There he was, right after the trademark ticking stopwatch, teasing one of his compelling, dramatic and informative pieces that have graced 60 Minutes for the last two decades—this, the capstone of 47 years at CBS News covering wars, pestilence, human triumph over adversity and, of course, the occasional glamorous movie star.
Alas, Bob Simon’s piece on a potential cure for the Ebola virus, which led Sunday night’s broadcast—and, poignantly enough, was made in collaboration with his daughter, veteran 60 Minutes producer Tanya Simon—was his last.
As a grave-looking Scott Pelley noted in his introduction, Simon was killed “this past Wednesday in a tragic car accident. In a 47-year career, reporting from every corner of the globe, Bob set the standard for CBS News. On Wednesday evening, Bob finished a story intended for this broadcast tonight.”
The 73-year-old Simon’s swan song was a fitting finale for an intimidating and legendary body of work that garnered 27 Emmys, four Peabodys and other honors; yet, by all accounts, Simon wore it lightly.
He was, off-camera, a soft-spoken, courteous, humorous man who would rather have talked about almost anything but himself (at a recent lunch with his colleague Lesley Stahl, he couldn’t be distracted from swooning again and again over the irresistible charms of his three-year-old grandson, Jack). But he had finely tuned antennae for bullshit, and didn’t hesitate when he encountered it to call out the perpetrator. You could see it coming when, chin on hand, which often covered his mouth (doubtlessly upturned in an expression of incredulity), his eyebrows arched and his eyes shot stilettos.
There was no such display in Sunday night’s story, although Simon did point out to Dr. Robert Kadlec, the man appointed back during the George W. Bush administration to oversee the government’s defenses against dangerous biological and chemical agents, that the record wasn’t terribly reassuring.
“In terms of the accumulation of your responses, it doesn't sound very good, does it?” Simon said with a dry laugh after Kadlec admitted that there was no effective response for Marburg virus, plague, radiological or nuclear attack, or chemical attack—never mind Ebola.
“It's not very promising,” Kadlec had to agree—no doubt earning points on Simon’s truth-o-meter.
Simon, of course, would have been the first to appreciate (well, hardly appreciate, but at least acknowledge) the irony that after choosing to put himself in harm’s way and facing so much peril in his work from the Vietnam War onward—gunfire, rocket attacks, and, worst of all, 40 days of torture and abuse in one of Saddam Hussein’s prisons during the first Gulf War—he died in such a prosaic manner in the city he called home, in a completely avoidable car crash on the West Side Highway.
Surely, when Simon stepped into the hired Town Car on Wednesday night, he could not have expected that his driver—who reportedly had been so reckless in the past that his operator’s license was repeatedly suspended—would chauffeur him across the River Styx in what seems an inexcusable accident.
At the end of the program—after Steve Kroft’s celebrity profile of Bradley Cooper, a ticket for the American Sniper star to punch in his campaign for the Best Actor Oscar—a shaken-looking Kroft channeled the palpable grief that has been coursing through the institution of CBS News and beyond.
“We lost Bob Simon this past Wednesday night,” Kroft, his voice trembling slightly, said into the camera. “All of us lost him—his family, his colleagues here at 60 Minutes and all of you who have watched this broadcast over the years. We lost his curiosity, his unparalleled writing ability, his calm bravery under fire. And we lost his sense of justice and his sense of the absurd—both of which he brought to so much of his reporting.”
Kroft said next Sunday’s 60 Minutes broadcast will be devoted to a tribute to their departed co-worker.