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People Top 5
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- December 16, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 23
The Wyoming Senator Has Been a Quick Draw with a Sharp Tongue, but Now He Says He's Sorry—Sort of
"Alan did have a temper," says Lorna, sitting in the living room of the Cody, Wyo., home where Simpson and his brother, Peter, were raised. "One day he threw a rock at someone, and I knew that just wouldn't do. So I told him I'd have to close him in a room as a punishment when he couldn't control his temper." She pauses, and then smiles. "Then, when he was 12, he came to me one day and said, 'Mom, you're not going to have to do that anymore—I've learned to control my temper.' Arid he had, too."
Perhaps he had—but not completely, and not forever. In recent months Alan Simpson, the 60-year-old Republican Senator from Wyoming, has had friends and foes alike wondering when his temper will next take him—and whether it will prove his political undoing. First, there was the Arnett incident: At the height of the Persian Gulf War, Simpson blasted CNN correspondent Peter Arnett for remaining in Baghdad after other journalists had evacuated, calling him an Iraqi "sympathizer" and saying, without foundation, that Arnett's Vietnamese ex-wife had a brother active in the Vietcong. Next came Simpson's performance on Nightline during the Clarence Thomas hearings, when he angrily needled National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg for breaking the story of Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges, questioning both her judgment and her professionalism.
But it was Simpson's behavior at the Thomas hearings that drew the most flak. He badgered Anita Hill and hinted at, but didn't produce until after the hearings ended, "stuff coming over the transom about Anita Hill, saying watch out for this woman"—tactics for which he was roundly condemned by women's groups and in newspaper editorials, including one in the Wyoming Eagle. Says Charles Graves, chairman of the Democratic Party in Simpson's home state: "It's all too bad, because I think Alan is really a decent human being inside. He just can't stand anybody who disagrees with him."
Last month the decent human being in Simpson came to the fore. At a COP fund-raiser held in Cheyenne, he told the assembled crowd, "I have been riding high, a bit too cocky, arrogant, yeah, too smart by half sometimes. I think it's time for a little honest reassessment." He continued, somewhat cryptically, "I see some of my previous life's behavior held up to a prism I had never noticed before through different eyes. For it has been personally uncomfortable to see your good name equated with McCarthy, sleaze, slime, smarmy, evil, ugly. ... I do not blame the media for anything.... The responsibility is mine, and I shall handle it and handle it well."
Whether the speech was political expediency or genuine contrition is hard to determine. Ask Simpson today if he thinks he owes Anita Hill an apology, and he evades the question, saying only, "I would very much like to sit and visit with her and hear what impelled her." Ask if he is apologizing for his performance at the hearings, and he answers, "I have apologized before.... It is a hell of a lot easier than taking responsibility, and that's what I did that night."
What is clear is that the criticisms leveled against him have hurt. Simpson's 12 years in the U.S. Senate, and his 13 in Wyoming's legislature before that, have been marked by angry, often colorful outbursts (Simpson to the press on the Iran-contra question: "You'd just like to stick it in Reagan's gazoo!"), and he has often expressed regret after the fact. (After impugning Arnett's motives, he offered a qualified apology in a letter to The New York Times.) But never before had he seemed so stung by the disapproval his actions have occasioned.
"Alan has been very open about the fact that it's been painful—he likes to be loved, and he's not used to people saying nasty things about him," says his wife, Ann Simpson. "I've been very proud of the way he's responded to the negativism [in the press], to take it as fact that, you know, he had a little responsibility in there."
The son of Milward Simpson, also a lawyer, Governor of Wyoming and later a U.S. Senator, Alan was popular, athletic and a decent student, as was Peter, now 61 and a University of Wyoming administrator. By age 17, though, Alan was in trouble; with the law. He received two years of federal probation for indulging in one of his favorite pastimes: shooting shotguns at local mailboxes with pals. "I was a very spirited boy, and a crack shot," says Simpson. "But that was beyond mischief. It was vandalism. It was a ghastly, stupid, mob-like thing."
It was also an incident he would remember, he says, while sitting in front of Clarence Thomas four decades later. "Suddenly from eight years back comes a guided missile at Thomas's brain," Simpson says. "I just bristled, because I thought of the fact that I had been on federal probation for two years. I thought, this is violently unfair. This reminds me of what could have happened to me."
At the time, though, Alibi Al—the name high school classmates gave Simpson because of his skill at talking his way out of conflicts with teachers—put the incident behind him. He attended the University of Wyoming, where he played varsity football, received fair grades in the prelaw program and met Ann Schroll, the dark-haired cheerleader who would become his wife. "He was loads of fun, and he didn't have a lot of vanities," says Ann. Says Alan: "Marrying her was assuredly the best thing that ever happened to me."
The worst thing was his early military service. In 1954, Simpson joined the Army and was promptly sidelined because of stress. "They made me assistant adjutant of a regiment, and I didn't even know what I was doing—I was absolutely filled with anxiety," he says. With his blood pressure sky-high and his doctor concerned about the risk of ulcers, he ended up in the hospital for a month. "He went through, you know, mild depression," says Ann, "but he didn't get counseling, he just finally figured it out."
Simpson was transferred to the infantry and recovered his equilibrium, he says, "when I was out in the woods, shooting again." The experience taught him that "I couldn't administer my way out of a paper bag I could never be a governor or a President," Simpson says. After the service, he got his law degree at the University of Wyoming, practiced 18 years of divorce law in his father's Cody firm and had three children (Bill, 34, and Colin, 32, both lawyers, and Susan, 28, an art historian). In 1964 he decided to follow his father's lead and enter politics—in the state house, where he could "legislate but not administer." He won his first election handily and soon built a reputation as a solid conservative legislator with the occasional liberal leaning: He is, for example, vehemently pro-choice. In 1978 he won a seat in the U.S. Senate with 62 percent of the vote.
On the national scene, too, Simpson has been popular. Colleagues like Democrat Paul Simon of Illinois, who with Simpson and Ted Kennedy helped draft the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, give him high marks. "Al is a real legislator," says Simon. "He digs in and works on things that arc not necessarily helpful to him politically, like immigration." On a personal level, he is by all accounts an easy man to like, on his good days: An inveterate jokester, he loves buying flammable fake dollar bills at Al's Magic Shop in Washington and telling unsuspecting souls, "Do you know what we do with money in Washington? Well, I'll show you." Then he lights the bills.
But Simpson's smoldering temper and propensity to offend had begun to concern some observers even before the Arnett and Hill fiascos. Paul Egan, an executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America who has worked with Simpson on veterans' issues since 1979, considers him "a very thoughtful politician," but says, "In recent years there's been a stridency and a shrillness to his rhetoric that wasn't there before. It's much more difficult to deal with him now."
Still, Simpson believes that some of the bad press he's been getting of late is a bum rap. When Washington newspapers reported that he had said at Ann's 60th-birthday party, "I never dreamed when I was 22 that I'd be sleeping with a 60-year-old woman" (a remark that annoyed Barbara Bush among others), Simpson fumed that the papers had neglected to include his mitigating clause, "and enjoying it just as much."
"Here's a poor guy," says Simpson, speaking of himself, "who has been pro-choice all of his public life, who's been desperate to overturn the gag rule on birth-control clinics, who has a staff that is two-thirds women—and I'm portrayed as an evil, ugly stench of a man who cares not one whit about women or their problems."
Yet the birthday incident, he concedes, was one of the reasons he came forward to "take responsibility" at the fund-raiser in Cheyenne. On some level Simpson does seem to understand that his mouth is trouble and that if he doesn't change, it may hurt his political future. He speaks with pride, for instance, about the way he stayed calm last month after losing two Senate fights on amendments to a veterans' bill.
"In the west, we say a person's 'chambered it,' meaning you've pushed your gun cartridge up into the magazine and it's locked in," he says. "After 60 years and three months of life, I think I have finally chambered it—locked in this lesson."
MARILYN BALAMACI in Washington, D.C., VICKIE BANE in Wyoming
- Marilyn Balamaci,
- Vickie Bane.
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