Interview

The Lost Art of Political Compromise: An Interview with Al Simpson

By | August 8, 2012

Alan Simpson

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Alan K. Simpson is one of America’s favorite political pugilists. A lawyer, legislator, and devout Episcopalian, during his four decades in national politics, Simpson has learned to take a political punch as much as he’s learned to throw one. “Politics … it’s a total contact sport,” he explains. This is especially true for a Republican whose support for access to abortion and advocacy for gay rights has placed him in opposition to the views held by most members of his own party. Simpson has a counter to his Republican critics, including his former Senate colleague, and onetime GOP presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum (Santorum reportedly once called Simpson a “baby killer,” after Simpson refused to support a bill to outlaw late-term abortions). “It’s total hypocrisy,” Simpson says, “to be in favor of the core values of the Republican Party—the precious right of privacy—and mess around all day long in women’s lives … abortion, and gay marriage.”

Since leaving the Senate (he served Wyoming from 1979 to 1997), Simpson has become famous not only for his views on social issues, but for his leadership on federal deficit reduction. In 2010, with former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, Simpson was appointed co-chair of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He also serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

As the 80-year-old statesman got ready to do some fishing at his ranch in northwestern Wyoming, Simpson spoke with R&P about his long career as an advocate for the virtue of compromise in politics, and about his views on the role of religion in American political life. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. –M.P.M.
 

R&P: You served in the Senate from 1979 to 1997. This was an interesting time in the history of American religion and politics, as it coincided with the rise and the fall of the Moral Majority. What are your recollections of this period?

AS: The Moral Majority was received first as a negative. But then I met people of the Moral Majority and they didn’t frighten me. I’m an Episcopalian and have my own faith. I said [to members of the Moral Majority], “What are your tenets of the Moral Majority?” And they said, “Well, we think that the public education system is failing. We would like to have our children homeschooled if we could, if we found that appropriate. We think that God has been omitted from the curriculum. And we think that’s wrong. And we are also disappointed when we see that if a football coach loses 10 [games] in a row he becomes the American History teacher. We don’t think that that’s very helpful for our children.”

And, you know, how can you argue with that?

But when people begin to ask you on the floor if you’ve “been saved,” I mean, that’s strictly personal business in my mind.

R&P: And this began to happen?

AS: Yes, they’d say, “Are you saved,” and I said, “Yes, I am.” “Well, how can you show us Jesus is in your life?” I said, “Well, I couldn’t exist without a higher being in my life but I’ll tell you one thing, pal, they strung this guy up on a cross 2,000 years ago and He died for me. He saved me.” It’s fun to irritate them like that.

R&P: Do you think the Tea Party is something new, or is it a new branding of something that we’ve known since days of the Moral Majority?

AS: Well, for one thing, it’s not a party. That’s what people have to get over. They’re named after an historical event and they’re not all crazies. They believe in limited government and government out of your lives and doing something with the debt and the deficit and the interest to be paid, so they’re not goofy.

But the avid Tea Party people, they’re not just for limited government, they’re for no government. And that is, to me, a very troubling thing: to see members of that Tea Party Movement or Democrat or Republican or whoever, saying, “We’re not for limited government. We’re going to do what Grover Norquist says; we’re going to drown government in the bathtub.”

R&P: Speaking of Grover Norquist, he seems to think that decreasing the size of the federal government is a moral issue. Some people think that making cuts to military spending is a moral issue, or requiring the richest Americans to pay higher taxes is a moral issue. Are these moral issues?

AS: Well, to some they may be. And to some who hold that [view] obviously have a degree of rigidity that’s not helpful to the system. If you’re going to pick out things and say the defense budget is a moral obligation, well, to that guy it might be. To me, when you have a budget of $750 billion and the other 15 top countries on earth including Russia and China combined have $540 billion, nobody’s going to tell me that we can’t cut that baby. So what does that have to do with morality? It has to do with your brains and common sense.

R&P: You’ve mentioned the word ‘rigidity.’ What does that word mean to you when you describe, for example, Rick Santorum and his views, as ‘rigid’?

AS: It means that when you hear a man, [like] Santorum, when he said he heard John Kennedy talk about the separation of church and state, he said he almost threw up. Well, that’s pretty rigid. I mean the Constitution of the United States was talking about the separation of church and state. Admittedly, I think it’s been distorted lately. I think Rick is right about that.

Rigidity is you’re a hundred percenter. You’re a true believer. I have a lot of trouble with true believers and hundred percenters. The ones I know, they have very tight necks, and they get red in the face, and flustered, and they even give off an aroma. But I always use the phrase that this person might be as rigid as a fireplace poker but without the occasional warmth.

R&P: Instead of “rigidity,” you’ve advocated for compromise as a political virtue. In fact the word “compromise” is in your own definition of politics. Can you share that definition with us?

AS: It is a definition of politics that’s all mine, and I’ve never heard anybody say it was anybody else’s.

That is, in politics there are no right answers, only a continuing flow of compromises among groups resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom.

R&P: In that definition you also use the word “ambiguous.” These are words we’re not fond of in this particular climate, whether you’re on the left or on the right. Why do you think our current political leaders distrust ambiguity and compromise? Why has compromise become a four-letter word?

AS: Well, it may be some people who’ve never legislated. They don’t know what they’re doing if they’ve never legislated. You don’t compromise yourself; you compromise an issue. There’s a hell of a lot of difference between compromising an issue and compromising yourself, and if they don’t understand that distinction, they shouldn’t really be in politics.

Anything in life is a compromise. Marriage, it’s a compromise. Raising children is a compromise. Why would you leave it out of legislating our government? It’s absurd. It doesn’t make any sense. There isn’t a person alive that doesn’t compromise every day on something without losing their identity or becoming a chicken, or a coward, or a bully.

R&P: On the issues that Rick Santorum in the 2012 GOP primary race came to represent, you’re not a typical Republican. For example, on women’s reproductive rights.

AS: I don’t think I’m a different kind of Republican. I think most Republicans I know think that abortion is a hideous thing. Who would want to advocate it? I’ve never seen anybody running around with a sign that says, “Have an abortion! They’re wonderful! You need one!” They’re ghastly but they’re a deeply personal and intimate decision and you’d be damned unhappy to be in a family where there was that discussion going on because it must be one of the most wrenching of all times.

When I was in legislation they said, “Well, there should be a 24-hour or 48-hour period and parental consent.” Well, you know, I practiced law in real life. I [worked on cases involving] divorce, murder, rape, incest. I didn’t sit in some glass office in a corporate headquarters shuffling papers. And I can just imagine the teenage girl, underage, going to her father, who’s sucking on his third beer in front of the television, and saying, “Dad, I decided to get an abortion, I need parental consent.” I’ll tell you, what she’ll get is two black eyes, and that’s an absurd situation. That’s not dealing with real human life. So it’s a deeply intimate and personal decision.

I’ve been called by those who are rigid a “baby killer.” I just say, “Look, [I’ve] been married to the same gal for 58 years. I’ve got three beautiful children, six grandchildren. I don’t have to take that crap from you at all.” And I usually use the word, “bullshit,” which is not always appropriate. But the same people [who call me a ‘baby killer’] seem to understand what it means. They may miss the Shakespearean sonnet and some of the language there, but they don’t miss the word, “bullshit.”

R&P: You’ve also spoken out in support of gay rights, which is certainly in contrast to the position held by many Republicans.

We’re all God’s children, all God’s children, human beings, defects, successes, failures, blemishes, and beauty. Some people say, “Well, these people have to go into retraining.” I mean, honestly, if that isn’t the most disturbing type of paternalism and especially from a Republican, a Republican who believes in government out of your life, the precious right of privacy, and the right to be left alone.

That’s where our party’s getting hit. If we’ve dropped a lot of weight here, it’s because of the ancient and most venerable word, which may be the dirtiest, [no matter] how many letters it’s got: hypocrisy. It’s total hypocrisy. How you can be in favor of the core values of the Republican Party—the precious right of privacy—and mess around all day long in women’s lives, and contraception, and abortion, and gay marriage?

My pal Dick Cheney who I love and worked with for 45 years, we went to Congress together in ’78, [with Cheney’s] little children, Mary and Liz. And we knew Mary’s companion, wonderful woman, Heather Poe. They’ve been committed for many years and they’ve just gotten married. And they have two beautiful [children]. Don’t you think Dick and Lynne love those little guys? They’re their grandchildren. Well, it’s a riot because some have hooked onto Dick Cheney, that he is the epitome of everything. And he said he’s so thrilled to see his daughter marrying her companion of many years. I’ll bet some of those true believers are just home gnashing on their bed sheets. I mean, I’ll bet they’re just furious and I love that because Dick Cheney loves his children and so does Lynne. But more importantly, that’s their decision. What the hell does that have to do with some rigid guy?

I have a cartoon I carry with me. It’s a guy sitting in bed with this chick next to him. He’s got his undershirt on. He’s got his arms crossed, really foul looking. He says, “I can’t believe it! This gay marriage issue is destroying the sanctity of family.” And this gal looks to him and says, “Does your wife feel that way too?” I love that one.

R&P: I hear that the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, has also been in touch with you about homosexuality. And I understand you responded. What did you write to him?

AS: “Dear Rev. Phelps,” I [wrote back], “I’ve received the communication from you. It’s disturbing because it’s obvious that some dizzy son-of-a-bitch is using your name and writing me these foul things about gay and lesbian issues. I know that you’re a God-fearing man of the highest order, and I know you’d be offended, and I hope you’ll help us track this man down.”

[I wrote it] to piss him off, which I hope it did. They [members of the Westboro Baptist Church] go to military veterans’ funerals who died in combat, and run up a sign that says, “God hates fags, God is killing your sons in the military because he’s a fag.” And of course it went to the courts. The courts said, “Well, it’s hateful and it’s disgusting and it’s foul and it’s anti-everything but it’s America and [we have] the First Amendment,” so that’s part of that. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, got to have some reason.

R&P: I just have two more questions as I know those fish are biting. The first question, which is really at the heart of our work at Religion & Politics, and which is an important question for this political season: What is fair game to talk about a candidate’s religion in the media?

AS: Let me say: In politics, it’s a total contact sport. If you don’t like what might come up about your religion, your behavior, your whatever, then you shouldn’t get in, and anything is “fair game.” I would assume that if someone embraced a religion, which are out there, believing in female genital mutilation, I would think that would be a very fair issue to bring up in a campaign, and that’s where it is, bring it out. Is it bizarre? Well, to most people, it is.

I know there are religious people who violently oppose homosexuality to the point of digging into our Anglican church overseas, [who also] believe in female genital mutilation. I say, “Pal, you give that up and then maybe I can hear what you’re saying [about homosexuality].”

R&P: The last question, I’d be remiss not to ask you a little bit more about what many are calling the coming “fiscal cliff because your work has been so important in shaping our national discussions over the budget. We’ve already talked about the rigidity and the lack of compromise among our legislators. Is there a way we can reconcile?

AS: Well, it won’t come until legislators panic. Legislators don’t ever respond. They react. And nothing will happen between now and November 6th, nothing. There will be no addressing of the solvency of Social Security because nobody will touch it with a stick. And yet it is clear by the trustees in the unanimous report that this system will run out of bucks; the trust fund will be exhausted in the year 2033. And at the time, you waddle up to the window, you’re going to get a check for 25 percent less, and if anybody can’t understand that, they have rocks for brains.

That’s where we are. Forget politics, because the markets will control the shots. And they don’t care anything about Republicans or Democrats, or Mormons or Muslims, or race or gender. They care about money and they are going to say, “You have a dysfunctional government.”

R&P: I very much appreciate your time today and I hope you catch a lot of fish.

AS: Well if I do, I’m going to eat a few of them instead of putting them all back. You have to realize that these degrees of purity don’t go that far.

Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of Religion & Politics.

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