chief who covered Arkansas politics for nearly a half-century, including the Whitewater and Paula Jones scandals that dogged Bill Clinton's presidency, has died. He was 71.

Simmons died at his home Monday in Little Rock, his son Toby Simmons said. He said his father had suffered from diabetes complications for years. At times recently, the elder Simmons used a wheelchair while continuing to cover the state's major political stories.

Simmons had a 34-year career with the AP, then worked nearly 16 years with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as its political editor. Except for a brief time in Detroit during the 1960s, Simmons spent his entire career in Little Rock, joining the AP bureau as a reporter in 1962 and returning from Michigan in 1968 to eventually direct coverage of Arkansas state government and politics.

Simmons was named bureau chief in 1990. Two years later, after Clinton was elected president and attention turned to his investments in a north Arkansas land development called Whitewater, Simmons was often asked to explain the wide-reaching investigation.

"It was like a black hole in space drawing all the energy out of everything," Simmons said during a 2007 interview for an oral history project at the University of Arkansas. "I had reporters from Tokyo who couldn't speak English calling me at 4:00 in the morning, you know, getting me out of bed, wanting to know things about Whitewater and about Clinton and about Hillary.

"You just cannot imagine the enormous physical strain of trying to accommodate hundreds of reporters from all over the country and all over the world," he added. "And many of them not knowing the first thing about what they were talking about."

Clinton also was dogged with allegations of womanizing. Jones, a former state employee, sued Clinton for sexual harassment in 1994. A federal judge ultimately dismissed the case.

Simmons covered every Arkansas governor from Orval Faubus to Mike Beebe, the current office holder.

"Bill Simmons remains an icon of Arkansas journalism and his body of work can be summarized in three words by any politician he covered: tough, but fair," Beebe said late Monday.

Former Associated Press President and CEO Lou Boccardi on Monday added: "For so many years, he was an authoritative voice respected throughout his state and well known throughout the AP for his sure hand on the news. He was a reporter and editor who loved his beat and who contributed enormously to the AP in Arkansas."

As a reporter, Simmons was unrelenting and knew the answers to most questions before they were asked.

In the early 1970s, after the staff for then-Gov. Dale Bumpers adopted a general policy of not talking to reporters, Simmons confronted Bumpers' spokesman about the governor's unannounced trip to a state prison farm. When the spokesman wouldn't confirm the trip, Simmons said: "I know the trip was made. I want to know why and what happened," according to the book "Yellow Dogs and Dark Horses" by John Robert Starr, another former AP bureau chief and Democrat-Gazette editor.



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