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Alan K. Simpson

Alan K. SimpsonAs 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.”

al-touching-head-looking-over-glassesSimpson 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.

Alan K. SimpsonSenator 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"
Alan K. SimpsonSen. 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"
Alan Simpson at his deskSen. 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.

Part 3
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.

Al Simpson