Alan Simpson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Let 'er Rip: Reflections of a Rocky Mountain Senator; Conversation with Alan K. Simpson, former US Senator, Wyoming; 9/17/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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Background

Welcome to Berkeley, Senator Simpson.

It's a pleasure to be here, a great honor to be here Harry, thank you.

You really have politics and public service in your blood, correct?

Yeah. My father was governor and U.S. senator and so I watched to see if it changed him. Saw that it didn't. And my mother was a very gracious, magnificent woman. She was the First Lady of Wyoming. See if it changed them in any way? It didn't. So I thought, well, let 'er rip! So I got in.

How does a kid learn from a setting like that that he wants to go into politics?

Well, you hear your parents talk about it in an intelligent way. Also, Dad would get into it in a pretty passionate way. He thought when FDR buried them pigs, that was pretty bad. He buried those hogs and my father would say, "What kind of a nut is this guy?" You know? And then the reconstruction of the CCC camps, and the NRA and all of that stuff. My father was a very avid partisan Republican, ran for the U.S. Senate in 1940 and got clobbered. They thought he was extreme right-wing. He wasn't. So in his whole political life, he was called a "right-wing cuckoo" and a "left-wing pinko." So that's what politics is, because the issues ... people who love titles will try to lay one on you even if it doesn't fit.

So he must have also learned about losing too, not just winning?

Yes. My dad lost in '40, and then he ran in '54 for governor and he was elected. He lost for re-election because he was not in favor of capital punishment (try that one in Wyoming). And then he ran for the Senate in '62 and received the largest vote that anyone had received prior to that time. I never did lose, but watching him lose was painful enough.

You were known in the Senate as a man of principle. Was that something you learned also in your home?

Well, we were taught that if you lied you got Hell for that. That's a sick idea, I know -- it doesn't have any relevancy today at all! But you could also get your butt spanked for doing that kind of activity, or talking back to your mother. I know these are sick things, especially here in this area. Nevertheless, it does add a dimension to your life which makes you think when you do something wrong that there's a penalty, or when you do something immoral it's called "sin." I believe Dr. Karl Mennenger wrote a piece years ago, "Whatever Happened to Sin?" because nobody knows what the hell, or cares what that is now. But I was raised that way. I don't know that I was a man of principle. You can get used to ramming your head into a wall, I didn't do that. But I loved the fray, and I still love the fray.

What about your sense of humor? Did you get that from your parents?

My mother always said that humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life. And it surely is, because the toughest times that I've ever had in public life or personal life always came when I was losing or searching anew for my sense of humor.

What about politics as a real tough game for families? Did you have any experiences of the dark side when you were a child? What was its effect on your own family when you were going through difficulties in politics?

Well I don't remember any dark sides as a kid. When Dad ran for the Senate in 1940 I was nine. I went to school in Jackson for a while, a wonderful school in the little town of Jackson, Wyoming. Then when he ran in '54, I was just going into the army. I had just graduated from college. So I helped him in that campaign and he won. Then when he lost, I was finishing law school, I'd come back from the army, and I knew he was going to lose. I'd worked hard for him and he did lose, and that was disappointing, but I never felt that he didn't pay attention to my only brother and me -- my brother Pete, the dearest person in my life other than Anne. So when we ran, we waited until the boys were twenty and twenty-two and our daughter was sixteen. We did that intentionally. We figured, well, they may not be ready for us but we're sure not going to leave these years, so we were in every gym and every football field and every stage watching the three of them do stuff, because it's a very swift and transitory time. So we didn't ever feel that. But we'd seen enough people with dysfunctional children who would say, "Daddy has to run for this office because he's going to save the world and we're going to go along. I don't want to go along with him at all." And then, as Anne said, "I've watched, Al; sometimes you can visit more with somebody in an airport who you've never seen before than you may with your own child." That's tough, and we didn't let that happen.

You said yesterday in your lecture that the key to Washington was to know who you are before you go there. That's what we're talking about.

Yeah. If you don't know who you are as a human being before you go to Washington, you're sure as hell not going to find out there. There's no time to find that out. I always love the phrase that those who travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.

What about teachers? Any that come to mind that influenced you and what you became?

Simpson wagging finger at Kreisler Well, I wrote a book.

I have that here. It's called Right in the Old Wazoo.

A library copy, for God's sake. You could have bought that, Harry.

I couldn't find it in the bookstore!

Any book worth reading is worth buying. Now where were we?

Teachers.

Gertrude L. Smith. She was about sixty. Well, you know when you're eighteen you think somebody sixty is just from the moon. And there she'd sit. She taught us about honesty and she taught us about journalism, which was, to her (sick idea), who, what, when, where, how, why. Your opinions went in the opinions column. Your views went some other page if you were a reporter. Well, Lord's sake, they laughed her right off the earth. She was a great woman. Then in college there was a professor of history, Dr. Larson, and Gail McGee, who later became a U.S. senator. They were professors of mine, and they were formative people. They had a love of history, a love journalism. And I do. I always take them on, and never win. But I always take them on. So there are a lot of teachers in your life. The first grade teacher -- I went home for recess in the first grade. They were all going out the door, and I went home. They said, "No, no. This is recess, just a little 15 minute period." Well I was home. I was very embarrassed. She was very kind, she said, "When we have recess, we come back. We don't go home." I thought that was pretty tender. I'll never forget her -- people who treat you with kindness and good humor when you are very vulnerable.

What about books? Any books stand out in your education that affected your way of thinking?

Well I loved the Scribner series and the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth in King Arthur and Treasure Island. Man, that was big time. No television. We did listen to Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy, but we were very immature then. We were eighteen, seventeen. But I loved books of adventure, and we had plenty of them around. And then as I got into college, history. The Civil War and things of that nature, history of the West. My great grandfather came to Wyoming with the Conner expedition in 1862 and was at the battle of the Fetterman massacre, brought the bodies back. He was at the Wagon Box fight and Fort C.F. Smith. So those things were part of my family history.

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