Former Sen. Alan Simpson made it clear from the start that this would be no ordinary political speech:
“I hate to see people stand,” the 82-year-old Wyoming Republican said after he was introduced. “So many escape.”
Simpson delivered the annual Culver Lecture on March 27 in the Kent Campus Center, delivering a talk that was part stand-up comedy routine, part sober budget analysis and part urgent call for action.
“Somebody’s got to start taking risks in this country,” he said. “We have no leadership anywhere that I’m able to discern…. I think it’s time for the risk takers to step forward when we talk about freedom.”
The John C. Culver Public Policy Center on the Simpson campus sponsored the event. Culver and his wife, Mary Jane Checchi, were among the 300 people in the audience, and Simpson quickly bolstered his reputation for using humor to make a point.
*On being at Simpson College: “I see ‘Simpson’ all over the joint. It’s wonderful. Gives me a sense of power.”
*On John Culver graduating from Harvard University and Law School: “I couldn’t have gotten into Harvard if I picked the locks.”
*”It was so cold in Cheyenne the other day I saw a lawyer going down the street with his hands in his own pocket.”
*”It’s always good to leave the witness protection program and come to an event like this.”
*“’Politics’ is a word that comes from the Greeks. ‘Poly,’ meaning ‘many,’ and ‘tics,’ meaning ‘blood-sucking insects.’”
*On the attempt by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Florida) to block the Affordable Care Act through a filibuster: “We have a phrase in Wyoming that if your horse drops dead, it’s better to get off.”
*On states legalizing marijuana: “I want to see these cats when they’re 60…. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve smelled it.”
*On the Vice President: “The reason I love my pal Joe Biden after 45 years of friendship is that he puts his foot in his mouth as much as I do.”
But Simpson, who served 18 years in the U.S. Senate, turned serious when discussing the state of the American economy. In 2010, President Obama appointed him and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to lead the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
“Any way you figure it, pure capita or whatever, we’re in a deep hole,” he said.
Simpson then provided a litany of reasons why:
*The United States borrows half a billion dollars every day. “We will owe $20 trillion at the end of the decade.”
*Total unfunded liabilities of the U.S. government total $62 trillion.
*Social Security has a $900 billion negative cash flow, while 10,000 people a day are turning 65.
*”Health care is on automatic pilot and headed toward Mt. Everest. There is no cost containment in any proposal out there down the road.”
*Twenty percent of Americans use 80 percent of the provisions in the tax code. Only 27 percent of taxpayers itemize their returns, “which means three-quarters of our fellow citizens don’t even know what’s in the tax code. I think that’s a crime.”
“What do you think of all that?” he asked. “That’s where we are. I’m not lying to you.”
Simpson reserved his toughest comments for special interest groups that howl whenever any changes are proposed to defense spending, Social Security, health care and the tax code.
“I find that they don’t give a damn about their grandchildren,” he said of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). “If they did, they’d allow us to change the Social Security system.”
Simpson said he and Bowles realized they had succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams because we’ve effectively (ticked) off everybody in America.”
He urged young people and other voters to hold elected leaders accountable:
“If you have to pander away your existence to the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist and the AARP and ACLU when your country needs patriots instead of panderers, you shouldn’t even be in Congress.”
But Simpson said it’s difficult to engage in a respectful debate about such matters because the tenor of political discourse has grown so nasty.
“There’s a lot of hatred in the world today,” he said. “Unfortunately, hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.” Later, he added: “We need seekers instead of seethers. We need to treat each other with a gentler hand.”
As for getting the country back on track, Simpson offered some blunt advice:
“For God’s sake, get off your ass and do something.”
The Culver Center introduced two new awards at the lecture: the Service Award and the Inspiration to Service Award.
Randy Wallace, a custodian at the Iowa State Capitol, received the Service Award, while William D. Russell, a historian who taught at Graceland University for 41 years, received the Inspiration to Service Award.