In the fall of 1990, Sen. Alan Simpson encouraged his good friend to embrace a budget deal that included lots of conservative wins but required Congress to raise taxes as a trade-off.
President George H.W. Bush knew what the Wyoming Republican was asking of him. Two years earlier, at his nominating convention, Bush brought the arena to a thunderous ovation with a simple declaration: “Read my lips, no new taxes.”
But Bush trusted Simpson and the other bipartisan dealmakers. “Go for it,” he said.
Simpson, who retired from the Senate 22 years ago, recounted that fateful moment in a eulogy to the late president Wednesday, an 11-minute tribute that was laced with knee-slapping humor and personal tales that only a true friend could have experienced.
In that moment, Simpson served notice that a certain Washington archetype has receded from the limelight: the presidential best buddy on Capitol Hill. Simpson first met Bush in 1962 as his father, an incoming senator, took the office of Prescott Bush (R-Conn.), the departing senator and father of the future president.
By the time Simpson arrived in the Senate himself, in 1979, his family had already sold their home to Bush during his brief stint in Congress. Their friendship grew stronger as Bush served eight years as vice president and four as president, each man bucking up the other in bad times and applauding each other in good times.
The trips from Capitol Hill to the White House were numerous, outings to Camp David together with their wives savored thoroughly.
Seated not far from Simpson, amid tears of laughter and despair in Washington National Cathedral, were the five living presidents. None had as close a congressional friend during his Oval Office tenure as Simpson was to the 41st president.
Jimmy Carter’s lone term was marked by bitter infighting with his own party, leading to a primary challenge from Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1980. Bill Clinton had a roller-coaster ride with Democrats in Congress, some of whom angrily recoiled from his triangulation strategy to embrace Republicans on welfare and trade.
George W. Bush brought several Republicans from Congress into his inner circle, but faced a revolt from GOP lawmakers in his last years over his handling of the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailout. Democrats always felt distant from Barack Obama, neglected by a president who much preferred time with his young daughters over socializing with lawmakers.
And there was President Trump, fresh off a midterm disaster in which he began his first post-election news conference by listing the names of Republicans that he felt deserved to lose because they were not sufficiently loyal.
It’s hard to envision any of these men, whenever the time comes, to choose a former colleague from Congress as one of their eulogists, and some lawmakers lament that change over the last few decades.
“From a president’s point of view, you need real friends, and Alan was a real friend,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said after the service. “I don’t know how you do this business without a handful of people that you can trust that will be with you through thick or thin.”
Sometimes that role can relate to actual policy, because the lawmaker serves as honest go-between who can relay trouble signs to a president whose White House staff might be blocking the concerns raised from a congressman seen as irritating.
Sometimes the role is just pure friendship, coming in from outside the presidential bubble to provide simple comfort from a job that has often been described by past occupants as lonely and isolated.
In the 1980s Ronald Reagan relied on Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) for fellowship, the two kindred spirits as former western governors. In the early 1960s John F. Kennedy had his brother, Edward, as a Senate confidant, and before that Benjamin A. Smith II, his close friend who was appointed to fill his Senate seat.
Lately personal outreach has devolved to the vice presidents: Richard Cheney (R), Joe Biden (D) and Vice President Pence have been regular presences in the Capitol the past 18 years.
But those just are not the same relationships like the one between Simpson and George H.W. Bush.
The former senator recalled on Wednesday a particularly bad period for him during the height of Bush’s popularity, after freeing Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. That’s around the time Simpson took up the lonely cause of pushing for cuts to mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare to trim the federal debt.
The president scheduled a double-date weekend at Camp David and took Simpson for a walk, passing by photographers whose pictures of the popular president and unpopular senator landed in the Sunday papers.
“George, I am not unmindful as to what you are doing. You are propping up your old wounded duck pal,” Simpson said.
“Yep. There were staff, Al, who told me not to do this, but, Al, this is about friendship and loyalty,” Bush replied.
They went to the National Theatre together and debated the substance used on a six-foot vase outside the president’s box, until their wives shushed them back into the theater seats. They sang Andrew Lloyd Webber songs inside the White House, later prompting the president to brush off press questions by singing “Don’t cry for me Argentina.”
“The press then wrote that he was finally losing his marbles,” Simpson said, prompting full-throated laughs from the Bush family in the front row.
The 1990 budget deal, which Simpson helped nudge Bush to support, passed the Senate but then fell apart amid a conservative rebellion in the House. To keep the government running, Bush agreed to tilt the agreement further left to get more Democratic votes.
It played a role in his 1992 loss to Clinton.
But, Simpson said Wednesday, Bush never regretted his decision. It was the right thing to do, and he always remained loyal to his Wyoming friend.
“You would have wanted him on your side,” Simpson said.
Every president should want someone like Simpson on their side.