The Wall Street Journal has an excellent page-one story today on a billionaire you’ve probably never heard of who’s become the biggest campaign donor in this election cycle, giving $18 million to GOP SuperPACs and candidates. By the time the race is over, Harold Simmons plans to have poured twice that amount into defeating “that socialist” Barack Obama, who he tells the Journal is “the most dangerous American alive…because he would eliminate free enterprise in this country.”

This piece is rich with detail and insight into Simmons, and it’s not surprising that it’s by Monica Langley, who has long excelled at getting these kinds of stories about the uber-rich and powerful, who tend to be on the secretive side.

It’s a coup to get an interview at all with Simmons, much less one that spanned two days. Langley says Simmons hadn’t given an interview in decades.

And she makes the most of her time. I’m having trouble picking my favorite piece of color (the 17,000 tulips? The 35 bears on his Arkansas ranch? His daughter removing her Obama bumper sticker to make peace?), so here are a few:

Sipping lemonade iced tea made with lemons grown on his California estate east of Santa Barbara—next door to Oprah Winfrey’s place in Montecito…

He wears $3,000 Brioni sport coats in a nod to his wealth and Wal-Mart underwear in a sign of a frugal upbringing…

…caterers give Mr. Simmons a doggie bag to take home in his chauffeur-driven Bentley…

…goes to Luby’s Cafeteria for a $5.95 lunch or brings leftovers

Okay, the doggie bag in the chauffeured Bentley wins it.

Critically, the Journal gave Langley room to write this one. I’ve criticized the paper for chopping down the size of its stories in the Murdoch/Thomson era. But this one gets 2,600-plus words, the type of long story that has fallen by 95 percent from pre-Murdoch. This chart shows page one stories of 2,500 words or more through October last year:

That gives space for all that color that makes this story come alive and allows a fuller portrait of Simmons to emerge, rather than the fire-breathing Bircher type you might expect from the anti-Obama quote above.

Langley tells how he came from nothing, started in the pharmacy business, was an early corporate raider, and became politicized in the 1980s when the government said he misused pension assets to take over Amalgamated Sugar, something that made the pension a 50 percent profit. This is a somewhat complicated guy, the kind of guy willing to give $36 million to oust a president he’s deluded himself into thinking will end free enterprise in America, is also the kind who gives millions of dollars to Oprah charities, hands out money to bums, and is pro-choice:

The billionaire takes day trips every week to visit obscure libraries, churches and museums around Texas. He arrives unannounced and typically turns over a big check or several hundred dollar bills. He gives $50 and $100 bills to panhandlers to and from work. If they use the money to buy liquor or drugs, he said, it’s “not my business.”

The Journal is good to counteract the gauzy patriotism here from Simmons and his pal Karl Rove by noting the self-interest at work because of his conglomerate’s businesses:

Many of these companies bear the weight of government regulatory decisions, making Mr. Simmons’s political interest more than simple patriotism.

All of this is wrapped in good context about the size of super PACs and the role they will play in the coming election. Well done.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.