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

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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.

Monday night, Bumpers recalled that Simmons was among the first people to interview him when he was a little-known attorney considering a run for governor. Bumpers called Simmons a friend.

“He was well-respected by all the politicians I knew,” Bumpers said. “They knew the story he’d write would be accurate, even if it might not be favorable.”

Former U.S. senator and Gov. David Pryor, who replaced Bumpers as governor, said the veteran reporter’s death would “leave a big vacancy in Arkansas journalism.”

“He was an old-line tough journalist who had a zeal for communicating big stories,” Pryor said.

But Simmons also had a soft side, demonstrated when he bought a puppy from Pryor when Pryor was governor.

“For many years he would keep us posted to that particular animal,” Pryor noted.

Simmons’ surveys of political candidates were legendary, often with hundreds of questions. A 1992 survey conducted by Simmons for the AP became an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee suggested in his answers that AIDS patients be isolated from the rest of society, and after the AP reported again about the comments in late 2007, generating a hubbub before the Iowa caucuses, Simmons wrote an email to the journalist working the story that said simply, “You’re welcome.”

The Arkansas Press Association this year honored Simmons with its Golden 50 Award, given to journalists with more than five decades in the business. In addition to his work at the AP and Democrat-Gazette, Simmons was a copy boy in 1958 at the Arkansas Gazette and worked three years as a sportswriter there.

“It’s hard to imagine that anyone has accumulated more knowledge about the state and covered more government and politics than Bill,” former AP Little Rock Chief of Bureau Robert Shaw, who succeeded Simmons, wrote as the APA prepared to honor Simmons last summer.

In the 1980s, Simmons used his expertise on elections to help an AP team build a uniform vote-collection system to tabulate results — a forerunner to the system used by nationwide media today.

“In prior years, AP gathered these returns through local arrangements set up by each state bureau, creating a quilt-work of approaches,” Shaw said. “Bill acted as a consultant to the AP group and, in a few instances, advised other bureaus on building their databases for the national system.”

Simmons was born Sept. 23, 1941. He was preceded in death by his wife, Jane; in addition to his son Toby, Simmons is survived by his daughter, Teddi Cole.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.) 
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