There have been few television correspondents who could tell a story the way Bob Simon did. His curiosity, intelligence and sense of adventure would take him from his native Bronx, New York, to Brandeis University, and on to the front lines of history.
CBS News hired young Bob Simon, a Fulbright scholar, for its assignment desk in 1967. He would soon be assigned to cover stories the more veteran reporters did not want to cover. Four decades later he would recall, in a 2013 interview for the Archive of American Television, "Knowing what to do was simple -- tell a story."
CBS News moved him to its London bureau, and from there he was assigned to cover the Vietnam War. Working with legendary cameramen like Norman Lloyd and David Green, he excelled as a war correspondent. "It is the biggest adrenaline rush there is," he reflected. "There is no other experience that matches it."
Simon had an amazing ability to let the pictures carry the story while complementing the scenes with just the right words. He remembered being there when a young Vietnamese girl was running naked down a road away from a burning village. "What do you say? Where it is, her name, and that there are American fighter jets."
Simon had several tours of duty in Vietnam. He was there at the end. He recalled that the U.S. had alerted Americans that "when the military radio played 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas,' it would be the cue to get your asses to the embassy." Simon said when the order came, it was chaos, and climbing over the embassy wall was a problem because U.S. Marines were driving people back. "You had to have round eyes that day," he recalled.
Simon became the most acclaimed network Middle East correspondent while assigned to the CBS News Tel Aviv bureau. He would always push the borders of coverage, and he could beautifully capture its complexity. "Rivers make the best borders," he wrote. "Even though Jordan is little more than a lively brook at the level of the Allenby Bridge, even though the two banks -- lush vegetation trailing up to mad lunarscapes -- are mirror images of each other, crossing over from Israeli territory to Jordan always carries a sense of transition of the forbidden, of moving between enemy camps."
Simon would test those borders during the first Gulf War, when he and his crew walked to the top of a sand dune near Al-Ruqi, an inland border post between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They were captured by the Iraqi military and held, beaten, starved and interrogated for 40 days. The Iraqis accused them of being spies.
"'Name? Rank?' a voice shouted," Simon wrote in his riveting account of captivity in his 1992 book Forty Days.
"I'm not military," Simon responded.
"Our sources tell us you have good relations with the government of Israel," the interrogator said.
"That's it, I thought," Simon wrote. "The game is up. I found this realization calming in a way.... It was all over, but I would go on playing for a while."
Simon and his crew would be freed after 40 days, but they were all deeply affected by the ordeal.
Simon would return to work. He had visited 67 different countries as a foreign correspondent. He was known among his producer colleagues for screening every inch of footage before writing his story, and then memorably capturing a scene in a few words. For instance, Simon covered Hong Kong's transition from British rule to China in 1997. He spotted footage of an old Chinese man doing his tai chi exercise in the early morning. It would be his opening scene. "The debts of history are coming due," he would write.
He became a full-time correspondent on 60 Minutes in 2005, but he had already filed several important pieces for the broadcast. Before the U.S. went to war with Iraq in 2003, Simon would remember, "I knew from my sources, and from the Israelis ... and whatever you think of the Israelis, they have great intelligence, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." He continued, "We couldn't say that ... so we did a story called 'The Selling of a War,' and the piece got a lot of attention ... but [President] Bush invaded Iraq anyway."
Simon collected 27 Emmy Awards and four Peabody Awards over nearly 50 years of brilliant journalism. It is shocking that, after covering war zones from Vietnam to the Middle East, and violent uprisings from Northern Ireland to Tiananmen Square, his life ended in the back seat of a town car on New York City's West Side Highway.
Bob Simon is survived by his daughter, Tanya, who is a 60 Minutes producer, and wife, Franciose. He will be greatly missed by thousands of current and former admiring colleagues and friends. And millions of viewers will miss his distinctive voice and unique writing style. He truly was one of a kind.
He concluded the final chapter of Forty Days with what might have been broadcast then, had things turned out differently for him. "That obituary for Simon showed clips of him in his various disguises: safari jackets, blazers, tuxedos, covering wars, uprisings, galas. It was well-produced, well-edited, and well-written.... It was a first-rate television piece. Clearly it deserved to make air."