Patience is a light opera the original team of Gilbert and Sullivan wrote. In the case of our pair, Special Contributor Bil Gilbert and Writer-Reporter Robert Sullivan, patience is a quality they had to possess in abundance while reporting and writing Inside Interior: an Abrupt Turn, which begins on page 66. It is the first of a two-part Special Report on the U.S. Department of the Interior under Secretary James Watt, and we believe it to be the most thorough and provocative article on the Watt administration to appear in print.
Gilbert, 56, has been writing for us about the outdoors and the environment for 21 years now, and Sullivan, who is 29, has recently also been addressing himself to a number of environmental issues, for the most part in our SCORECARD section. It was in the summer of 1981 that Gilbert suggested doing an article on Watt and Interior, and "from that time on, Bob and I went at it. We talked to scores of people, and I can't tell you how much reading we did—at least 150 pounds of documents. There were 50 hours of taped interviews. An Interior public affairs officer would have his machine and we'd have ours: Given the regulations put in force under Watt, interviews of department personnel turned out to be a much more formal business than they had been in the past. But I found it stimulating," Gilbert observes, "that in many cases, with the Interior appointees, there was kind of a dueling situation—a lot of back and forth, a lot of give and take."
For their other interviews, conducted with individuals around the U.S., Gilbert went west and Sullivan to Florida and New England. "The heavyweights we did together," says Sullivan, who regularly attended Washington meetings during the day and flew back to New York to work on other stories here at night. "We kept extra shirts in our briefcases," he says, "and didn't even check into hotels. Fortunately, Gilbert and I aren't candidates for anyone's best-dressed list anyway."
Last March Gilbert and Sullivan met at Gilbert's ranch in the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona to begin clarifying the direction the piece should take. Actually, Gilbert had been doing some writing all along, because certain aspects of the Interior story, not coincidentally, dovetailed with the work he had been doing for years on his most recent book, Westering Man, about mountain man, explorer and naturalist Joe Walker.
Gilbert has long been preoccupied with the meaning to Americans of our natural heritage and the ways in which it has shaped us as a people. "That, to me, is the kernel of the thing," he says. "There has been a lot of stuff written about Watt as a wild man, but I feel he represents a strain of American thought. He didn't just spring up like a mushroom, and making this clear was more important than telling more bad stories about Secretary Watt. He's a very competent, determined man, and, in his way, principled, as I have tried to make clear."
Indeed he has.