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  however, that you don't have to check for NIL until after you
  think you've found the matching CAAR (assuming you have a typical
  implementation where CAR of NIL works with the same open-coded
  instructions as CAR of a cons), so the slowdown is not proportional
  to the length of the list.

That's a clever optimization, but I thought it would be improper to
FUNCALL the predicate on an apparent NIL that really isn't in the
association list.  But it would work if we special cased the code
if we knew the predicate was innocous, like EQL or EQ.