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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Politics, the Press, and Public Disclosure

Yesterday in your lecture you gave a definition of politics which, if you could, I would like for you to recall.

In politics there are no right answers, only a continuing series of compromises between groups resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions, where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom. That's politics.

It's a complex definition for a complex subject and in a way it suggests that for issues like immigration, there's never a final policy that will resolve everything. It's an ongoing dialog.

Forever. And it's going on now. The chairman of the subcommittee who took my place, Spencer Abraham, wants to do nothing with legal immigration. In fact he would open it up further, to over a million a year. I think that that's a mistake. He's in the place of power, he's a very fine, bright guy, and he's not going to do a thing. If you want to do something with the RAND Report, be sure to write Spencer Abraham and ask him why he doesn't respond to the RAND Report, and he'll give an honest answer.

One of the challenges in your career has been the press. I'd like to look at the issues that you raise in your book about the role that the press has come to play in this ongoing process of politics. You're offering constructive criticism and I want to talk a little about that. First, a lot of your friends are members of the press, both in Washington and Wyoming.

I've been treated very fairly.

But throughout your career, and in your book you discuss these times, the press often hasn't done their job. Tell us about why you think that's happening.

Well, the press is interested only in conflict, confusion, and controversy. They're not interested in clarity. You can come out of a meeting after being in there all day with Democrats and Republicans and they're all gathered around, look like vapor lock in their eyes, and it's "who won?" "who lost?" "who caved?" Oh what the hell, that's not the issue. It's "did we advance the cause a bit?" And if there's a more thin-skinned group in society, I have not yet met them, than those in the media. They love to dish it out and they can't take an ounce of it. They have an epidermis that you have to examine with an electron microscope. They are really bizarre. And then you nail them and they have a whole kitty full of things -- "the chilling effect," or "the people's right to know," or "we stick by our story." They're defensive, they're arrogant. They think that they're going to lead us from whatever horrors we're in and that they alone will be able to get us through the next millennium.

I've just always felt that the First Amendment belonged to me too, so I've always taken them on. I've never won, but I sure as hell enjoy the fray and I believe that they are not a force for good. They are the only unaccountable branch in society.

You may remember for a whole year you heard about "gridlock." Gridlock, gridlock, gridlock! Well, what the hell were we doing? We did line-item veto, unfunded mandates, congressional compliance, health care reform start, a telecommunications bill we hadn't touched for thirty years, farm support system we hadn't touched for thirty years. Good heavens! And all we heard was "gridlock." I mean, what kind of screwballs are they? It makes you wonder what is it. (In fact, I don't want to get too topical but I'm enjoying reading the paper [about the BART strike] while I'm here. There's a great sadness on the part of the writer that obviously the riders haven't taken [their frustration] out on the BART. I mean, that's so sick. It says that the protest fizzled, and if they could just keep that going for a few more days -- you've got to keep those things going -- what a riot.)

So what is the consequence of this kind of debasement? Is it that it interferes with the public discourse that is crucial to the politics as you're describing it?

It sets a tone of suspicion that all politicians are adulterers and crooks and slobs who are preying upon the public. And now of course the public thinks that journalists are the slobs who are preying upon the public, in the recent horror of Princess, Lady Di. I won't even go into that. But you have a real danger in society when the American public perceives politicians and journalists as being lower than whale crap on the bottom of the ocean, and that's where we are right now. And that's sad, because people don't trust them, and they don't trust us. There's a way to raise that. There's a way to go back to the Jim Lehrers and the David Broders and the Helen DeLores of journalism, and the Tom Foleys and the Howard Bakers and the George Mitchells and the Bob Doles. Those are good people and you'd never know that. So they play upon, just, nothing moral or good is worth reporting. "We don't report on flights that land every day, we just report on crashes." That's a marvelous one, we've all heard that one. "And if you don't like it, don't buy the paper." Or turn the knob. It's unbelievable.

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