Top critical review
I REALLY WANTED TO FIND AL SIMPSON IN THIS BOOK
on May 26, 2017
I really wanted to like this “autobiography” of former Wyoming Senator Al Simpson. How can’t you like an autobiography of a senator with the catchy title of “Shooting From the Lip?”
When it’s this badly written you can’t.
Senator Al Simpson was certainly one of the most colorful and interesting characters ever to serve in the United States Senate. Or at least the Al Simpson who I remember was. Simpson was a witty, bottom line conservative who had a reputation of playing well with others, in this case his ideological opposites, the liberals in the Democratic Party. And like another conservative western senator, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Simpson had the reputation of an honest, straight talking, genuine, decent servant of the people.
Yet the Al Simpson of this autobiography is a cranky old man who settles scores instead of being the accommodating, principled man of his actual days in Washington. His honestly earned reputation for reaching across the aisles to work with Democrats is reduced in these pages to faux waves at bipartisanship, followed almost immediately by an old fashioned kick in the shins to these same Democrats. Visits to the Reagan White House to gauge the Republican President’s positions, so better to negotiate bills in the Senate, turn into hero worship in this book, as though the senior citizen Simpson found it necessary to prove his loyalty to Reagan as the Republican Party turned further and further rightward in his retirement.
In fairness to Simpson, there was a disconnect to understand Ronald Reagan’s beginnings in the Republican Party as the crusader against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the President who drew the ire of Democrats and was compared to the Ku Klux Klan. Simpson just didn’t get it. Genuinely. Simpson called such comparisons “appalling.”
Some of Simpson’s late life cranky partisanship is comical. He bitterly attacks former Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker for criticizing Reagan Budget Director David Stockman’s fraudulent budget figures as “an extraordinary display of belligerence,” even though this autobiography was written decades after Stockman wrote his own bestselling book confessing it was all true.
The two most difficult, and probably, painful events in Simpson’s political life are either glossed over or omitted from this book, almost as if censored by an editor.
They are his controversial and questionable grilling of University of Oklahoma Law Professor Anita Hill during the televised hearings into the woefully unqualified Clarence Thomas (mentioned only in passing) to serve on the Supreme Court, a harsh judgment unfortunately verified throughout Thomas’s dreadful service on the high court, and how Simpson was essentially purged into retirement by the fanatics in his own party for his disinterest in protesting abortion 24/7, 365 days a year, which is not mentioned at all.
The biography may have been enhanced by a more detailed account of Simpson’s embrace of the nutty Robert Bork to serve on the Supreme Court as well, but this short section is quickly bundled up and put away with the partisan position that those damn liberals were just out to get a conservative, with no suspicion, such as mine, that the shrewd Reagan knew the author of controversial legal articles had no chance to be confirmed, and was just feeding red meat to the most extreme of the Republican base. And Simpson, like most conservatives who lived through the Bork hearings, conveniently forgets that what doomed Bork in the end were not his controversial law review articles, but renouncing them, which turned the conservative base against him too. In fact, there was support for Bork in the legal establishment, even among liberals, but only because he was a professor at Yale Law School. A professor at Kansas Law School with the same legal theories would have had no chance in hell being nominated to the Supreme Court.
Speaking of his partisan political blinders, the autobiography does point out something profound, and therefore interesting and important for the body politic of citizens across America, and that is like many western Republicans, Simpson looked out the window of his modest Wyoming house, gazing to the bucolic woods and self- sufficient nature of birds and other animals in his sparsely settled neighborhood, and deluded himself into thinking that America was these woods writ large. Why need government social services when life in the United States in the 20th century was as simple as Thoreau’s wooded enclave in 19th century Massachusetts?
But as somebody might observe, nobody lives in those Red States like Wyoming.
Because of this back woods philosophy, Simpson takes some shots at Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans’ benefits in these pages that would shock most Americans. He sarcastically dismisses a senior citizen who would complain about having enough social security to live in by suggesting, “Yet the perception is that somehow everybody over the age of sixty-five is foraging in alleys.” Simpson apparently took exaggeration classes late in life from Ann Coulter and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Regional dialects and folksy expressions, especially in today’s rapidly changing world, become as dated as humor, and the folksy expressions uttered by Simpson in this book seem as ancient and archaic as a grammatical guide for Etruscan.
Something that has not dated is the insistence on being a tough guy to qualify as a Republican candidate for public office in the West. Decades before a Republican Congressional candidate in Wyoming in 2017 won election by assaulting and battering a newspaper reporter, Simpson was telling a primary opponent, “I’m tired of your shit. I’m tired of you. I’ll bet you a thousand bucks I’m going to whip your ass. Not only that, if you keep mouthing off about me, I’m going to punch your lights out.” Well, I guess what’s merely being a man to a Republican is heavy handed fascism to a Democrat.
By the far the best part of this book discusses the long and successful love story between Simpson and his wife Ann. This love story is one for the ages and really should have been the center point of this autobiography. Well into their senior years Ann and Al still act like giddy teenagers in love. One thinks of Romeo and Juliet as NOT an over the top comparison. Perhaps if Simpson himself had written the book himself, instead of turning it over to long time press assistant Donald Loren Hardy as ghostwriter, Ann might have served as the book’s fulcrum, and turned the book from cranky old partisan politician into happy old man in love.
After plowing through this attempt at biography, I am still convinced that the fascinating life of Senator Al Simpson contains much more to tell and would make an excellent biography. But this book is not it. The very fact that Simpson lives with dignity in retirement, in contrast to the almost theatrical role Newt Gingrich plays as partisan hack for a living, and the grubby role Bob Dole performs for lobbyists of Chinese interests, suggests there is far more, and far more good, to discuss about Al Simpson.
No doubt Republican partisans will say I have written an unfair review here. My response is to write a better biography of Al Simpson and I will give it a better review.
[Hansen Alexander’s recent books include, “An Introduction to the Laws of the United States in the 21rst Century,” a 2016 Amazon, e-book exclusive.