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June 20, 2013 8:24 am

Lawrence at Large: You can call him Al

Written by Tom Lawrence

Well, sure, I knew who former Sen. Alan Simpson is.

The colorful Simpson is famed across the nation for his political skills, quick wit and moderate Republican politics. A political junkie like me is well aware of the Wyoming Republican, who has been on the national scene for 35 years, including a cameo in the great political comedy “Dave.”

But after living here for a short time, I have discovered he’s known as “Al” to most people in the Powell-Cody area. He’s one of them, and no one appears to delight in that more than former Sen. Alan Kooi Simpson.

Simpson was one of the speakers at the June 11 citizenship ceremony held at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. While reporter CJ Baker had the story covered, I decided to go along to witness the event, and to get my first in-person look at and listen to Simpson.

He was exactly whom I expected, and hoped, he would be, and that was a pleasure.

Simpson’s lean 6-foot, 7-inch frame is a little bent nowadays, as he approaches his 82nd birthday in late summer. But his firm jaw was clearly recognizable, and the eyes, glistening with intelligence and humor, were the same as I have seen on dozens of TV news shows and in newspaper and magazine photos.

He arrived slightly late, which caused District Judge Steven Cranfill to tease his friend, and the ceremony started after Simpson and his older brother, Pete Simpson, made their way to the camp. They knew how to get there, of course, since they first visited it 70 years ago when Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens were held in the internment camp there.

The Simpson brothers went there with their Boy Scout troop, and the lessons they learned all those years ago were recalled during the ceremony. Both men spoke, and the crowd enjoyed their speeches, which were packed with both humor and insight.

Of course, it’s a family tradition.

Their father, Milward Simpson, was a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as both Wyoming’s governor and as a senator. His sons were born into a world of influence and power, and they were well-educated. Alan Simpson attended the exclusive Cranbrook Schools after graduating from Cody High School, and he continues to maintain ties with the people and institutions of the social and political elite.

But despite his career — 12 years in the Wyoming Legislature, 18 years as a U.S. senator, and a continuing role as an elder statesman who often is called to continue to serve his nation — Simpson still is as Wyoming as a pair of well-worn boots, although he was wearing sneakers with his tie and jacket on June 11.

It doesn’t appear to be an act, either. This man could live almost anywhere he chooses and do what he wishes. Most of the time, you’ll find him in Wyoming.

Simpson remains in Cody, a partner with his sons in a law firm, and surrounded by family and friends. He frequently attends events in the area, such as the citizenship ceremony, where he joined with others in saluting Boy Scouts as they served as the color guard, placed his hand over his heart as the National Anthem was played, and sang along as the Cody High School choir performed patriotic songs.

I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes talking with Sen. Simpson — I’ll have to be here a bit longer before I feel entitled to call him Al — and quickly realized that the man I have followed and admired for decades is just the same face-to-face as he is in news reports.

He was friendly, quick with a smile and eager to discuss the Powell Tribune, which he said is a solid newspaper that he has subscribed to for years. Simpson also talked about his years representing Park County in the Wyoming Legislature, and said it was a challenge, since the county has so many diverse elements and interests.

We also touched on someone both of us knew, the late George McGovern, a liberal Democratic icon I covered for years back in South Dakota. McGovern served with both Milward and Alan Simpson in the Senate, and although they belonged to different parties, they had a friendly relationship, Simpson said.

He said McGovern invited him to join in a proposed Council of Elders that would have advised contemporary leaders. It seemed like a good idea to me when I first heard about it, and still does.

McGovern died last year at 90, but he remained in touch with Simpson until just before the end. He also had an appreciation for Ann Simpson, who has been married to Alan since 1954.

McGovern, whose beloved wife Eleanor died in 2007, told Alan Simpson that if something happened to him, McGovern wanted Ann Simpson to know he was available. Simpson laughed as he told that story.

He was less pleased when he talked about the current state of the Republican Party. His former Senate colleague, Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP candidate for president, said he felt the party was adrift, and he didn’t feel connected to it anymore. Simpson agreed.

He said with his views on gay rights — he fully supports them and said too many Republicans are “damn homophobes” — and abortion, which he considers a horrid thing but not something lawmakers, especially male ones, should get involved with — there’s no way he could be nominated for office.

The party has been taken over by conservative extremists, Simpson said, and it may have to wander for a bit in the political wilderness before it comes to its senses and returns to the mainstream, where he spent his career.

These were things I had heard Simpson say before, but it was fascinating to hear them in person. Alan Simpson is like the rugged Wyoming mountains and the hard-scrabble lands around them. They are impressive to see, and they continue to withstand the elements.

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