A senator who finds renewal in Thurber and Mencken, keeps Western orginals by Russell and Remington on his walls and sees the Senate as something of a funny farm deserves a closer look.
Actually, the word about Alan K. Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming, got around rather quickly after he showed up in the Senate last year.
The guy is different, they were saying. He talked back to senior senators, always with courtly deference, but he talked back. Don't tell me how to vote, he cautioned committee staffers accustomed to telling senators how to vote.
Simpson, 48, came here last year labeled as one of those new hard-core conservatives hell-bent on standing big government on its head.
The game of politics, alas, is played with labels and codes and Simpson is stuck with his label. What a yuk.
He is conservative and big government does not enamor him, but his link with the label pretty much ends there. He idolizes some of the liberals he's supposed abhor, cosponsors their bills and trades ribald stories with them.
Simpson turns out to be one of those refreshing breezes that occasinally gentles their way through the congressional pomp and fustian to remind that all is not lost; it hasn't even been found.
Unlike those who promise great deeds, Simpson says he's not here to turn things around -- doesn't expect to, at least. Unlike others awed by the Senate, he says, "You have to look at it and laugh." Unlike those who profess high altruism, he says he wanted to be a senator because the title sounded nice.
Part of this is his wry personal theater, no doubt, but most of it is the expression of a man working mightily to retain his sense of humor and balance in a generally humorless, unbalanced arena of egotists and poseurs.
"If you don't know who you are before, you'll never find out here," he said the other day. "I'm trying to be the same person I've always been and see how it works in the U.S. Senate."
A Simpson story. He won't deliver a statement someone else prepared for him. He insists on asking his own questions at hearings. He delights in elbowing a colleague on the Senate floor who has just delivered a windy, canned statement. "I'll ask, 'What did you say?' and they just look back and say, 'I don't know.' It's half-disgusting."
Congress always has had a few of these free spirits, men who are serious about their work, but don't take it or themselves too seriously. They are important because they give the place a human dimension.
In the House, Reps. andy Jacobs (D-ind.), John Burton (D-Calif.) and Richard Kelly (R-Fla) are among that number who use wit as a rapier. Until he etired a year ago, James Abourezk (D-S.D.) was the Senate's resident iconoclast.
Al Simpson got here just in time to save the Senate form complete and terminal self-importance.
Another Simpson story: Early last year he had the audacity to propose a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut on environmental programs. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), who opposed the idea, tore into him. Simpson tore right back.
Muskie prevailed, but Simpson made his point. His one vote from Wyoming counted as much as any other vote and so did his opinion.
"My old neck muscles were pumping and I was scared," Simpson recalled. "I went to these hearings and I saw people I'd read about all my life. But I knew if I got awed I'd be totally ineffective."
When it was over, he encountered Muskie on an elevator. "Simpson," Muskie said gravely, "I think you're going to do all right here. To get along in the Senate you have to be about one-half sonuvabitch and I think you are."
That was Muskie's way of saying welcome to the club. Simpson loved it and they became respectful equals. "It was marvelous . . . what a remarkable man, Ed Muskie," he said.
This is the same guy who, when the days get gloomy and the hours too long, turns to James Thurber of H. L. Mencken or Robert Service for refreshment. "They push you into absurdity ... and absurdity is the essence of life," is how Simpson explains that.
A theme that keeps wending through a conversation with Simpson, in which the profanity can reach lyrical levels, is his obsession with not allowing the institution to change him.
Simpson had enough background in politics to realize that a freshman Republican from one of the least populated states would not make much of an impact unless he carried special keys.
His key is the human approach -- cultivating friendships with other members, making certain that they understand that when he speaks, it is he rather than a bright staff adviser expressing an idea.
"I realized I had to represent the people of my state. They are thoughtful, well-read -- the lowest rate of illiteracy in the United States -- very opinionated. They really let you now how they feel," he said. s
Which let to another Simpson story: One evening during the diesel fuel crisis last year, the telephone rang in Simpson's office. The senator himself answered it.
"Where is that skinny bastard?" said an angry voice.
"Speaking," answered Simpson, who is in fact rail-thin, and at 6 feet 7 inches, thought to be the tallest man ever elected to the Senate.
The caller was a trucker out of fuel because, as he put it, "You guys are so screwed up."
Simpson conceded right off that the Senate was screwed up, but said he couldn't help get him fuel. He gave the man some phone numbers at the Department of Energy.
Later, in Wyoming, Simpson happened to meet the trucker. The man reported that he got his fuel but that he felt the Senate was still botching things.
The message is that you can't put much over on the folks from Wyoming, so don't even try. Just be yourself.
Simpson got part of that through his 13 years in the Wyoming legislature and part of it through being the son of Milward Simpson, who was a governor and U.S. senator.
"I watched my dad do it and I watched him not change," Simpson said. "People would ask if he preferred to be called 'governor' or 'senator' and he would say, 'Call me Simp.'"
"And in the legislature, I worked my way from the back row to speaker pro-tem. All you had to do to move ahead was stay alive."
He caught on to something else: limit your outbursts, pick your targets, know you colleagues and good things start happening. He issued one press release in 13 years. He spoke rarely, but when he did, heads would turn on the floor in attention.
"What I knew when I came here was that I had to get comfortable with the 99 people I had to work with, admit that I had to get to know them as human beings. The most fascinating thing has been getting to know them -- putting aside the preliminary skirmishes and sharing with them your own vulnerability."
It seems to be working, for Simpson is recognized as a man who does prodigious amounts of homework, never speaking on an issue until he has studied it, always looking an adversary in the eye and being blunt in a gentle way.
"This is part of his legislative tool kit," said one committee staffer. "To advance his cause, he cultivates relationships with other senators. He makes them know that when he speaks to them, it is he and not his staff. That draws respect. If that were a general rule, it would restore order around this place."
Simpson has tangled with collegues on the Environment and Public Works and Judiciary committees, where he and other Republicans have pressed conservative points of view. But they listen, and that's the important part.
So be warned. You may or may not hear about Alan Simpson again. He doesn't send out many press releases and in a year has issued only one newsletter to constituents.
"I've seen others posture to the media. It gave me a Jell-o feeling. I know it sounds goofy, because we all are here with our egos. But when I'm at a hearing. I don't know who's out there covering it. I think I limit my efficiency when I play to the media," he said.
That's part of the refreshing breeze. Which leads to another story. After he'd been here a while, Simpson was approached by a well-known reporter with a puzzled look on his face.
"Simpson," the man said, "We can't figure you out."
"Great," responded the senator. Thurber lives.