Alan Simpson tells a story. He's walking through an airport when a man comes up and says, "Has anyone ever told you, you look like Alan Simpson?" "Yes", Simpson replies. The man says, "Doesn't that make you mad?"
The former Republican U.S. Senator from Wyoming has been appointed by President Obama to co-chair the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The nation's deficit crisis requires wisdom for the future, a future imperiled by two wars, the disastrous economic policies of the Bush administration, and Obama's own uncertainties.
Clearly the White House believes the new commission can rise to the challenge and provide the direction so desperately needed. Alan Simpson is an inspired appointment. Among decent men and women he's one of the most beloved and respected figures in American politics. He possesses one of life's greatest gifts, the gift of humor; the ability to make others laugh -- and by that gift Alan Simpson is unrivaled.
When he walks into a room people begin to smile. Within minutes you just know he will have you convulsed in laughter. I mean, if you have a choice of gifts, wouldn't you choose that? But Simpson is more than a funny man. He's terrifically smart and insightful. He demonstrated during his 18 years in the Senate an ability to work across the aisle, earning the high regard of other senators.
He also evidenced a compassion for his colleagues, independent of party. Democrats from Ted Kennedy to Joe Biden to Barney Frank tell of Simpson's extraordinary kindness, standing by them in difficult personal moments -- from a scandal in Frank's case to a health crisis in Biden's. If you know him none of this would surprise you; it is who he is.
Simpson's decision to leave the Senate, giving up a seat he might have held the rest of his life, was occasioned by various factors, but his loss to Trent Lott in the GOP's leadership contest in 1996, was surely a contributing factor.
He had been the Republican whip in the senate for 10 years. He was number two behind Bob Dole of Kansas, but Simpson did the heavy lifting.
The difference between Alan Simpson becoming leader of the Republicans in the senate in 1995 and Trent Lott was one vote. If you think one vote is irrelevant, remember the GOP lost one of its best senators ever, because every vote counts.
And by that one vote the senate and the GOP would see sweeping changes; the emergence of Kentucky's Mitch McConnell as party leader -- and from those changes the senate would emerge a paralyzed body.
Lott's tenure was abruptly halted when he made the mistake of testifying to the greatness of Strom Thurmond, a white racist senator from South Carolina. You remember Storm, don't you? The Dixiecrats presidential candidate in '48, who just happened to have bedded a black woman and became the father of a multi-racial child; but somehow that was never mentioned in his campaign commercials; the only thing 'ol Strom and Thomas Jefferson ever had in common (a multi-racial child not campaign commercials).
One of the stories about Simpson seldom referenced involves his friendship with George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States.
Both Simpson and Bush were sons of fathers who served in the U.S. senate. Simpson's father was Millard of Wyoming, and Bush's was Prescott of Connecticut. Their friendship, which began at a young age, would grow into a close relationship -- more personal than political. (If you think that's a silly statement, then you are way too cynical.)
When Bush 41 became the Republican nominee in '88 he offered Simpson the vice presidency. But Simpson declined. He did so because he believed his pro-choice stance, and other progressive positions he had taken, including criticism of veterans who abused the system, would sink Bush's candidacy.
George Herbert Walker Bush would then turned to a little known senator from Indiana by the name of Dan Quayle.
Would Simpson on the GOP ticket have compromised the ticket? No, most assuredly not. The Republicans would have been out of options because there was no chance they were going to vote for the Democratic nominee, Mike Dukakis, "that liberal" from Massachusetts; nor would they have sat out the race, so great was their fear of Dukakis -- the guy who "let" Willie Horton out on parole. Remember?
By such decisions history turns - and the presence of Quayle on the ticket and his subsequent election as vice president would further drive the GOP to the right, accelerating in time the demise of a once vital political party.
The party of Lincoln, T.R., and Eisenhower was done, finished; a new era in the annals of America politics and governance would evolve -- and the nation's greatness would diminish before our very eyes. (It's not all the GOP's doing; the Democrats are hardly guiltless.)
Those with long memories will recall an ugly moment in Simpson senate career. It occurred during the hearings into Clarence Thomas' qualifications to be a Supreme Court justice. With Anita Hill testifying before the Judiciary Committee Simpson said something he would regret and his family would give him hell over. Some liberals, who can be as unforgiving as those on the right, still hold that against Simpson; but if that's you, you probably should take a long look into the mirror to see if you find imperfections staring back.
Can Simpson's return to the corridors of power in Washington change our present political dynamic? Can Barack Obama's reaching all the way to Cody, Wyoming, and asking Simpson to come back, help resurrect a two party system that actually works for the American people and the nation's future?
I don't know the answer to that. But Alan Simpson and the commission will have my prayers, and I hope yours as well.
You say you don't believe in prayer. Okay, but trust me when I tell you, you had better believe in something because where this nation is presently headed is a place no one wants to go.