Big Al’s Antique Roadshow

A veteran GOP tax collector for the welfare state answers President Obama's call.

By 2.24.10

Some years ago I bumped into Alan Simpson while he was pushing a shopping cart around Albertson's in Cody -- a typical encounter -- and he asked me what I'd been up to lately. I told him that I'd just published a piece in the Weekly Standard.

"Good!" said Alan. "Ann [Mrs. Simpson] gets it".

"Really?" I beamed. "You subscribe to the Weekly Standard?

"Oh, no," Alan said, correcting himself. "She gets the Greybull Standard " -- a weekly newspaper in Ann Simpson's girlhood hometown.

I found this encounter odd, because it gave me the impression that the ex-U.S. Senator (1979-1997) hadn't read or even heard of the Weekly Standard. That's unimportant because who has time to read everything? But maybe he finally picked up on it a couple of years later when it editorialized against the Baker-Hamilton Commission -- the Iraq Study Group, on which he served, and praised him for his astute knowledge of "gas and B.O." Another takeaway for me was that I'd wasted years of writing time in Wyoming by not becoming the star columnist at the Greybull Standard.

As we know, Alan Simpson -- or Big Al, as he's known in Wyoming -- has again answered his country's call (or Barack Obama's anyway) to serve on a "blue ribbon bipartisan commission" to come up with ideas to shrink the huge deficit that that voice on the other end of the line mostly brought on himself. Big Al has a lot of experience with blue ribbons thanks to years of campaigning at Wyoming county fairs, and maybe there's something to a theory that the federal deficit can be likened to a blueberry pie of infinitude, but I'll leave that to the economists.

To quote the economist Yogi Berra, this is a case of déjà vu all over again. It certainly reminds us of the Iraq Study Group, where Big Al was a proponent of "talking to the Iranians," something we've been doing ever since, with the result being their upcoming membership in the nuclear club. Some of the group's recommendations were taken seriously by President Bush, but he mostly thanked them for their time and service, and set the well-known successful "surge" in motion.

Big Al's latest political American Idol moment pairs him with Clinton-hack Erskine Bowles, and -- as sportswriters say -- a Congressional bipartisan team to be named later. I needn't bore TAS readers with details of the outcome of this (they probably read the Wall Street Journal too), which will probably call for minor spending cuts and a healthy tax hike for the middle class. Unlike President Bush, President Obama will heartily endorse the recommendations of this latest commission and congratulate those involved for a job well done.

In the last few days, Big Al and his evil-if-much-shorter twin Erskine have been saturating the broadcast media as they make the case for mucking out Obama's fiscal stables in the interests of "the grandkids." All the classical Simpsonian rhetorical skills are on display as Wyoming's Sagebrush Cicero lambastes the "bitchers, and the whiners, and the snorters." I hope the grandkids are kept away from the TV when Big Al outlines the upcoming scary attacks employed by entities known as "Rush-babes." And if the AARP jumps in it'll really get ugly.

Big Al's political career is interesting, in that while hailing from one of the most culturally conservative states in the country, he has always been at best a moderate. For instance, during his Senate career he was pro-choice on abortion, pro-gay rights, and pro-immigration reform. Early on, Big Al, following the example of his father Milward's political career (more later), tapped into Wyoming's (and other Western states whose outgoing federal tax revenues were paltry ) kneejerk bipartisan tradition of the pork barrel, which said to Washington: Build us dams, roads and bridges, charge our ranchers cheap fees to graze cattle on federal land, but otherwise leave us alone. Can't you see that we're rugged Marlboro Man individualist conservatives? Just leave the money and go away. Oh, and if that new Yellowstone superintendent doesn't straighten up, we'll see to it that he's transferred to the Dry Tortugas.

Simpsons have been involved in Wyoming's public life for over a century, ever since trial lawyer and granddad William Simpson yucked-it-up with Butch Cassidy when the latter was a guest of the Fremont County Jail in Lander for "horsetrading." Bill Simpson also killed man in a duel (a combination brawl and gunfight) in Cody and was acquitted for self-defense. Bill begat Milward, who went to Harvard Law School and served as Wyoming's governor (1955-1959), and then in the U.S. Senate (1962-1967). Milward was a fearless guy, who once campaigned in Rock Springs -- a notoriously tough mining town full of unionized Democrats -- and as he stepped from the car was greeted by a shower of tomatoes and other vegetable products. Milward was also a Goldwater guy, and was one of six Republicans to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on constitutional grounds. He is small footnote in American literary history because he unsuccessfully tried to derail President Kennedy's nomination of Edmund Wilson for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Wilson was previously in trouble with the IRS for exercising his freedom to not pay his taxes (A book resulted: The Cold War and the Income Tax --1964). What with the writing of Patriotic Gore and other books, and his nightly investigations of multiple tumblers of whiskey, the great critic simply forgot to file. And the fourth generation goes forward as Alan's son Colin -- the Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives -- contemplates a run for the governor's office this fall.

Alan Simpson has served his state and his country in admirable ways for most of his life. His post-Senate career is known for public accessibility and the support of good causes. He's a major benefactor of the University of Wyoming. He's a colorful American original who's done great things with self-effacing wit, panache, and -- to employ a barnyard metaphor -- quite a bit of what emanates from the south end of a bull. But in light of his recent involvement with the precarious fiscal health of the Republic, he's nothing more than a tool of Obama and the Democrats. "Flinty" (Obama's quote) Big Al's late-in-life political vaudeville act is wearing thin. He must recall some sound advice from his father that still eerily applies to his post-Senate life: "Get out before they throw you out."

Time to go wet a line in the South Fork, Al.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.