Senator Simpson's 'apology' to Peter Arnett On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 21, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — DID YOU SEE where Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming apologized -- sort of -- for slandering Cable News Network correspondent Peter Arnett for his reporting from Baghdad and suggesting he was an enemy "sympathizer"?

After being roundly criticized himself for the original charge in which he also repeated an unsubstantiated rumor that Arnett's Vietnamese wife had a brother active in the Viet Cong, Simpson acknowledged he couldn't prove it and said, "I greatly regret any hurt, pain or anguish that I have caused his family."

Furthermore, in his righteousness, he now says in a letter to the New York Times that, "I admonish all who have engaged in this item of gossip over Mr. Arnett's past to put up or shut up. I regret being part of it. Just as Operation Desert Storm has healed many wounds left from Vietnam -- it is also time to allow that wound to heal."

But then what does Simpson do? He goes on to rehash his old allegations, labeling Arnett's reporting from Baghdad "repugnant" and charging that his "tone and manner . . . was helpful to the government of Iraq and harmful to the United States." After defending himself again against embarrassing reports that in April he had warned Saddam Hussein of the West's "haughty and pampered press," Simpson concluded regarding Arnett:

"My choice of the word 'sympathizer' was not a good one. I wish I could have snatched it back and rephrased my remarks. The word 'dupe' or 'tool' of the Iraqi government would have been more in context with my original comments. However, I do know when I am wrong and stubborn -- and for that I apologize."

This is an apology? No doubt Arnett will be more sanguine knowing he has been called a dupe or a tool rather than a sympathizer. Simpson has long been known for having an acid tongue, for spitting out invectives and thinking later. But this was not a case of a couple of errant words escaping his flapping tongue. Here he put his slanderous words in print, specifically noting they were more what he had meant to say.

In all this, Simpson never explains what Arnett's motive might have been for helping the Iraqi government. Of all the war correspondents Simpson could have taken on, he picked the wrong one. Arnett is famed and admired among print and television journalists alike as the premier war correspondent, having now covered 17 wars and having won the Pulitzer Prize for his Associated Press coverage of the Vietnam war.

The dirty little secret about Alan Simpson is that he has a chip on his shoulder about the press that is as big as a Wyoming boulder. This whole brouhaha started last August when columnists Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta wrote about the April meeting Simpson and four other senators had with Saddam Hussein, quoting from a transcript made from a tape made by Saddam's staff.

In it, Saddam warned his visitors that he would use chemical weapons against Israel if Israel attacked Iraq with nuclear weapons. Simpson replied, according to the transcript that the columnists said was vouched for by the other senators present: "I believe your problems lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government." He advised Saddam to invite Western reporters to Iraq to "see for themselves" how he was.

Early last month the column came up in a Simpson-Anderson debate before the Wyoming Press Association in Cheyenne. Then, in a lunch meeting with reporters in Washington, Simpson let loose his blast at Arnett, and later told a Washington Post reporter that it was "good for the American people" to know why Arnett had been able to stay in Saigon after U.S. troops left and "have free range of the country in a communist regime."

Simpson complained about "an entire convoy of media people crossing the desert to get to Baghdad, with their satellite dishes and all their antennas, and we've got to protect them. And who the hell who has any imagination knows what they're going to feed us . . . Maybe I'm from the old school, that we can't spend our time trying to protect people who are there at the invitation of an enemy government."

Arnett, however, never asked for government protection. He has been a war correspondent long enough to know you put your neck on the line in that kind of work. But dodging bullets isn't his only problem when Alan Simpson's unguided verbal missiles are flying -- even in "apology."

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