By AUDREY FISCHER
To hear former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson tell it, he got out just in time – before Congress went from being partisan—with an ability to compromise—to downright uncivil and humorless.
"Politics is barbaric," said the three-term Wyoming Republican, who left Congress in 1997 after nearly two decades in the Senate. "You need the softening effects of friendship, theater, books, art and music." And, as Simpson underscored in a recent lecture on "Humor in Public Life," sponsored by the John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress, you need to be able to laugh, especially at yourself. (As a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Kluge Center, Simpson sorted, selected and recorded his collection of jokes and witticisms, which will become part of the Library's recorded sound collections).
It's a lesson that Simpson learned early as an overweight, knock-kneed, pimple-faced youth with a propensity for making his classmates laugh. "Humor was my sword, my shield, my armor."
"Comedian Danny Kaye once said that all humor comes from pain," said Simpson. To prove the point, Simpson cited Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy as a master of self-deprecating wit.
"Imagine what his life would be like without laughter," alluding to the many tragedies that have befallen the Kennedy family.
Simpson also recalled a number of congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle that used humor to build bridges and advance their cause.
"Humor can be used to throw off the opposition. People think if you have humor you're not serious."
It was for that reason, according to Simpson, that former senator Bob Dole was cautioned by his advisers to keep his ample wit in check when he ran for president.
"That was a big mistake. The American people didn't get to see what this man was all about."
Simpson also singled out the notorious wit of his old friend, Morris Udall, whom he called "the master of legislative compromise." Udall, former representative from Arizona who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, wrote a book titled "Too Funny to Be President."
"He often told the story of introducing himself as Mo Udall, saying he was running for president, only to receive the reply, 'We were just laughing about that.'" According to Simpson, Udall "could tell you to go to hell in a way that would make you look forward to the trip."
If humor can pave the road to compromise, then perhaps lack of it may explain the current legislative stalemate in Congress. Simpson refers to the new breed in Congress as the "seethers."
"Hatred corrodes the container it's carried in," noted Simpson. "Those who say 'don't get mad, get even' are sick in my opinion and are not productive legislators. You have to be able to compromise without comprising yourself."
Simpson would be the first to admit that he has, at times, lost his sense of humor and it was not a pretty picture.
"I'm terrible when I lose my sense of humor," he said, which occurred during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas amid sexual harassment charges from Thomas' former colleague Anita Hill.
"My wife told me, "Al, you look pinched and irritated." His wife of 52 years has been known to tell him on occasion to "shut up," with only the best of intentions. "It takes someone who loves you to tell you when you're off your feed."
Far from just bemoaning the partisanship in Congress and resting on his laurels, Simpson is putting his money—or rather his time—where his mouth is by serving on a bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The United States Institute of Peace is organizing the group with the support of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and the James A. Baker II Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
"We will not visit past debates but will concern ourselves with what we do now," said Simpson. "We don't care about WMDs or BVDs," he joked. The group will issue a report later this year.
"Life is full. To hell with retirement."