Alan Simpson recalls his good friend, Ted Kennedy

By Janet Simons

Not long after his inauguration, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming saw the current wave of disapproval coming for President Barack Obama.

“I told Obama, ‘Watch out! You’re the toast of the town. You’ve got wings like Icarus. And the wax will melt from your wings, and you’ll fall into the wine red Aegean Sea,’” the 78-year-old Republican recalled in a recent interview.

“Now they’re piling on, and it’s not a good feeling. It would be nice if they’d step back and give him chance,” said Simpson.

Such insight and honesty uniquely qualify Simpson to comment on Ted Kennedy’s political legacy — that, and the fact that he worked closely with the senior senator from Massachusetts for 18 years.

So, in the interest of getting out of the way of Simpson’s forthright prose, here’s a transcript of that interview that’s as true to his words as imperfect note-taking can allow.

Simpson — whose son, Colin, the immediate past speaker of the Wyoming House, was “Kennedy Legacy” author Vincent Bzdek’s roommate at Colorado College — delivered the 1986 commencement address at CC. In this interview, he tells about quashing a protest at the commencement, apparently aimed at his co-sponsorship, with the late Democratic Sen. Pete Rodino, of the 1986 Simpson-Rodino Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The bill offered amnesty to undocumented residents who could prove four years of continuous residence in the United States.

We spoke with Simpson by phone from his law office in Cody, Wyo.

Colorado Statesman (CS): What do you think Ted Kennedy’s legacy will be?

Alan Simpson (AS): Of course, he was the master legislator. It’s all been said. He was special to work with. We would shake hands on an issue, and he never violated a trust or promise with me. That’s the coin of the realm in the Senate. He was awesome.

CS: How long were you colleagues?

AS: 18 years. My father (Milward L. Simpson) went into the Senate in 1962, and so did Ted. When I went in in 1978, my father had a reception for me, and Ted was the first person who came.

We had a bond. He caused his parents as much pain as I caused mine. (Note: During his reckless youth, Simpson had many run-ins with the law.)

We were friends. I’ve got lots of letters and cards on my wall from him. There’s a picture he sent me. He’s standing behind me with his fists doubled up. It’s inscribed, “To Al, who telegraphs his punches with a smile, from your black and blue punching bag.”

I’ve got the 44-star flag he gave me. Those are hard to find. The note said, “To the kid from Cody, a great senator and a great friend, even if he’s still playing with 44 stars in his flag.”

CS: Isn’t there a lot of rancor between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate?

AS: Not really. The media is interested in conflict and confusion and controversy and complexity — and not clarity. But in their time in the Senate together, Mike Enzi, (Wyoming’s) senior senator, and Kennedy did 27 bills together. No one in the world knows that. OSHA, health care — serious bills.

When I did the commencement at Colorado College, there was a huge protest on immigration. I told the protesters, “Without my damn bill, not one damn one of you would have legal status.”

We had just passed the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and three million immigrants came out of the dark after that. The guys wearing protest badges dropped their armbands.

Kennedy worked with the Democrats to help get that bill passed. It didn’t work because we couldn’t get a more secure identifier.

I enjoyed it. Politics is a contact sport. You’re going to get beat up, but never let them distort who you are.

Kennedy knew politics was a contact sport. He could handle things with good humor and a big smile and a huge laugh that was like the back room of an Irish pub.

He was much more than a colleague. He was a very good friend.