Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson is one of the Senate's lightweights dressed up as a heavyweight, a charmer with a store of homespun common sense and indexed humor that's often misread as wisdom and careful intellect.

A Simpson specialty, as he used it recently, is the aw-shucks thrust of a slanderous branding iron against the name and reputation of some unsuspecting victim.Simpson's usual targets are congressional Democrats who survived the Reagan presidential years with nerve enough to still stand on their party's principles.

Another Simpson target has been the nation's media, print and broadcast, whose collective guilt appears to be failure to consistently report and discuss events as Simpson views them and knows them to be true.

In his latest casual maiming, Simpson branded CNN correspondent Peter Arnett as a "sympathizer," both for his current series of broadcast reports from Iraq and for his work 25 years ago as an Associated Press correspondent in Vietnam.

His meaning concerning Arnett, Simpson made clear, was that Arnett's coverage from Iraq - despite broadcast warnings of Iraqi censorship by Arnett and the CNN network - exposed Arnett as a "sympathizer" with Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq.

His other meaning, vile even by the ancient Sen. Joe McCarthy standards of guilt by association, was that Arnett - as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter during the Vietnam war - was "what we used to call a sympathizer" and honored in his work "largely because of his anti-government material."

The Simpson poison even included the accusation that Arnett's Vietnamese brother-in-law was "active in the Viet Cong" during the Vietnam War, a charge labeled false by persons who knew the family.

The point of Simpson's ugly libel against Arnett would appear to be that by smearing his work and family, all of Arnett's censored reports from Iraq are proved false, that there can't be truth to Arnett's reports of civilian casualties and damage from American bombardment.

The harm to Iraqi civilians, sanitized now as "collateral damage," is readily acknowledged by American military officials. It is only for Simpson, the nice guy with the hot branding iron, to pretend that Iraqi women and children are not being hurt in America's war and that, if they are, Americans shouldn't know about it.

It is also for Simpson to suggest - serving cowpie as candor - the media are disloyal for reporting what he disapproves of.

It's not the first time Simpson has displayed his wealth of ignorance concerning the American media. He lectured on the subject less than a year ago in circumstances that now might seem bizarre.

Simpson was serving as a volunteer advisor to no less a person than Saddam back in that awkward period when the Iraqi president was still fawned over and favored by the Bush administration as a bulwark against other evil in the Mideast.

As a member of a Senate delegation visiting Saddam in Baghdad last April, Simpson told the dictator:

"I believe your problems lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government . . . . It is a haughty and pampered press. They all consider themselves political geniuses . . .

"What I advise is that you invite them to come here and see for themselves."

It would, of course, be unkind, unthinkable, to suggest Simpson - as he counseled the Iraqi president last April - was a "sympathizer" with the man now certified by President Bush and others as the reborn Adolf Hitler.

Better to say that Simpson was dumb to reality then and he's just as dumb now.