Into The Wild

Alan Simpson and Grover Norquist hunt for common ground at the National Zoo

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Chris Buck for TIME

Alan Simpson and Grover Norquist, sans talking points, at the zoo.

The orangutans of Sumatra swinging overhead prompted former Senator Alan Simpson to recount one of his favorite bawdy limericks.

"Oh, my God, look at that," said the 81-year-old Republican co-chair of President Obama's fiscal commission, spotting the orange-haired creatures moving over two cables suspended 50 ft. above the National Zoo. "Of course, it reminds me of every foul Tarzan joke I ever learned, and they're all bad. They can't be repeated."

Simpson's longtime foe, the conservative activist Grover Norquist, stood nearby, 25 years younger but just as interested in foul humor. "I don't even know a single naughty Tarzan joke," Norquist said to Simpson. "Is there a book somewhere?"

"On Tarzan?" asked Simpson, clearly struggling with the question. Simpson was a specialist in the sort of jokes passed among cowboys on the high plains of Wyoming, not those found in a public library. "How about limericks?" he proposed instead, and then he was off, with a pair of rhyming couplets about a maiden of Chichester who made the bishop of Chichester's britches stir. "You can't use it at the Rotary Club," Simpson confessed, as another ape appeared along the wires. "He's a little hairy, for God's sake," he continued. "He needs to shave," Norquist agreed.

And on they went. The two men had gone to the zoo at the invitation of Time to talk politics and policy, not primates, but the primates played a key role nonetheless. The idea was to bring antagonists together in an unexpected setting, where they could work out their differences on the future of the country. The monkeys, the lions and even the Chinese alligator were just provocations to move them away from their talking points.

A Very Odd Couple

For years, the senator and the activist have been yelling at each other from afar--at each other's throats by satellite remote, appearing regularly on different cable news shows in what passes for acceptable debate. Simpson likes to call Norquist a "zealot" who "wanders the earth in his white robes." Norquist fires back jabs about Simpson's age and dark hints about his appetites. "People wonder whether he's been drinking," Norquist once muttered to the Wall Street Journal. He accuses Simpson of "doing what politicians do when they don't have the determination or competence to govern."

Both men command significant megaphones in American politics, and the substance of their disagreement has huge implications for the future of the country. Norquist is the author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which binds its elected signatories to reject all increases in tax rates and any elimination of special-interest breaks that are not matched by other tax cuts. At the moment, 219 House members and 39 Senators have signed the pledge, effectively ensuring that almost all Republicans in Congress never vote to raise taxes. This presents a national challenge, the stuff of fiscal cliffs and debt-limit standoffs, given that Obama has made raising taxes a prerequisite of any long-term debt deal.

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