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Baldwin once warned me that Watt "uses phrases that are very carefully crafted, philosophically, legally and nuancily, if that's a word." I think the above is certainly a case where Watt's nuances must be closely examined. When he says "form of government," he's speaking about the political philosophy—right, center or left—of a given administration. Being of the right, he feels that it's virtuous and necessary to undermine a different form of government and assumes that those of other persuasions are trying to undermine his.
The issue that Watt raised—the importance of private as compared to public works—has rarely been a particularly hot one in the U.S. mainstream. Americans haven't been a particularly ideological people; political, economic, social and cultural pragmatism has been more their national style. Americans have thought very well of private enterprise not because it represents ultimate truth but because it has worked in many cases, done what society wanted done. On the other hand, there's an equally strong tradition of using collective action to achieve other ends—strong defense, good roads, universal education, social justice, higher farm prices and other things that are desirable but not directly profitable. Most conservation efforts have been in this category and therefore could be called, if the term is used precisely and nonpejoratively, socialistic. But in the lexicon of the far right this is spelled Socialism. Socialism is a foreign ideology of the left. Socialists are often members of a "left-wing cult." Ergo, socialistic environmentalists can be, in some people's minds, anti-Americans trying to undermine the form of government in which they believe.
Another characteristic of ideologues, whether of the right or the left, is a belief in witches, though they're usually called by other names: Nazis, hired guns, bloodsucking capitalists, secular humanists, communists.
There would seem to be two explanations for the exceptional unpopularity of the Watt administration. One is that people believe Interior's current programs are wrongheaded. The second is that people are too wrongheaded to understand the merits of the programs. Neither makes an attractive public response for the administration. A much better one is to say that a small group of left-wing cultists caused all the trouble by messing with the minds of the good people.
THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION
The National Wildlife Federation is the country's largest private conservation group, with 4.1 million members and affiliated chapters in every state. Its members, including huge numbers of hunters and fishermen, have various outdoor interests. Through the years the NWF has had a middle-of-the-road reputation as far as conservation politics go, and it has been criticized by more activist groups for being passive about controversial socioenvironmental issues. However, for two years now Interior officials have almost always included the federation when naming extreme environmental organizations that are wrongfully harassing the department.
That the organization that publishes Ranger Rick—one of a number of superb NWF magazines—should have been regarded by Interior as a hotbed of left-wing cultists may seem bizarre to outsiders but is understandable given some of the hopes the Watt team had when it took office. There are many indications that the administration felt that the NWF would be sympathetic to the new policies. With support—or at least without dissent—from the federation, Interior could have claimed that its opposition was centered in a liberal, minority wing of the environmental movement. For example, if most of the criticism of Watt's policies had come from the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth, this could have been dismissed as politics as usual.
Instead the NWF became perhaps the Watt administration's most persistent and effective critic. About six months after Watt took office, the federation released the results of a survey of its members. Nearly 80% of the 4,000 respondents said that Watt was too extreme in his policies and programs. To make things even worse for Watt, the respondents indicated that in the 1980 election they had voted for Reagan over Carter by a margin of almost 2-1. Based on this survey and a point-by-point analysis of the Watt program by the NWF technical staff, the federation formally asked the President to fire his Secretary of the Interior.
Watt dismissed the poll as unscientific and said it only amused him. However, NWF leaders immediately became personae non gratae around Interior. Dr. Jay D. Hair, a 37-year-old former associate professor of zoology and forestry from North Carolina State who is now the salaried chief executive officer of the NWF, says that the last official contact between his organization and Watt or his top aides was at a summit meeting of environmental leaders in the summer of 1981. At that meeting Watt and his staff were exceptionally cordial to Hair. "I had the impression that they were trying to separate me from the others on the grounds that I represented sportsmen, who in their minds were or should be in conflict with preservationists," Hair says. "I think this was a big mistake in judgment on the part of the administration. For the past 20 years our organization and most sportsmen have been concerned with general environmental issues—habitat protection, clean water and air, land use, endangered species, toxic waste and the rest. We have no basic conflict with others who happen to be non-hunters, which is much different from being antihunting. Whether you are a bird hunter or a bird photographer, you have basically the same environmental interests."