The way Alan Simpson sees things, the people who are making such a prolonged stink about Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

"Never again," says the Republican senator, Wyoming's own Mr. Smith in Washington. "Never again will they have an opportunity, regardless of whether this man wins or loses, to do this again."

This prediction is puzzling. As the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings rolled to a voteless close this week and undecided senators began to make their intentions known, Bork's partisans and detractors both were saying just the opposite -- that the Bork confirmation process would become the standard for future Supreme Court nominations.

Some thought it was a demeaning spectacle, and Simpson puts himself in this camp: "This is election time for Bork. He's on the campaign trail." Others thought it was a great national debate, and even Simpson admits to a few uplifting moments: "I've been in law school all over again." But few are doubting that future choices for the high court will be given strict scrutiny, no less for ideological correctness than for judicial competence.

The gangly country lawyer from Buffalo Bill's corner of the old West is among the few. From here on out, he says, nominees will have unexceptionable records, and therefore unexceptional minds. Take "Jerome P. Sturdley," a fellow Simpson invented during the hearings. Sturdley "has quite extensive experience on the bench and at the bar," according to Simpson's portrait, but he "has said very little, has written very little that was either thoughtful, challenging or provocative." Such nominees will be "sterilized before they get to us," he says, sadly.

Future nominees, Simpson goes on, also will learn from Judge Bork's example that it doesn't pay to speak openly about one's views. Even if senators are so frustrated they "start chewing through the pages in front of them," the nominee will keep his counsel, just as Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist did: They will not comment on any matter that might come before them on the court.

Then Simpson contemplates a more immediate prospect -- the rejection-proof nomination, if the Bork nomination falters, of someone from the Senate brotherhood.

"Let's say it's Paul Laxalt," Simpson says with a fiendish twinkle in his eye, referring to the former senator from Nevada and presidential pal. "That won't be a very long confirmation process. 'Paul, it's good to see you.' 'Paul, how are you?' 'Paul, is there anything we don't know about you? No?' 'Any other questions?' "

This began as a joke, but when he's finished, Simpson isn't smiling. This fight has bent him way out of shape.

Nobody's Lap Dog

In the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings Simpson and his colleague from Utah, Orrin Hatch, have been the nominee's most vocal and impassioned defenders, point men for the White House in Congress. Hatch was not surprising in this role; the Iran-contra hearings confirmed his special talent for carrying the water of conservative true believers, and tossing it in the faces of their opponents.

Simpson is another matter. He is known as his own man, nobody's lap dog, a politician of catholic convictions and healthy disengagement from the self-important follies of Capitol Hill, someone with brains and manners -- and a formidable sense of humor.

So when he loses his temper, as he has many times since Robert Bork was nominated, his colleagues on both sides of the aisle tend to notice.

Simpson says Judge Bork has taught everyone a lesson. "I have never seen, in my nine years {as a senator} a more distorted picture," he says, with palpable frustration. Repeatedly he has called some of the arguments marshaled against Bork's confirmation "lies," and he has said, just as often, that he doesn't use the word casually.

He is outraged by constant allegations that Bork is racist, or anti-feminist, or in favor of "sterilizing his fellow men and women." He is disgusted that more attention has been paid to Bork's controversial 1971 Indiana Law Journal article than to the Constitution or "the quality of this man's work" on the federal bench. He is incensed about the examination of Bork's role in the "Saturday Night Massacre," calling the event "the most bloodless corpse in this whole village ... What in God's name does that have to do with Robert Bork?"

On Sept. 17, when it was Simpson's turn to address Judge Bork in the hearings, instead of drawing the nominee out, he deployed some of the heavy sarcasm that occasionally gets the better of him.

"I personally want to tell you, I do not think you were responsible for the Vietnam war. I want to tell you that, and I feel that deeply," Simpson said to Bork. "Or every failure of the marketplace. Capitalism's little ups and downs I am not going to lay at your feet."

Four days later, as the opposition to Bork intensified, Simpson's temperature seemed to be keeping pace.

"To really believe," he declared in the presence of another friendly witness, former attorney general William French Smith, "that this lumbering, Neanderthal, hideous, bestial man is somehow going to go to the Supreme Court and wrench four of those remarkable eight people off their noodle and make them all go his way and just destroy America -- now, they really lost their lunch on that one, they lost their marbles."

The Bird in His Nest

During a respite in the confirmation struggle, Simpson retreats to his private office in the Capitol. He moves carefully around his desk and into an old wooden chair whose seat is twirled precariously to its highest position. Simpson, at 6 feet 7, is the tallest man in the Senate, Bill Bradley notwithstanding.

In the chair, Simpson doesn't so much swivel as perch. He is routinely compared to a bird -- he chooses the heron; his admirers prefer the eagle; his detractors favor the buzzard.

He calls the Bork hearings "frustrating," shaking his head in a slight bow.

"I have said that I am for Bork, and will support Bork, and obviously am trying to help Bork get confirmed," he declares. But he says he has been accosted by reporters ("as they ram the mike under your snoot") who ask, "Well, Simpson, if it were a Democratic president presenting Laurence Tribe to you, wouldn't you be fighting just as hard on the other side?' " The reference is to Harvard's leading constitutional scholar, an anti-Bork witness in the hearings.

Having asked the question in the stentorian tones of a television reporter, Simpson delivers himself of the answer in the plain-speaking style of Jimmy Stewart: "I haven't before, so I don't know why the hell I would start now."

It is true, he admits, that since he came to the Senate in 1979, no Democratic president has tested this principle. But Jimmy Carter did name "a ton of" judges to the federal bench.

"One was Pat Wald," Simpson says. Patricia Wald is now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the same bench where Bork sits. "She was hounded," Simpson says, drawing out the word almost like a howl, "because she had written a very provocative piece about the rights of children with their parents ... I had letters from every known organization -- I thought some of them were way out -- that she would destroy families. Here she'd been married to the same guy for a lifetime, five beautiful children. I said I'm going to ignore that and I'm going to help you because you have a very brilliant mind and you'd be a hell of a good judge and I'm a lawyer and I like judges who use their brains."

The Gazoo and Beyond

To judge him by results, Simpson is among the most effective politicians in the Senate. He is best known for masterminding, after three sessions of determined effort, passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, one of the most controversial and complicated pieces of legislation in decades.

Before the end of his first term in the Senate, he was elected assistant majority leader, a position normally reserved for far senior members, and has not ruled out seeking the leadership post itself when Sen. Bob Dole vacates it -- as some argue he will have to do as his presidential campaign gathers steam.

Yet these impressive accomplishments seem to come without even a semblance of the obligatory horse trading and backslapping. Slade Gorton, the former Washington senator who lost the assistant leader's race to Simpson, attributed his defeat to running against "the most popular man in the Senate." Mary Kay Hill, who has worked for Simpson for most of his years in the Senate, believes that "his people skills are more refined than his political skills."

Simpson's approach to the minority leader's race, in the view of his colleague from Minnesota, David Durenberger, would be one of "inner obligation, in a small 's' spiritual sense ... not because he fancies himself a Bob Dole or a Howard Baker or an Everett Dirksen." Ben Wattenberg, the neoconservative pundit, is already sold: "If that party doesn't have him running for national office pretty soon, that party has rocks in its head."

Simpson is regarded as something of an intellectual in the Senate. He has led seminars on immigration reform at Harvard several times, and quotes spontaneously from such writers as Thurber and Mencken. During the hearings he tried to give Judge Bork succor by reading from Rudyard Kipling's "If" ("If you can bear to hear the truth you have spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools ... "). He is known to break away from his official schedule to wander through art galleries ("My great leavening is art," he says).

Yet his own spoken sentences, as often as not, seem to have passed through some mental Mixmaster. One outburst before a panel of (anti-Bork) law professors during the hearings last week makes Ronald Reagan's diction seem punctilious.

"My question is, how, do you really feel good about just punching around in a law review article, 1971, or picking a statement about the bedroom and pollution and smokestack, which I've heard now 43 times since I've been here. And sterilization of women, and sterilization of men, and a poll tax, i.e., meaning racism, and doesn't that really -- do you really feel good about that when you are so bright and so articulate that you have to go back in with a scalpel to mess around and just find those little inflammatory points of Judge Bork and leave out as intelligent people -- leave out amicus brief after amicus brief where he protected the rights of minorities and blacks and women -- a whole history of that, and opinion after opinion, 135 or 106, depending on whose figures you're using, that were never overturned ... "

Simpson gets very good press, yet he does little to pander to the needs of the news media other than deliver witty lines, and his deeper feelings might be characterized as hostile. He will be remembered for his denunciation of White House reporters for their "sadistic" treatment of President Reagan last spring, when he said the press was trying to "stick it in his gazoo."

When it comes to currying favor with the press back in Wyoming, Simpson remains consistent. Reportedly against the advice of his staff, he unburdened himself of a vituperative 4,000-word jeremiad against "a very clever trio of cats" at the biggest newspaper in his state, the Casper Star-Tribune -- "that's what a cowboy would call about eight years' gatherings," he says. The paper printed it, word for word, he says, even though Simpson offered to buy the space.

He seems gentle and kindly, but when he is agitated, he can turn sour. Durenberger says "like all of us, he's an outstanding guy, but inside is somebody that he isn't always proud of. He doesn't mind letting us know that he's dealing with that; he talks about everybody's feet of clay by showing you his own."

Simpson himself says, "I've been trying to stay steady. I do pretty well. It's like my wife of 33 years, who says I'm usually very good natured -- except when I'm not."

To his colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, he is cordial to a fault. Yet it was Simpson who yanked the cloak of invulnerability from the shoulders of North Carolina's Jesse Helms in December 1982. After losing patience over his colleague's filibuster of a gasoline tax-increase bill, he rose on the floor of the Senate and declared, "Seldom have I seen a more obdurate, more obnoxious performance." Simpson's candor sealed his reputation as a senator who says aloud what his colleagues only think to themselves -- as when he said last year, not without envy, that Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska was able to secure for his state "pork by the metric ton."

How does someone so outspoken, so peculiar, explain his own success?

"I must be perverse," Simpson says, emitting a tiny tee-hee-hee. "I love it," he says, lifting his palms upward in mock helplessness.

"What I love is the ability to get right in there and mix it up with somebody and then enjoy them as a friend. I have friends I don't vote with 5 percent of the time, but I find them thoroughly delightful human beings. I don't judge them. I don't judge their past or how they live.

"That's naive," he admits, and then a distinction presents itself. "That's naive -- but I'm not naive."

The Other Life

"Everybody in Wyoming calls him Al," according to Hill, Simpson's aide and fellow Wyomingite, who adds that this is nothing extraordinary. "If you don't know your political representative in Wyoming, it's because you haven't tried."

Even so, when Al Simpson first got into politics, most of his constituents knew who he was already. His father, Milward Simpson, had been governor of Wyoming when Al was a teen-ager. When Al first ran for the state House of Representatives in 1966, his father was a United States senator.

The younger Simpson served 12 years in the legislature, and was certain to be elected speaker of the House, when he decided to run for the U.S. Senate himself. His victory was practically foreordained. His first priority in Washington, according to Hill, was to get to know his colleagues personally -- "what they did in their other lives." The priority seems to have been rewarded ever since.

Simpson's own "other life" means returning to Wyoming about every other week, when he likes to spend time fishing mountain streams or kicking back at the Bobcat Ranch, the rustic Simpson spread about 25 miles outside of Cody -- a former dude ranch owned by one of Buffalo Bill's sidekicks.

Even more, it means time shared with his wife Ann. "You must have your anchor and your gyroscope," he says, "somebody to go home to at the end of the day and speak to in magnificent Shakespearean English or four-letter words, and say, 'Let me tell you about the silly sons-of-bitches I got involved with today,' or lyrically about someone who just dazzled you."

When he reflects on the slings and arrows any politician suffers, he doesn't claim that politics has given him a coat of armor. "I didn't check my sensitivities and my feelings at the door when I got into politics," he says. "You don't."

The day Sen. Joseph Biden announced his painful withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race, the gentleman from Wyoming took a few minutes in the middle of the Bork hearings to pay public tribute to his colleague. He praised Biden's service as a senator and his fair conduct of the hearings.

Biden thanked him, but Simpson had something more to say.

"We politicians move at such a pace in our lives, we really do not have time to savor either victory or anguish and defeat," Simpson said.

"But I have a hunch that care and support will surface now, and it always has, and so heal up swiftly. We need you out there in the fray so we can box each other around. I would not want to miss any of that."

Back in the office Simpson confesses, "Politics itself as a diet is barbaric." Then he repeats one of his favorite perceptions about the Senate: "If you don't know who you are before you get here, it's sure as hell a poor place to find out."