FRIDAY FOCUS: Retired Sen. Simpson says the rift in the GOP is not new (Part 1)

Cody Republican continues to advocate for “live and let live” philosophy

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Feb 03, 2023

By CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth

When Al Simpson joined the U.S. Senate in 1979, the Cody Republican was the tallest senator in the chamber’s history. At 6-foot-7, he cast an outsized shadow during his 18 years in office, rising to become the Senate Majority Whip.

Al Simpson looks over the Medal of Freedom he was awarded last year, now displayed on his piano in Cody. In presenting the honor to Simpson, President Joe Biden called his former Senate colleague “one of the most decent, standup, genuine guys I’ve ever served with.” (Wyoming Truth photo by CJ Baker)

Simpson left Congress in 1997 but has remained active in local, state and national politics, including as an outspoken critic of the current direction of the Wyoming Republican Party.

The 91-year-old recently sat down with the Wyoming Truth to discuss the current state of  Wyoming and national politics. Part one of the conversation, excerpted for brevity, follows below.

Simpson’s first exposure to rifts within the GOP came at the 1952 Republican National Convention. Only 21 at the time, Simpson didn’t pay much attention to the event, but his father, future Wyoming Gov. Milward Simpson, led Wyoming’s divided delegation in Chicago. 

Simpson: The fight was on right then because there were two “finalists” for that convention. There was Robert Taft … and there was Ike [Dwight Eisenhower].

Ike had gone from the great military hero to Columbia [University, as president]. … So the right-wingers of our party, who were the Taft people, they said, “You know, he’s an academic and maybe even a commie at Columbia.” And the Eisenhower people said, “Robert Taft, he’s at the edge of the Grand Canyon and should be pushed over.” …

Dad said to the delegation … “Look, if Ike is ahead, and there’s no way our 16 or 18 [votes] are going to change anything, or if Taft is ahead, let’s just commit the whole delegation to the winner instead of looking like sour pusses.” There was a lot of mumbling about that.

So obviously, Ike was way ahead when they called the roll, and Dad had really not settled with all of the people there who wanted Taft badly. And so Dad got up, took the microphone. He said, “Wonderful Wyoming reports 19 votes for the next president of the United States, Ike Eisenhower.” 

There were people who were in that delegation there who, when Dad ran for governor, were violently opposed to him because of the fact that he got up and spoke for them. … It all started there with me to watch the schisms within the party — and they’re ever increasing.

Breaking with many in his party, Simpson was an advocate for abortion rights in the Senate, and, in contrast with the Wyoming Republican Party platform, supports gay marriage.

Simpson: I was one of those twisted souls that believed that the Republican philosophy was government out of your life, the precious right of privacy and the right to be left alone. And you can add one: Live and let live. These people are into your life and mine in ways that will not stop. …

U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, seen second from left alongside Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and President Ronald Reagan in April 1985, was a mover and shaker during his 18 years in the Senate. (Courtesy photo from the National Archives)

They’re all called constitutional conservatives … which means it’s a higher level than we poor peons who are known as RINOs [Republicans in Name Only]. I call them Republicans Ignorantly Needling Others. …

They said all men are created equal, endowed by their creator on inalienable rights but that’s not true. They don’t like women. … They don’t like homosexuals. They don’t like marginal people. … And they don’t like older people. They’ll protect the unborn even in the womb and not do a d— thing for Medicaid for older people who can’t make it. ….

They’re shot through with hypocrisy. … They’ll be down there [in the Legislature], saying, “Well, let’s see, Medicare, I’ll tell you, that’s the camel’s nose under the tent.” … And I’ll say, “Well, how about your subsidy over there in Powell or Cody? … How about when you formed a corporation when you knew about the [Payroll Protection Program] money, and you knew you could get in there and get a chunk …?” … And I have to see them rattle on about government in our lives. …

I don’t know how many of them do their research or have someone else do their research or, worse yet, have the state chairman [of the Republican Party, Frank Eathorne] do their research for them and tell them how to vote. …

They will have a chart that will say, if you don’t do this way, or at least 80%, you will be known and you will be censured … or hit by lightning or something. In that situation, just send a zombie down to Cheyenne, if Eathorne is going to just be the wizard, the wise man on the mountaintop with his checkered past of lying and doing indelicate things and then calling that Wyoming values. If that’s Wyoming values, I’ve had 91 years of wandering in the wilderness. 

While in office, Simpson made himself available to Wyoming citizens and media — even holding town halls in the areas where he faced the most criticism. 

When Democratic President Barack Obama created his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, he tapped former Sen. Al Simpson as a co-chair. Although a Republican, Simpson has long worked in a bipartisan way. (Courtesy photo from Pete Souza, the White House)

Simpson: I would say to my staff, “Where are they after my a–?” [And his staff would say], “Well, they don’t like you in Gillette.” I said, “They don’t like anybody in Gillette that I ever knew.” … [But] I would go, and I would listen. I would speak for five minutes, and I would say, look, I’m going to stay for two hours. … You ask anything you want, and I will answer it. And I don’t think you’ll like the answer, but I think you’ll admire me, I hope, that I gave you the answer.  

You could no more do that [now], because you would have a raucous thing. …

I didn’t feel cocky, just, they’re paying me, and they expect something out of me. … Did you hire me just to go to Washington with a blank page? Or did you hire me for my brains and my background and my legislative experience in Cheyenne? Or what is the purpose of sending me there without saying, “You do the work, Simpson.” …

Those things are gone forever. You just stay the [Republican] diktat. … And it is pathetic to watch, in my mind. 

The senator has long worked with and befriended Republicans and Democrats with whom he disagrees — something that’s continued in retirement.

Simpson: I didn’t vote for [Barack] Obama, but I didn’t think he was evil. I didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter, but he became a lovely friend and still is. Jerry Ford. Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton, I enjoyed him very much. We worked together on some issues. 

I don’t lose sleep. You can be right here in this town and say, “Do you know so-and-so, Al? … You know, he’s a Democrat?” I said, I don’t give a s— what he is. He’s a friend. Then they stagger off and go back to the Republican meeting and [say], “Simpson is having a relationship with a Democrat.” …

It’s a warm, wonderful place, and it is a nurturing community [in Cody]. And thank heaven there are people here who choose to come here—not because they don’t like where they came from and want to change us. I often said, if you want to come here to change us, and you came from Cleveland or Detroit because you didn’t like minorities or cops or anything … you have a lot of trouble getting that done out here.  

There are some of them here and they run [for office in the Cody area], but we keeping beating them. If they ever get the upper hand, you will think that they’re freedom lovers. They’re not freedom lovers. They’d like to tighten the screws on the rest of us to make us all one pure Republican [party]. … I don’t need to have a pure Republican Party or a pure Democratic Party. I just want to be free of those kinds of people. Don’t shovel your crap over on me or take away my freedoms — or better yet, leave me alone.

Check back tomorrow for part 2, in which Simpson discusses U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s loss in last year’s Republican primary, the election of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his former Senate colleague, President Joe Biden.

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