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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I'm going to ask you a series of questions here and let's hope we can get some short answers in. What's the funniest thing that ever happened in your political career?

Funniest? There're lot's of funny things. I can't even think, but the one when the guy said, "What are you going to miss the least?" I said "At the end of this term they're going to come up and have a reception, somebody's going to get about eight feet away and cover their name tag and say, "You don't know who I am, do you?" And I'll say, "No and I don't give a rat's ass." It did come, and I was able to do it. I felt very good about that. There are people who do that that are cruel. Now that was a long answer. What's your next question?

What is the most courageous act you took as a politician?

Well, the immigration bill was not courage. The toughest one was the Clean Air Act, and sticking tough in that one. I said, "You're not going to destroy low-sulfur coal in Wyoming like you did the last time. I won't have any part of it and I'll lay right here on the railroad track." And they didn't and now of course it's the coal choice of the United States and it's going to have to be the coal that will take care of the country because it's the only way for California to get ozone attainment and do the things, the natural gas, and I worked hard on that.

What political leader do you most admire?

I was able to work with two or three and I can't separate them. George Bush, a magnificent man and was totally misread by the American public. Bob Dole, magnificent man totally misread by the American public. Howard Baker, magnificent man who probably was not misread but never did get to the presidency, although he ran. So those are wonderful people. George Mitchell was a great leader in the Democratic Party. A man of great patience, highly partisan, tough as an owl but fair. You appreciate people like that. Robert Byrd, magnificent parliamentarian. Taught me more about the Senate and systems than any books I ever could have read. So you take something away from people like that. Leaders, true leaders.

What about legislators? Who was the finest legislator that you dealt with?

Well don't throw anything now, because we're not talking about philosophy or party. The finest legislator I ever worked with was Ted Kennedy. He had a magnificent staff, he even had a parliamentarian on that staff of his. So when you were in the legislative arena and you were bringing your lunch and staying late, you wanted to get Ted on your side or least use some of his expertise. I would go to him sometimes early on and say look, you'll have to trust me, what the hell do I do right now to move this bill? Boy I'll tell you he had ways to do it and as you can see he uses those skills on issues in which I was totally on the other side. I can't remember them all there were so many. We were never on the same side. But he is a legislator.

In looking back at your political career, is there one thing that stands out that you'd do differently?

No. There were times when I should not have stayed up until two at night reading and getting ready for the next day, and then getting up at seven and not getting enough sleep. You pay for that, you get testy and irritable and then taking on the media when I didn't have to. Anne finally one day, and I reported it in the book, said, "Al, I'll tell you, I love you but why don't you just shut up."

"Shut up? You've never used that phrase in all our married life."

She said, "Well, I'm using it now because I love you and just knock it off or else you'll just be a loser." So then I finally just went underground because I had people watching me and I didn't even know. It's almost like they had a 400,000-power microscope on my life and reporting things that weren't true. That was tough. But I brought that on myself. I don't blame it on the media or radical feminist groups, although there were some dandies out there during the Anita Hill thing. But those things were all self induced, and I received the shot in the foot award from the Lion's Club in Cody. It's a big cowboy boot with a great big hole shot with a 45. That was a disgusting memento.

What chapter in your political career do you want to be remembered for?

Well I think it will be that I was a legislator. They can put that on the tombstone and then add another one which is very simple, "You would have wanted him on your side." Because loyalty, to me, was worth anything. And loyalty will get you in a lot of trouble but, by God, it's the best way to live.

One final question. What lessons do you think students might draw from your distinguished career? Lessons about what they might do with their life, lessons about public service and so on.

Well, get in the game and do it. Take part or get taken apart. And to realize that in this institution, one of the finest schools in America, this is one fine institution of free speech; let that always be. You don't close people off, you wait until they finish their noxious diatribe and then you tear their ideas to pieces. You don't disallow them to come to the campus. I've had a wonderful reception, it's been delightful. A great school. And to see these bright people here. And if they don't energize themselves and get out in the game and get involved in politics -- which is what you want to get involved in, because in a country with no politics, you don't want to live there. Get in the game, and if you don't it's like spitting in God's eye, because there are privileged people in this place with the wonderful faculty and wonderful administration and a wonderful opportunity to learn.

And the other one is, any damn fool can be a critic. I doesn't take any brains at all to be a critic; give that up. A critic is a product of creativity not his own. Anybody can do it. Jerks can do it, and guys who grab microphones and get people all worked up, and then it takes thoughtful Republicans and Democrats to come along behind them and police up. That's the game.

Senator Simpson, thank you very much for spending this time with us and talking about your life and the lessons to be derived therefrom.

Delightful. A lot of fun. Thank you, Harry.

And thank you very much for joining us for this "Conversation with History."

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