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Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson. By Donald Loren Hardy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. xi + 460 pp. Photographs, notes, index. $26.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Having served on the staff of Alan Simpson, the colorful former US senator from Wyoming, throughout Simpson’s 18 years in the Senate, Donald Hardy offers a perspective few others can. More importantly, Simpson provided Hardy access to the diary he maintained during his second and third terms, without restrictions on what material Hardy could use. This diary, Hardy’s remembrances, and candid interviews with Simpson, his family, and his friends provide original material for Shooting from the Lip.

Hardy opens with an overview of Simpson’s early life: his ancestry (Al was not the first “colorful” Simpson), brushes with the law as a teenager (using mailboxes for target practice), education at the University of Wyoming, family life, service in the state legislature, and campaigning for the Senate are all part of the story. But these chapters are only a prelude to the main event: Simpson’s Senate career.

Known for his forthrightness in public discourse, Simpson was not reluctant to record in his diary his thoughts regarding his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Party affiliation and ideology were not criteria in Simpson’s assessments. Republicans Strom Thurmond and Bob Dole and Democrats Edward Kennedy and Morris Udall were among those respected by Simpson for their political skills and personal integrity. Others of both parties were scolded more than praised.

Simpson’s personal assessments are not limited to his congressional colleagues but include the presidents with whom he worked. It is no surprise that Simpson [End Page 102] respected Ronald Reagan; contrary to other reports, Simpson provides many accounts of White House meetings at which Reagan was knowledgeably engaged in policy deliberations. Simpson considered Bill Clinton intelligent and charismatic. But it was George H.W. Bush, a longtime friend, who Simpson held in the highest regard, saying, “George Bush is the most decent man I ever met in life, other than my own dad.”

The book’s greatest lessons concern the life of a senator. Simpson’s leadership on immigration reform in the 1980s stands out. Thurmond and Kennedy, leaders of the Judiciary Committee, assigned Simpson the task of developing the bill and shepherding it through Congress. We see the intricate process of learning what other congressmen consider acceptable and unacceptable, negotiating compromises first within the Senate and then within the conference committee, and finally convincing Reagan to sign the bill rather than exercise the veto his Justice Department recommended. Another enlightening episode concerns the struggle for funding the Buffalo Bill Dam near Cody, as other senators opposed the project not on its merits but because Wyoming was shouldering a larger- than- normal share of the cost; these senators did not want their states held to this higher standard on federally funded public works. And, late in his career, Simpson lost an intraparty struggle to retain his leadership position because he “flunked the purity test” by being prochoice on abortion. Colin Simpson told Hardy that losing this position pained Simpson more than his father acknowledged in public or in his diary.

The private side of serving in office is also revealed as Simpson laments weekends spent away from his family as he trekked back to Wyoming. One poignant story involves care for his mother after a household accident, as Simpson shuttled between the hospital and various political obligations. On the brighter side were Simpson’s opportunities to meet such luminaries as Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

The most controversial time of Simpson’s career came during deliberations on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Ever the loyalist to President Bush, Simpson defended Thomas against allegations of sexual harassment so aggressively that he was accused of McCarthyism. The controversy is handled openly by Hardy; for example, Ann Simpson recalls admonishing her husband for his behavior.

And, of course, there was Simpson’s love-hate relationship with the news media. Many will recall Simpson characterizing cnn’s Peter Arnett as a “sympathizer” for his reports from Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War and...


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pp. 102-103
Launched on MUSE
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