tumultuous 2½ years as Secretary of the Interior, James Watt often asked that
he be judged by his actions rather than by his words. This hasn't happened,
partly because some of the things he said so outraged powerful critics that he
wasn't permitted to do much.
arose again last week—for what could well be the last time. In a speech Sept.
21 before members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Watt was
discussing coal leasing on public lands. His policy of accelerated leasing had
been halted by Congress the previous day. Watt was naming a new commission to
study the issue, one made up of individuals from outside the narrow
constituency of business-oriented white Protestant males that he's frequently
criticized for favoring. Unfortunately, Watt turned what should have been a
positive step for his administration at Interior into what, at week's end,
appeared to be a fatal one by choosing the following words to describe the
commission members: "I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a
to President Reagan and to each of the commission members for the insensitivity
of his remark, but the damage this time, so close to the beginning of the 1984
election campaigns, seemed irreparable.
As SI went to
press, Watt was on the verge of losing his job not, I think, because he
misspoke but because he expressed himself so clearly. The outrage came because
Watt so little camouflaged his true belief. Coming as it did after so many
other statements and actions—only minimally less outrageous—that are consistent
with Watt's self-professed ultraconservative ideology, I understood last week's
remarks to mean the following:
If we could
operate in the sensible way of our ancestors, I would consult only normal,
decent Americans, that is, fine white men such as members of the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce. However, we now have to put up with a lot of liberal nonsense.
This time I gave all those subversive secular humanists a taste of their own
medicine. I named to this board a woman, a black, two Jews and a cripple. That
should hold them. But you good people, of course, realize that I was doing it
as a kind of joke. The likes of them will have no real influence.
James Watt became
the highly controversial James Watt long before last week. As to how that
happened, Doug Baldwin, a friend, confidant and aide to Watt for 20 years
before becoming chief of public affairs at Interior, says that even before
taking office, Watt expected criticism from some members of the environmental
community. Nevertheless, the secretary made an effort to talk reasonably with
the environmentalists. They responded with extreme antagonism and roused the
secretary's combative instincts. "He could have gone around to these groups
and kissed their little boot tips," says Baldwin, "but he's not built
that way. He is combative in the sense that if somebody wants to fight with
him, he'll fight."
The bad guys in
this scenario are often identified by Watt as the paid employees of a handful
of preservationist-inclined private organizations. He has referred to them as
"commercial environmentalists" or "hired guns." Most of them
work for one or another of about a dozen organizations such as the Audubon and
Wilderness societies, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council,
the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Environmental Defense
Fund, the Friends of the Earth and the National Wildlife Federation. These are
hardly splinter groups: They have about 10 million members—or 80% of the
organized environmental movement.
Watt's hired-gun theory, the leaders of such groups, working through their
organizations' own publications and conventions, first convinced their members
that the Watt administration was one replete with environmental rapists.
Simultaneously, they co-opted the media. Watt has been more than willing to
explain why the rascals have had it in for him. For instance, he commented in a
friendly interview published in Forest Industries, a trade publication of the
forest-products business, that the environmental activists who opposed him were
"a left-wing cult which seeks to bring down the type of government I
believe in." It should be remembered that some of the people he's talking
about are members of bird-watching, hiking and hunting groups.
When I asked him
if this quotation accurately reflected his sentiments, he said it did. Our
conversation then went as follows:
WATT: Many of my
critics want a centralized system in which the Federal Government dictates the
use of the water, the use of the land—and I oppose that. I've changed all the
policies of the Carter Administration that led to centralized social planning.
And some of my critics prefer centralized social planning. That's a different
form of government.