WASHINGTON — AMONG THOSE who know him, Sen. Alan Simpson's harsh attack on CNN reporter Peter Arnett came as no surprise. The Wyoming Republican has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most embittered press-bashers in national politics.
But the attack was stunning, nonetheless, because it was such blatant McCarthyism. Arnett, Simpson said, "was active in the Vietnam War and he won a Pulitzer Prize largely because of his anti-government material. And he was married to a Vietnamese whose brother was active in the Viet Cong. I called that 'sympathizers' in my early days in the Second World War."
A few facts: Peter Arnett did indeed win a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his reporting for the Associated Press on the war in Vietnam that, like most of the good reporting then, told an accurate story of things going badly for the United States forces. He did marry a Vietnamese woman from whom he has been separated for several years. There is no evidence -- and Simpson offered none -- that either of her two brothers, one a doctor and the other a math professor, was "active in the Viet Cong."
And as for Simpson's "early days" in World War II, it should be noted that he was 14 years old when that war ended.
There is little doubt that Simpson's diatribe will touch a nerve with many Americans who are angry about the press these days because they consider reporting from Iraq somehow to be an act of disloyalty. The same attitude is evident in the angry reaction to coverage given to those who are demonstrating against the war. A lot of people apparently would rather not hear about anyone who disagrees with them.
But criticism of the press is a constant in American life, and reporters and editors have come to expect it. What is less easy to accept is a prominent public official, the Senate Republican whip, accusing a reporter of disloyalty because he is doing his job.
CNN and Arnett have never made any secret of the fact they were able to report only what the Iraqi government was willing for them to report. They accepted that reality when they decided to seize the opportunity to leave a correspondent in the enemy capital. They were careful to make that point when Arnett reported the Iraqis' contention that a bombing target the U.S. had identified as being a facility for producing biological weapons was instead a plant for producing infant formula -- a dispute still not entirely settled.
The fact is that Arnett's material -- and that provided by a few other Western correspondents admitted to Iraq -- often has provided U.S. decision-makers with valuable information. Certainly Arnett's interview with Saddam Hussein offered a more useful insight into the Iraqi leader's thinking at the moment than anything else might have provided.
Simpson's nasty little attack is only the latest in a long history of such statements. When the Wyoming Republican arrived here as a freshman senator in 1979, he made an instant splash with an extremely funny speech at a press club dinner. He was immediately enshrined as one of the genuine wits of American politics.
But over the years the press has come to know him as an implacable and bitter critic. And Simpson has continued to provide fresh evidence. Just the other day, for example, a Jack Anderson column repeated what Simpson had said to Saddam Hussein when a Senate delegation visited Iraq just last April.
"I believe your problems lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government," Simpson told our pal Saddam. "As long as you are isolated from the media, the press -- and it is a haughty and pampered press -- they all consider themselves political geniuses. That is, the journalists do. They are very cynical. What I advise is that you invite them to come here and see for yourselves."
Simpson's remarks sound ludicrous today, and he is unquestionably embarrassed to have them come to light after the fact. But no one is accusing Alan Simpson of being a "sympathizer" or suggesting he was disloyal to his country. Simpson would be well advised to show similar restraint when he doesn't like what the press is telling him.
Although he missed World War II, the senator was 21 by the time Sen. Joseph McCarthy made his name synonymous with guilt by association. That's what he should remember from his "early days."