ALAN SIMPSON is a lively kind of guy, the sort who talks about "vim and vigor" and calls people "boobs," who said of opponents of David Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court "you couldn't change them if you herded them over the cliff in a buffalo romp."
Reporters have always valued people like the senator from Wyoming because they make our work easy: They open their mouths and the quotes fall out. But Simpson doesn't return the favor. "I believe your problems lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government," he once told another politico. "As long as you're 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 themselves."
In retrospect, it seems unfortunate that the politico to whom the senator made those sympathetic comments was Saddam Hussein.
But we can tell now that Simpson didn't mean everything he said.
At least he didn't mean the part about inviting them to see for themselves, because he has turned his whipsaw tongue on Peter Arnett, the distinguished war correspondent reporting from Baghdad for CNN. Simpson called Arnett a "sympathizer" who was suspect for staying in Iraq when all he can see is what the Iraqi government shows him.
The first problem with the senator's remarks, other than that there isn't a shred of evidence to support them, is that they assume the American people are stupid. Peter Arnett's CNN reports carry more disclaimers than a cigarette box. Only a person watching the television with the sound off would not know that the information has been carefully news-managed by the Iraqis.
Nevertheless I think it's better to be there and get part of the story than to leave a major area of the war uncovered. Otherwise I'd see no point in having reporters in Saudi Arabia, where it is the Pentagon officials doing the news-managing.
Poll figures tell us a good many Americans are comfortable with press curbs. Some think we should let the military get on with its business without notebooks and Leicas littering its path. Some prefer to get their information straight from the military briefings, untouched by editorial judgment and competing opinion. Maybe others have been happy to be spared the kind of sight television brought us from Baghdad on Wednesday, the charred bodies of civilians killed by American bombs.
But I keep coming at this from a slightly different perspective. Five years ago I can remember being constantly confronted by readers whose question was this: Why are you picking on the president just because he takes the occasional nap?
Today one of the question I hear most often is this one: How come you guys let Reagan off the hook on Iran-contra?
I suppose I could reply that we believed the public didn't care to see him on the hook, but that's a ridiculous answer. What reporters do has nothing to do with popularity, and maybe not even always with immediacy, which I suppose is a peculiar thing to say about a business that lives and dies by the word "today."
Sometimes reporting is most important when it takes us, methodically, cumulatively, from here to there. Watergate as low-level political dirty trick; Watergate as Oval Office conspiracy. My Lai as military action; My Lai as civilian slaughter. The early Vietnam reporting took on its greatest resonance afterward, when it could be seen as the beginning of a progression leading to the widespread conclusion that the war was fatally flawed. Maybe we won't even notice what we're missing from today's war coverage until it's too late.
It's a quilt, what we're making here, and when it's done we can all see some of the patterns. That's why Simpson is doing what he's doing; because he knows what he thinks the pattern should be, and he's not interested in anything but stars and stripes. That's why the reporters in the Persian Gulf are fighting press restrictions, because they think they're missing important pieces. I assume that's why Mr. Arnett remains in Iraq, because a few pieces are better than none at all.
Mainly we're all doing what we're doing because it's our job. And because the best answer five years hence to the question "Why didn't you guys tell us what was really going on in the gulf?" is going to be "We did."