Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaves the Senate chamber on Wednesday after a vote to avert a government shutdown. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Among living political figures most likely to say something interesting, regardless of topic, former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming ranks near the top.
The 84-year-old Republican entertained the press with his candor during the many meetings of the Bowles-Simpson Commission in 2010, and popped off on the Cheney family in his home state’s contentious Senate primary in 2013.
On Wednesday, Simpson was on Capitol Hill for a ceremony to celebrate the release of an oral history project remembering the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. I figured I’d ask him about Donald Trump.
Simpson was predictably happy to oblige, but somewhat surprisingly, before he dismissed Trump in colorful terms, he registered approval of what is driving the businessman’s popularity in the Republican presidential primary.
“He’s popular because he strikes at almost anything that is politically correct,” Simpson told me. “People are sick of political correctness. … You can’t do anything without being accused of some gap in sensitivity. What the hell? And he’s hitting all those buttons. If you pretend that you’re goody-goody sweet pants, and never have had a serious feeling about a bias or prejudice about anything or anybody, you’re a lying son of a bitch.”
Simpson was one of 251 people interviewed about Kennedy by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia over the past decade, as part of a massive oral history project on the senator’s life and career. Kennedy himself sat for 29 interviews with the Miller Center, 19 of which were released on Wednesday.
The Miller Center began an oral history initiative in the early 80s focused on U.S. presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter. Kennedy — who challenged an incumbent President Carter in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination, but fell short — is the only nonpresident to be given such treatment by the Miller Center.
The event Wednesday was held in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Building, which was named after Kennedy and his brothers — former President John F. Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — in 2009. Both Kennedys, John and Robert, announced their presidential candidacies for the 1960 and 1968 elections, respectively, in that same room.
The event began with welcoming remarks from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said a few words in defense of the Senate as an institution. At a time when the presidential election is being buffeted by intense anti-establishment, anti-Washington sentiment, and the Republican base is fired up with the belief that McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have been accomplices to President Obama’s agenda, McConnell harkened back to the nation’s first president, George Washington, and his vision for the Senate.
Washington “said it would be like a saucer under the tea cup. The tea would slosh out and go into the saucer and cool off,” McConnell said. “So have you watched the House and Senate lately? We’re the cool body. We’re not into drama. We’re the place where things go to get worked out, because nothing happens quickly in the Senate. If you’re looking for quick results, don’t look at the Senate.”
Besides being a reminder of the role of the Senate, McConnell’s comments also seemed to hint at the upheaval in the House in the wake of Boehner’s announcement last Friday that he will retire before the end of the year.
During his remarks about Kennedy, McConnell said that while he and the liberal Democrat “didn’t have much in common,” Kennedy had no peer as an effective legislator.
“We’ve had no more extraordinary senator in our history than Edward M. Kennedy,” McConnell said to applause.
Simpson, during a panel discussion, said that Kennedy’s loss to Carter in 1980 freed him to devote the next three decades to legislating.
“The minute he knew the presidency was no longer in his grasp, he decided, ‘I’ll be the best legislator in the United States Senate,’ and he was,” Simpson said.
Kennedy’s effectiveness depended on hiring top-notch staff, studying the issues and knowing the policy details inside and out, working cooperatively with Republicans to achieve compromise, and knowing when to settle for something rather than nothing. Former Kennedy allies stressed his ability to move his priorities forward slowly but surely. It’s a template favored by McConnell, Boehner and many other veteran Republican lawmakers, but despised by many newer conservative Republicans in the House, and by McConnell’s nemesis, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and candidate for president.
Kennedy “would take a quarter loaf, he would take a half loaf, he would take a third of a loaf if he thought he could move things forward,” said former senior aide Melody Barnes, who went on to become Obama’s top White House domestic policy adviser during his first term.
Former Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Kennedy’s closest friend in the Senate, told the story of a negotiation with then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in which Dodd insisted that Republicans dedicate $11 billion to a project that was a priority for him. Dole offered $7 billion, Dodd recounted, but he insisted on the full amount.
At this point Kennedy asked for a break in the meeting, took Dodd aside outside the room, and reproved him.
“You go back in there and take the $7 billion they’re offering, you idiot,” Kennedy told Dodd. “We’ll come back next year and get the other four.”
That kind of give-and-take in service of a long-term goal stands in contrast to Simpson’s view of Trump. When I asked him if Trump was good for politics and for the country, Simpson didn’t hold back on his criticism of the 69-year-old reality TV star.
“If he were an engineer on the train, he wouldn’t know where the stop button was, or the start button on the engine or how to throw coal in it if it was coal-fired, but he sure knows how to play the buttons of emotion, fear, guilt and racism,” Simpson said. “He’s a bright guy, and he’s going to play the chords of discord, and he’s going to play the chords of political correctness.”