Jimmy Carter promised to streamline the government, put the literature of Federalspeak in plain English. Ronald Reagan's pledge to get government off our backs is graven on the tablets.
Now it's time to meet Eli Simpson, a fairly ordinary sort of fellow who in a special way symbolizes the people Carter and Reagan were talking to over these last few months.
He lives in rural central Kentucky. He got an 8th grade education. Worked as a meat cutter. Served in Vietnam. Disabled. Wants to get off the monthly pension, make a mark, help his country.
Somehow, he and an uncle who farms in Michigan got the idea they could do their part by building stills and encouraging farmers to make their own alcohol fuel by cooking their corn.
They got the required permits and built a 300-gallon still up in Michigan. It worked, as any good Kentuckian knew it would have to work, and they were all set to go. They wanted farmers to run their tractors on pure alcohol.
After a year ago Simpson wrote to the Department of Energy, asking for some federal assistance to get the little scheme going. What he got in return was a big packet of materials from DOE with forms to fill out and with -- let's be honest -- very confusing explanations.
DOE's packet indicated he could conduct a feasibility study for alternative fuels production. Or he could respond to program solicitation. No. DE-PAO1-80RA50204 and propose a cooperative agreement to make alternative fuel.
A month later, DOE invited him to attend a Washington seminar, at his own expense, on submitting a proposal. DOE included a nice map of the city.
That began an unusual back-and-forth between Eli Simpson and his government in Washington, an exasperating exercise that led to an amassing of papers that might loosely be called The Simpson Chronicle. t
He wrote to Washington, to people in high places, and remarkably enough, he got answers But he still got no grant.
The Simpson Chronicle includes letters from President Carter on White House notepaper and a signature that purports to be Carter's thanking him for his views.
Hamiltion Jordan the presidential assistant, wrote to say, "I appreciate your thoughtful concern in writing to comment about the world energy crisis."
Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland wrote a couple times, the most recent being this week, responding to an earlier Simpson complaint about USDA's distrust of the farmer, and the interest it charges on loans.
Through it all, Eli Simpson was taking it personally, feeling that perhaps it was he, rather than the government, that wasn't being coherent.
He took the DOE booklets from his home near Cynthiana over to Lexington, where a researcher at the University of Kentucky looked them over and agreed with Simpson.
"She said they contained a lot of technical language, etc., for the common person to understand," Simpson wrote to a reporter. "At least I gave it one heck of a good try before giving up on it. I was more screwed up the sixth time I read it than the first time. Oh, well. The strain on my brain is too much pain and not worth the drain of the nervous system. Good luck and thank you." p
Later on, between his jottings to officialdom, he penned another item into the Chronicle. "We lack the language that it takes to communicate with our very own government. We find this disheartening and disappointing," he wrote.
"We are the first to admit that none of us obtained more than a grade school education but it appears as if a person has to be a college graduate in order to understand how to fill out a request for a grant or loan from the Energy Dept. and the other govt. agencies like Farmers Home, Agriculture Dept., etc.," he continued.
Still later, he wrote more. "We feel so alienated because of the lack of communication on the part of our government and the lack of understanding on our part. We are beginning to feel as if we are victims instead of citizens," Simpson said.
That was not entirely fair, for the White House was trying. Somebody sent him a copy of a Carter statement on gasohol policy. And he got a copy of a gasohol fact sheet, the same thing reporters had been handed in January.
Up at the top, the sheet said, "Embargoed for release until after the briefing." Simpson circled that, put 13 question marks next to it and wrote, "What the heck does that word mean?," with a little arrow aimed at "embargoed."
No grant turned up. Part of it was because Simpson could not really grasp what the forms were about and what his obligations would be if DOE gave him the $17,000 he wanted to set up his farm-still operation.
A newsman in Louisville got wind of Simpson's plight and interviewed him.The resulting story produced a phone call from an official at the Bluegrass Area Development District, who wondered if he could help.
Technically speaking, development districts aren't supposed to be soliciting that kind of business. But give someone credit.
In September they filled out a DOE application form for Simpson, with his proposal to set up a cooperative, hook up with 4-H Clubs, build a still, put it on a truck and take it from farm to farm to show farmers how they can make their own fuel from corn and other organic matter.
As a side angle, they are proposing to take the leftover mash and use it for feed for catfish that would be bred in a little pond. Maybe start a whole new business and keep the tractors running, too.
"I'm crazier than hell, but I'm hanging in there," Simpson said the other day. "It's partly my fault because I only made it to the 8th grade, but you know, I sometimes think they've got these programs only for big business and the rest of us don't count.
The Simpson Chronicle is missing a final reply from DOE.