Al Simpson has always been my favorite politician to interview, and not just because he typically delivers the most colorful quotes of anyone around. It’s because I’ve never seen him pull a punch. He says what he believes and in my experience always has, no matter the consequences.
Simpson’s not kidding when he says, “In my 87 years I’ve achieved my ultimate goal: I’ve pissed off everyone in America.” In fact, he’s obviously kind of proud of that distinction.
It was a humble and eloquent Simpson who addressed the nation with one of the most moving eulogies I’ve ever heard at former President George H.W. Bush’s recent funeral service. The posture of the 6-foot-7 former U.S. senator from Wyoming may be a bit stooped now, but he stood tall that day and did the state he represented for three terms proud.
Simpson was also in the national news last week as one of the 44 former senators who signed a bipartisan letter warning that America is facing a constitutional crisis under President Donald Trump.
The open letter published in the Washington Post stated, “We are at an inflection point in which the foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake and the rule of law and the ability of our institutions to function freely and independently must be upheld.”
In a phone interview from his home in Cody, Simpson explained why he signed the letter and further discussed his views about the lack of civility in today’s politics, which was a key point during his Bush eulogy.
“The letter itself is not an anti-Trump screed, it’s not this or that, but it mentions this cataclysm of things: the [special counsel Robert] Mueller report, the closing of the government, the fighting between the two houses,” he said. “Somebody’s got to settle down and do something as grown-ups, and we who signed the letter think it should be the U.S. Senate. We were there and we worked together.”
Simpson noted that he often collaborated on legislation with Democrats, including Sens. Ted Kennedy, John Glenn and Lloyd Bentsen. Can that same type of cooperation ever return?
“I look at the personalities and it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “When I was there you had Bob Dole working with George Mitchell or Tom Daschle. I was the Republican assistant leader and my colleague on the other side was Al Cranston, a progressive who ran for president on an anti-nuclear campaign. But he was a dear friend.
“We didn’t sit and harpoon each other and come out of a caucus and say, ‘We’re going to screw you.’ No, we’d sit down and say ‘I’ll tell you about our caucus.’ … There’s a reason for doing something and you have to find the real reason. That’s what these guys don’t do.”
Simpson doesn’t envy the position of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), the Senate minority leader. “He’s getting clobbered by the progressives, who think he’s too much of a wimp,” he explained. “Good grief, and then there’s [Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, who’s just too tough — they don’t want to mess with him. If you want to get in a fight with McConnell, bring your lunch. He’s tough and he knows the game better than anybody else there now.”
Simpson may have officially retired from politics in 1996, when he decided not to run for a fourth term, but he’s still a fighter who is always ready to mix it up when necessary. He said he took his lumps when he and former Democratic Sen. Erskine Bowles co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010 during President Barack Obama’s administration.
“We tried to talk about the solvency of Social Security, and they said ‘you bastards are trying to ruin it.’ And the unsustainability of health care — ‘you old bastards hate old people.’”
Simpson said the Social Security system is expected to pay out 23 percent less in benefits by 2034. “The health care system is also unsustainable. This is stupidity run amuck,” he said.
He also gives a failing grade to the media for spending far too much time speculating on the 2020 presidential race instead of those two vital issues. “For God’s sake, if the media can’t direct us to the fire, then they ought to throw water on them too,” he said.
I’ve rarely known Simpson to be reticent to talk about any aspect of politics. But he stiff-armed my attempt to draw him into a discussion about why the vast majority of Republicans in the Senate are afraid to utter a word against Trump, no matter what crazy things the president does, like threatening to shut down the federal government over building a wall on the Mexican border.
“You’ll have to ask them,” he answered in a very un-Simpson-like response. But to be fair, it’s not his responsibility to explain why the current crop of senators, including Wyoming’s Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, are so beholden to a president who is the subject of myriad federal and state investigations and seems destined for impeachment at some point.
So on behalf of the many Wyoming residents who are wondering, I’ll use this forum to ask Enzi and Barrasso myself.
Why, honorable sirs, are you so steadfast in your support of Trump through every shameful debacle, lie and deceit? You represent the reddest of states. You hold a virtual lock on reelection for as long as you’d like to stay in Washington. Your silence about Trump’s obvious flaws as chief executive is baffling.
Behind the scenes, some Republicans are apparently willing to talk to their colleagues across the aisle about their misgivings. Asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show last Thursday about what GOP senators say about Trump in the Capitol cloakroom, outgoing Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) rattled off this summary:
“Nuts — weak — doesn’t really understand government, doesn’t care to understand anything complicated — asks and says the most unbelievable things in meetings — no intellectual curiosity.
“I think history down the line will judge members of the Republican Party who have silently looked down and thought they could just wait this out, without even speaking out about the level of lying that goes on,” McCaskill said.
Simpson may not want to address this issue directly, partly because he told me he’s tired of being asked about Trump by every journalist who sticks a microphone in his face.
But I’m not the only one who thinks his fond remembrance of his friend Bush, and how he represented the country, stands in sharp contrast with the current petulant White House occupant. Simpson called Bush a man of “such grace and humility,” adding that “those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
“[Bush] never hated anyone,” Simpson recalled at the service. “He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
I wouldn’t dream of putting words in the senator’s mouth or assigning a motive to what he says. But I wonder how anyone could have looked at the current president in the front pew that day and not seen a corroded container.