The winner of the third annual Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship is David Protess, professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Protess founded the Innocence Project, which enlists journalism students, journalists, lawyers and private investigators to investigate questionable convictions for capital and other crimes. Over the past twelve years the Innocence Project was responsible for overturning the convictions of eight Illinois prisoners, four on death row. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan recognized the work of the project as being instrumental in his decision to suspend executions and grant clemency to every prisoner on death row. Protess is now engaged in setting up a program to help exonerated prisoners adjust to civilian life. The Puffin/Nation Prize, which carries a stipend of $100,000, is presented annually to an American citizen who has challenged the status quo “through distinctive, courageous, imaginative, socially responsible work of significance.” Funding for the prize comes from the Puffin Foundation; it is administered by the Nation Institute. The winners are chosen by four judges, who remain anonymous.
John Nichols writes: Paul Simon, who died unexpectedly on December 9 at 75, was elected to the Senate as an unapologetic liberal in the same year that Ronald Reagan won his landslide “morning in America” re-election. Even as Reagan was carrying Illinois in that 1984 election, the crusading newspaper editor turned crusading candidate easily beat a three-term Republican incumbent. Against Reagan’s “government is the problem” rhetoric, Simon said, “Government is not the enemy.” Against the lie of Reaganomics, Simon said it was right, and necessary, to raise taxes. Against the corruptions of empire and politics, Simon said it was time for an ethics revolution: cracking down on Iran/contra conspirators, forcing special-interest money out of campaigns, reasserting the regulatory role of federal agencies gutted during the Reagan years. Simon’s style was so distinct that many Democrats encouraged the bow-tie-wearing senator to seek the presidency in 1988. After Dick Gephardt beat him in Iowa, Simon settled back as the Senate’s liberal conscience until his retirement in 1997. He didn’t really retire, however. The small-town journalist contributed to The Nation (“Social Security Fixes,” April 29, 2002) and other publications and penned a stack of books. He was director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and co-chaired the Illinois commission that prodded Governor George Ryan to empty that state’s death row. And he continually urged the Democratic Party to offer an aggressive liberal alternative to George W. Bush’s Republicans (from his hospital bed, he endorsed Howard Dean). Reminded that polling data didn’t always support liberal positions, Simon said, “What we need is more and more public officials who don’t follow the polls.” As usual, he meant it.