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A long flight to Boston, a slow drive to Portland, ME., where I walked the wet streets late at night looking for a bite to eat, thinking of the New England sea coast towns of The Perfect Storm. A friend had recommended a bed & breakfast, an old Victorian, where I got the least expensive third floor room and listened to the rain on the roof for a fitful night's sleep. Up in the morning for the drive to Kennebunkport, a wealthy, and somewhat touristy, little coastal town near which President George H.W. Bush and his family - and the Secret Service - spend a portion of the year in a family compound surrounded on three sides by ocean.
President Bush was one of several prominent politicians of the late 20th century who generously sat for interviews to be included in our documentary about Sen. Alan Simpson. Bush's participation wasn't given out of love for Wyoming PBS - like Ted Kennedy, Dick Cheney, David McCullough and many others, he did it for Simpson, who distinctively made deep and lasting friendships in the fickle world of Washington, D.C.
We met in a small guest house on the compound converted into an office, surrounded by Bush family photos, the largest portion of them featuring him and another President who happens to be his son, George W. Bush. The former President was informal, a little wobbly, gracious, and short on details - what you might expect of an 85 year old man, though I reminded myself that only a month earlier he had donned a parachute and jumped out of a plane to celebrate his birthday.
He remembered throwing snowballs with Simpson from the White House roof, but not the dinner they shared the night before he sent troops to Kuwait to oust the invading Iraqis. I nudged him to talk about the way the Republican Party has evolved from his and Simpson's day, when the moderate wing of the party held sway - but he sidestepped the question, and I realized later I was uncomfortably juxtaposing the party of old with the party of his son's term in office.
After we were done, the President went next door to chat with staff about flying to Germany for a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened while he was in the White House - there was a question whether to fly commercial or private. Even former Presidents from wealthy families are getting roughed up by the economy. Barbara Bush was riding around the compound in a golf cart.
I was reminded of the ordinary human scale of history makers when you meet them in the flesh, as my work sometimes allows. Jimmy Carter, smaller than I expected in stature, signing the strip mine bill in the Rose Garden, shaking hands limply with a tired smile. Al Simpson, stymied by new phone technology in his cluttered office, cuddling his shy granddaughter when she saw a camera in the room. George H.W. Bush grabbing my arm because he has balance problems, like many elderly persons; rubbing sea salt from his eyebrow, and apologizing with good humor when he couldn't remember an event.
Driving back to Boston, still in a driving rain, radio on and cell phone chiming, I felt a certain futility - we got the interview we needed, but a journalist wants more. It takes hours to loosen the memory and find those telling details. Al Simpson has given us those hours. That's the quest in a good documentary - not just to repeat the textbook version of history, but to give viewers that intimate moment, when four people sat at the dinner table upstairs in the White House and a President told his close friends from Wyoming, with a heavy heart, that he was ordering soldiers into combat the next morning.
Senator Ted KennedyThe Kennedy brothers of the Camelot generation were not alike: brash Joe had the presumptive air of an aristocratic first son, imperious and unafraid; John, for all the romance that later accrued to him, was as much a bootlegger's son as a scholarly dreamer, and schemed ruthlessly for a place in history; Bobby was the wounded poet, ambivalent about his quest but obligated to pursue it; and then there was Teddy, who began as the chubby-cheeked family pet, and for many years seemed unable to grow up, lost in the long shadows of his mythologized dead brethren.
"As the ninth member of a large Irish family, I always had to rely on humor in order to be able to survive," Kennedy said last week, less than 48 hours before he would suffer a foreboding seizure. Survive he did, for 76 years so far, much of it in public service - and so, unlike his brothers, he could take responsibility for a whole life, and add a chapter to his family legacy that none of them were allowed: maturity and redemption.
Kyle Nicholoff and I went to Kennedy's office in Russell Senate Office Building at the U.S. Capitol with a Wyoming PBS camera to tape a short interview about his relationship with Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Humor was Simpson's weapon, too, and so "we just sort of cooked right from the beginning," said Kennedy. Not just telling jokes - early on, each took on oar on a legislative boat that no one wanted to row, the reform of the nation's leaky immigration law. "We had very, very different philosophies, but what I found very quickly was that Al Simpson was interested in getting things done for Wyoming, and interested in getting things done for the country."
In that remark you find several things that typify what Kennedy had become: his unselfish personal loyalty, his devotion to the legislative process, and his willingness to hang up the ideological spurs in the interest of "getting things done." Even those who found the outcomes disagreeable concede that Kennedy's skill at navigating ideological gridlock is the only reason any progress has been made in the past decade on issues ranging from mental health funding to gender pay disparity to Medicare prescription drug reform. Think of "No Child Left Behind" - the George W. Bush Administration's controversial reform of education, which was twice saved from congressional oblivion by the Massachusetts senator Republicans scorned as "the most liberal" politician in Washington. (Of course, liberals called him that, too, in much sweeter tones.)
Neither of the brothers who preceded Ted Kennedy in the Senate showed his knack, or interest, in the sausage-making process of creating laws. But when Kennedy talked last week about the immigration bills that he worked on with Simpson, dating back more than 20 years, his relish was evident. "(Simpson) wanted a provision that if a person came on in here and created some ten jobs, or invested a million dollars, they'd be able to get green cards to come on in and get on the road to citizenship. I differed with that, because I said we should not be permitting individuals to buy their way into the United States - it should all be done on the basis of merit.
"The next year, after the bill failed, we were working out the compromise, and he said, 'Hey, Ted, I need that provision.' I said, 'the one I'm against?', and he said, 'I'm supporting some of the things you want, I need that provision.'
"So I supported provision, and up gets (Sen.) Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), and he says, 'Now, Kennedy -'" and the Senator was chuckling as he mimicked Sarbanes Maryland pronunciation - "'last year you said it would only be on merit.' And I said, 'I'm going to let Al Simpson handle the response.'
"You know, it was just a small item, but at the time we differed we had a vigorous debate and discussion - and (the following year) in terms of the totality of trying to make important changes in immigration at that time, it was more important to get the bill done."
Edward Moore Kennedy took brother John's Senate seat in 1962, a callow 30-year-old whose primary opponent suggested he would not have been on any ballot if his name had simply been Edward Moore. The assassinations of two brothers made him the patriarch of a huge and troubled clan - and while he was, by all accounts, stalwart in his role as surrogate father to his brothers' broods, he seemed less able to manage himself. In 1969, he drove a car off a bridge and a young female campaign worker drowned. The travails of younger Kennedy's visibly weighed on him, and he was hobbled for most of his life by back injuries suffered in a plane crash, he suffered a lifelong back injury in a plane crash, and was unable to save various younger Kennedy's from drugs and misbehavior a mantle he shouldered for his brothers' children, but it is not just Kennedy's longevity - he came into the Senate in 1962 as a callow 30-year-old, as a colleague and met another Simpson, Milward - that inspires the encomiums now coming from his colleagues.
On Thursday evening, Kennedy arrived late for our interview, which his press people had warned us would be a strictly enforced 15 minutes long. Maybe five minutes, they said, when he finally walked in, and unleashed his dogs Sunny and Splash to run round the room. But he stayed 15 minutes, waving off the buzzers that call senators to votes on the floor. And when the 15 minutes were up, and his poor press secretary was wringing her hands and waving at me to shut up, he said, "One other point -"
And he talked about how he and his friend Al Simpson loved the arts, and worked together to improve the cultural opportunities in Washington, D.C. "By the nature of our positions," he said, "you could get wonderful responses. That was a great fun time. It's not a thing that (legislators) are often interested in. Al had an enormously genuine interest. All the people in Wyoming understand his family's love of art... Tis again was a kind of unifying factor."
He sat amidst paintings of boats under sail, some with his own signature. The most beautiful canvas in the room was by another artist, a large, sepia toned painting of a solo sailor with a good wind behind heading away from us toward the open sea. Even from behind, there was no mistaking President John Kennedy. That kind of image reassured me, having grown up in the era when the Kennedy family was such a national obsession - it suggested that while they had sacrificed so much of their privacy and their inner lives to the mythology of their public roles, they found renewal the way you and I do, away from the cameras and the crowds, in the face of the wind and the naked canvas of nature.
News reports say that after leaving the hospital last weekend with a grim diagnosis of malignant glioma in the left parietal lobe of his brain, Kennedy was headed to his boat and the ocean.
"never let the perfect be the enemy of the good"×
As a Cody lawyer and state legislator, Alan Kooi Simpson had the wit, affability, and family pedigree to live a comfortable success story in Wyoming. But when he succeeded Cliff Hansen in the U.S. Senate, in 1976, he found a bigger mission and a bigger stage. For two decades - and continuing today - Sen. Al Simpson has played a pivotal role as a senator and statesman, a confidante to international leaders, a tackler of intractable issues, and a much-admired straight-talker with a disarming sense of humor.
Though he is 75, Sen. Simpson has hardly settled into a relaxed retirement. He is in motion all the time, and not just doing speeches and television - for example, he served on the Iraq Study Group in 2006, and he co-chairs the bipartisan Americans for Campaign Reform, which seeks public funding for federal political campaigns.
Despite his busy schedule, Sen. Simpson agreed to set aside several days for a series of interviews that will cover all aspects of his public life. The interviews were conducted by Geoff O'Gara, Senior Producer at Wyoming Public Television, who has covered Simpson and Wyoming politics as a reporter for 25 years. The interviews took place at Simpson's residence in Cody and his ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone River.
Simpson has been given great latitude in the interviews to tell stories in his own inimitable style. The questions could be broken down into several spheres of interest: his early life, his family, and the politics of Wyoming; his career in the U.S. Senate, and his role in pivotal issues of the times; and, from today's pivot point in history, his long view of the world, the United States, and Wyoming, and our future. We will highlight the tough issues he tackled - such as Social Security entitlements and immigration - and his more controversial moments - such as the furor over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. From the onset of this project, he has said, "No areas out of bounds. You ask any questions you want."
Simpson is a skilled raconteur and humorist - the Library of Congress recently recorded his favorite jokes - and we feature some of his well-known moments on camera. But we will also probe deeper, beneath the surface, to get the Senator's insights into an era of dramatic political change and international turmoil. We have asked him to reflect on this "American Century", both the good and bad of it, and the historical figures he has known firsthand.
In these conversations, the Senator offers up the human side of events that we know only as headlines - for instance, his account of his and Ann's dinner at the White House with George H.W. and Barbara Bush on the eve of the first Iraq War. Though he is famously loyal to his friends, we have asked Simpson for his intimate insights and frankest assessment of renowned figures on the world and national stage.
It was not our intention to ask about Simpson's private life, but those who know him expect frank and personal stories about himself and his family. Those stories are included at his discretion, and we will edit personal material for experiences that in some way shaped the public figure he has become.
The interviews have been shot at Simpson's home, in his study, with some b-roll of him in Cody settings, and on the road giving speeches, attending meetings, and otherwise at work. Though the interviews will be edited, we hope to shape them around long segments in which viewers and listeners can follow the Senator's train of thought and memory, with as few interruptions by the interviewer as possible.
The interviews will be edited and broken into three hour-long segments. Sen. Simpson's personal narrative will be will be interspersed with documentary still photographs and video clips from his public life, and brief testimonials and anecdotes from people who have known him well, such as, where possible, Sen. Ted Kennedy, former President George H.W. Bush, NPR's Nina Tottenberg, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, Sen. Trent Lott, Sen. Gary Hart, attorney Gerry Spence, brother Pete Simpson and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Senator Alan K. Simpson reflects on a long and varied political career, and connects it to his family's "tap root" in Wyoming history. Simpson's well-known humor is on display (Dick Cheney reflects that he can tell a Simpson joke an nobody will laugh, but Al can tell a story that the audience has heard him tell a hundred times, and everyone cracks up), and, now and then, his "lyrical profanity."
The intent of the documentary is to let Simpson tell his story in his own words, but there are other voices as well: brother Pete Simpson, friends Ted Kennedy and George HW Bush, sometime opponents Trent Lott and National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg, NBC journalist Pete Williams, and Wyoming colleagues like Tom Stroock, Mike Sullivan and Dick Cheney.
The documentary is illustrated with photographs and news clippings from various collections, and features never-before seen family films of Simpson as a small child and teenager.
Simpson agreed to do the interviews without any editorial control over the final documentaries. Premiere broadcast: March 7, 2010 at 7:00 PM. Repeat broadcasts: March 10 at10:00 PM and March 16 at 7:00 PM.
Part 1 - "Deep Roots"
Sen. Alan Simpson relates the history of his family from the arrival of Fort Phil Kearney settler Finn Burnette around the time of the Civil War. Among his more colorful antecedents is grandfather Bill Simpson, who shot a banker in Meeteetsee in the ear and once got Butch Cassidy out of jail for a night to "take care of some business." Alan Simpson was a fun-loving young man, who "weighed 260 pounds and thought beer was food", and got in trouble with the law. He learned about politics from his father Milward, who served Wyoming as both a governor and senator. He learned the art of "working across the aisle" in the Wyoming State legislature, where he formed a lifelong alliance with Democrat (and later governor) Ed Herschler. During his time in the legislature, ground-breaking legislation governing clean air, industrial siting, and severance taxes (which Simpson initially voted against) was crafted. This hour-long documentary concludes with Sen. Alan Simpson's decision to run for the U.S. Senate.
Part 2 - "To Washington and Back"
Sen. Alan Simpson describes his career in the U.S. Senate and afterward, with the help of commentators ranging from Vice-President Dick Cheney to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Simpson was elected in 1979 and faced immediate controversy as the ranking Republican on a subcommittee with oversight of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant crisis. He went on to tackle tough issues like immigration reform, veteran's benefits and the federal Clean Air Act, and rose to the second most powerful position in the Senate as Majority Whip. Simpson, with his frank and amusing openness, was an immediate hit with the media - but later, especially during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he became a media critic, and the press reciprocated. After retiring from the Senate, he taught at Harvard ("I couldn't have gotten into Harvard if I'd picked the locks"), served on the Iraq Study Group, and advocated for various causes, including public financing of national elections, writing skills for youngsters, and improvements at the University of Wyoming. And, unlike so many other national figures, he and Ann returned to their home in Cody, and the Bobcat Ranch.
Next fall, in conjunction with a subsequent broadcast of the two hours of documentary, Sen. Alan K. Simpson will sit down with Geoff O'Gara in a simple one-on-one conversation to discuss how the lessons of his career in public life apply to the world of today. He'll talk about our system of government, the current state of politics, the dangers of the modern world, his lifelong interest in the arts, and, of course, Wyoming.