Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson is being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It’s the highest honor, I’m very touched,” Simpson said.
President Joe Biden has chosen Simpson as his first recipient of the medal. The award is presented to individuals who are considered to have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Simpson, a Cody native and resident, served as a U.S. senator for 18 years, a timespan that included leadership positions as Senate majority and minority whip. He also was the co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010.
Simpson said he found out about the medal a few days ago.
“It’s a very powerful and moving thing for me,” he said. “It’s something that’s cherished.”
The award was started by former President John Kennedy in 1963 and has been continued by every president since. Recipients include musician Duke Ellington, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Colin Powell, Babe Ruth, Rosa Parks and Tiger Woods. Biden received the medal himself from former President Barack Obama in 2017.
“You don’t have to agree with them all but it’s a hell of a list,” Simpson said of the award recipients.
Obama issued the award to 132 people while former President Donald Trump only gave it to 24.
Simpson’s childhood friend and former U.S. Rep. Norm Mineta received the honor in 2006. Simpson recently gave a eulogy at Mineta’s funeral.
Simpson said he has known the president for 55 years and worked hand-in-hand with Biden from 1989-1996 while the two were members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. One of their fellow members, Orrin Hatch, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump in 2018. All three oversaw many important hearings together such as the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas and the associated testimony from Anita Hill.
“We went through many ups and downs on that committee,” Simpson said. “Most of us thought we were Americans first and then Republicans second.”
Simpson is not optimistic about the future of American politics.
“It’s all based on hatred,” Simpson told Cowboy State Daily. “The parties, they hate Trump, they hate Biden, they hate (U.S. Rep.) Nancy Pelosi, they hate (U.S. Sen.) Mitch McConnell.”
Simpson’s award comes at a time when he finds himself at odds with many in the Republican Party after speaking out against Trump.
He has also criticized other party leaders, such as Wyoming Party Chairman Frank Eathorne for his participation at the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“We don’t have to listen to someone like that and he certainly doesn’t represent Wyoming values,” Simpson.
It’s an interesting position for him to be in, considering his father, former U.S. Sen. Milward Simpson, was called too conservative for supporting presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.
“It’s the party trend because the party always changes,” Simpson said, explaining that his viewpoints haven’t changed, but the party has.
Simpson has also spoken out against the purity tests used by some Republicans to determine which party members truly deserve to be called “Republicans.” Those who fall short are called “RINOs,” short for “Republicans In Name Only.”
Simpson has his own version of this phrase and applies it to those making such determinations — Republicans Ignorantly Needling Others.
On Tuesday morning, Simpson appeared in a new commercial for U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney in her reelection campaign. Cheney has spoken out against Trump for his attempts to question the results of the 2020 election and his alleged role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.
Simpson has missed out on a few ceremonies in recent years due to personal illnesses and injuries, missing the funeral of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi. Despite recently suffering a small fracture on his pelvic bone, Simpson said he will tough out this injury to receive his award.
“I’m still recovering from that but I’ll be there,” he said. “I’m making it a point to show up.”
Simpson said he will be presented the award at a ceremony at the White House on July 7. He will be accompanied by seven guests, including his wife Ann Simpson, children and grandchildren.
A man who grew up in rural Northwest Wyoming, Simpson’s career should serve as an example that no matter one’s background, there is no limit to what can be accomplished in America’s highest political sphere.
“If you do what’s right, and you’ve got to have a thick skin,” Simpson said.