How James Watt Survives

Reagan's secretary of the interior bedevils envirnmentalists, but he's the Moral Majority's patron saint

Interior Secretary James Watt, September 18th, 1981 Credit: Glen Martin/Denver Post/Getty

WASHINGTON D.C.

The good news about James Watt, I suppose, is that his spring offensive has failed. The bad news, of course, is that this twisted man remains in power as secretary of the interior, continuing his damage to the public good.

Two months ago, Watt launched a public-relations blitz to brighten his image. Mr. Motormouth appeared on all the TV news talk shows with his mendacious charts and gave soulful interviews to usually hostile organs like the Washington Post. Like his leader in the White House, he told lots of lies about himself and his programs.

Watt's political problem was obvious, even to his friends: the public-opinion polls, including those taken by the White House, show that he is both the best-known member of Ronald Reagan's cabinet and the most despised. Americans simply do not share his rip-and-ruin view of our natural resources, land, water, parks and wilderness.

Fortunately, Watt is the Earl Butz of the Reagan administration. He cannot speak without reminding us of his bizarre vision of American society. He likens environmentalists to Nazis. He describes Indian tribal rights as socialism. He confuses the Vegas sleaze of Wayne Newton with middle-class values. He compares his own "persecution" by the media with what Hitler did to the Jews. Watt's denunciation of the Beach Boys as the "wrong element" for Fourth of July concerts on the Mall was so loony that even the Reagan White House was compelled to dissent. The president's staff staged a clever mea culpa for the interior secretary, in which he appeared on the White House lawn and ate his own words. By May, Watt's standing in the polls had sunk lower than ever.

Yet he survives. How does he do it? Crass political logic, plus a decent regard for public opinion, would dictate the hook for Watt, especially if Reagan really intends to run for reelection next year. Watt is now an embarrassment, a perfect symbol of Reagan's own wrongheaded values: his desire to reward special interests like big oil at the public's expense, to gut any form of law enforcement that displeases the business managers. The White House staff, one assumes, would like to engineer his removal, just as they shuffled Anne Gorsuch Burford offstage from the scandal-ridden Environmental Protection Agency. Some do want Watt's resignation, but they dare not push for it.

As a practical matter, the only person who can fire James Watt is James Watt. The interior secretary has fashioned a clever form of job security for himself: the more audacious he is, the more he appeals to right-wingers whom the administration can ill afford to offend. The man may be twisted, but he's not dumb –– though if he is truly smart about politics, he will do the Gipper a favor and quit long before the election season begins.

The explanation behind this begins with Reagan himself. He loves what Watt is trying to do. They share the same retrograde instincts about the environment and the West, and no amount of carping from critics or public scandal will change that. Former senator Gaylord Nelson, who is now chairman of the Wilderness Society, puts it this way: "Watt only has two constituents – Reagan and the Lord. If you've got both of them on your side, you don't have to worry about anyone else."

Beyond that fundamental point, however, Watt's political status gets trickier than his environmental critics like to acknowledge. For starters, intense as anti-Watt sentiment is, it is not nearly as strong as many imagine. Polls consistently show that among those citizens who have an opinion about the man, he draws negative ratings of two to one, or worse. That's extraordinary hostility for a second-rung cabinet officer. But the same polls show that at least half of the population has no feeling about Watt one way or the other. Either they don't know who he is, or they don't care.

"It doesn't exactly put us in a death sweat," explains Rich Bond, director of political operations for the Republican National Committee. One explanation for this is that Watt, as controversial as he makes himself, is not directly associated with the life-and-death environmental issues that arouse the most public alarm –– toxic wastes, cancer-causing chemicals, air and water pollution. Behind the scenes, Watt has had a big hand in those issues, but his most visible turf is government land. His depredations do not seem as threatening.

Still, the political damage is real. White House analysts understand –– even if the president doesn't –– that those"environmental extremists" Reagan regularly denounces include a lot of suburban Republicans and independents who voted for Reagan and who loathe James Watt. Watt by himself might not push them into voting Democratic, but he gives them a strong nudge.

Furthermore, contrary to popular conceptions, Watt is most unpopular in the region he claims to represent –– the West, the essential base for any Reagan electoral strategy. A Washington Post/ ABC poll found, for instance, that Watt's nationwide disapproval rating is thirty-two percent (of the rest, ten percent approve, and fifty-eight percent have no opinion). In the West, including the Rocky Mountain states, the disapproval rating is much higher –– forty-one percent. "There's a real drag on the president, no question," says one White House strategist who hopes Watt will get the message.

But the White House can't move on Watt directly, much as some staffers would like to, without setting off an uproar on the right. In his continual speechmaking and political fundraising, Watt has made himself the darling of the hard-shell Christian conservatives and other elements of the New Right. His Holocaust allusion may have offended Jews, but his born-again rhetoric identifies him solidly with the Moral Majority fundamentalists who feel persecuted themselves. In the last two years, Watt has raised more money for the GOP than anyone else except Reagan and Vice President George Bush –– $3 million from more than 200 appearances.

If Watt were pushed over the side now, the right-wingers, who are already antsy, would revolt against the White House "pragmatists." And, if the right wing were to revolt, then Ronald Reagan would have little choice when it comes down to the really big question: does he really want to run again?

"If anybody is doing any leaning," says Bond of the RNC, "it's friends of the president urging him to stick with Watt because [not doing so] would cause another uprising on the right, which the president can't afford in his time of delicate decision making."

It's a complicated poker game, and Watt holds the best hole card.

ENVIRONMENTAL LEADERS DO NOT WISH to shout it from the rooftops, but most of them will acknowledge what is obvious to political Washington: they've won and Watt's lost. On nearly every grandiose scheme Watt has launched, every initiative to undo the landmark reforms of the last fifteen years, he has been stymied or reversed by outraged public reaction, by congressional veto or by court-ordered prohibitions.

"I would say we've sort of passed through the flames and come out even stronger," says Brock Evans, vice-president of the Audubon Society (which, incidentally, has added 100,000 new members since 1980, thanks to Watt)." We've won every public test of the administration's environmental policy, whether in Congress or the courts. They've done damage by cutting budgets and rewriting regulations, but by and large, they've lost."

Jonathan Lash, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, offers a more precise metaphor: "All in all, Watt has been more termite than tiger."

But termites do structural damage, usually not visible until years afterward, and that is exactly what Watt continues to do at the Department of the Interior. He has been checked on the major battlefronts, but now he's down in the bureaucratic trenches, gnawing away bit by bit, and it is much more difficult to fight him on that level. This is why environmentalists are not prepared to declare victory just yet.

First, let us savor his defeats. Watt's earlier forays included a declaration that he would open wilderness areas in the West to drillers and miners. Congress put a stop to it: the House voted 350 to 58 to withdraw wilderness lands from mineral development. Fifty-two senators cosponsored similar legislation. Watt also proposed a major dilution of the Endangered Species Act and asked Congress to hold off its review of the law. Congress ignored him and renewed the law without significant weakening amendments.

In 1982, Watt tried to gut the new federal strip-mining controls, enacted in 1977, by rewriting the regulations. A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit, but Watt's case was so weak that the Justice Department wouldn't defend him. Interior had to back off and keep the existing rules in place. Even so, Watt is doing a good job of not enforcing the strip-mine laws: he has failed to collect more than $40 million in fines from mining companies and to make them stop illegal practices. In a suit filed on this matter by a coalition of Southern environmentalists, a federal judge concluded that Watt was "flouting" the law by failing to enforce government regulations.

Most insidious, perhaps, was Watt's original proposal to offer all of America's offshore oil –– a billion acres of ocean oil fields –– for leasing within five years, providing a wonderful windfall to oil companies by flooding the glutted market and depressing prices. A series of lawsuits stopped the most egregious cases. Yet Watt is proceeding with offshore leasing, though at a slower pace;he's doing likewise with coal leases on federal lands in the West and the auctioning of public lands by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Lawsuits and political flack have slowed him down dramatically, but they haven't stopped him in his tracks.

There is a large public scandal brewing here, however. It involves the transfer of public assets to private interests "at fire-sale prices," as the environmentalists put it. The full story of who's been getting rich from James Watt's crusade will take months and probably years of careful investigation, so the general public may not wake up until long after Watt and Reagan have departed. "It's Teapot Dome in a more sophisticated guise," says Brock Evans.

The outlines of scandal are clear already. In April, the government offered 23 million acres of Atlantic-coast oil tracts for bids. The oil companies bid on only ten percent of the leases offered, and the government wound up taking in a paltry total of $87 million for oil leases that in 1982 were estimated to be worth $979 million. The bidders still made a killing. The beneficiaries of this windfall are familiar names: ARCO, Gulf, Texaco, Shell, Marathon, Sohio and other Reagan favorites too numerous to list.

On the coal front, Watt –– between Congress and the federal courts –– isn't going to get away with leasing all of the federally owned acreage, as he'd originally proposed, but he's doing the best he can. Last year, he auctioned off more than a billion tons of coal in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana, and the bids fell $60 million short of what the government thought it would collect. Amax, a major coal conglomerate, acquired a tract for $7.4 million that an Interior team had assessed at $12 million. Shell Oil successfully bid $26 million for coal whose appraised value is $52 million.

Overall, Watt has been selling our coal for three and a half cents per ton, while privately owned coal has been fetching at least eighteen cents per ton. The resource sell-off, however, is the simplest element of the Watt scandal to analyze. In the long term, the more complicated and diffuse damage he is doing bureaucratically will be more grave, but environmental groups haven't yet found the easily understood outrages that would arouse public opinion and mobilize Congress. For example, land sales by the BLM (headed by Robert Burford, a Colorado rancher and husband of Anne Gorsuch) are so difficult to research that the lawsuit against them is stalled, awaiting hard evidence of anticipated environmental damage.

Incidentally, the Forest Service branch of the Department of Agriculture –– which originally proposed to sell more than 6 million acres of its holdings –– has targeted a 7400-acre tract in the Grand Mesa National Forest of Colorado, which is the watershed that protects the water supply of the city of Fruita, Colorado. The city actually donated this land to the Forest Service back when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Now the government wants to sell it to the highest bidder.

Originally, Watt proposed to sell 4.4 million acres of public land, but thanks to legal questions and public alarm, the figure has now been scaled back to 2.5 million acres. Even that includes at least 1 million acres whose sale would be clearly illegal because the Interior Department has not undertaken the land-use studies required by the 1976 reform law –– studies that would weigh the impact of sale and development upon wilderness, aesthetic values and other considerations. If Watt tries to go forward with those sales, the environmentalists are confident they can stop him.

Meanwhile, the BLM announces new tracts for sale in the Federal Register almost every week, and it's getting difficult to keep up with what's being lost. Interior proposes to sell 30,000 acres this fiscal year and 250,000 acres in 1984. This process, though, may come under unexpected pressure. In some Western states, the environmentalists have been joined by unlikely allies –– ranchers who are finally realizing that if their public grazing land is put up for "fire sale" auction, they might be outbid by oil companies and real-estate interests.

In sum, the struggle against Watt is a messy stalemate. He can still do damage, but he can't get Congress to pass the legislation that would permit the full devastation he has in mind. Environmentalists can stop him on the major outrages, but on a smaller scale, the termite keeps on munching.

IMPROBABLE AS IT SOUNDS, THIS struggle will most likely end when James Watt does indeed decide to fire himself. Of course, if Reagan decides not to run again, then there would be no political problem, and Watt would remain in office until the end of the term. But if Reagan is a candidate, then he needs to dump this damaging baggage.

Watt's friends and critics expect Watt himself to do it gracefully, without being shoved. One White House strategist hopes for that, at least. "Watt himself will probably step aside," he predicts. "Not from the heat he's taking. He likes the confrontations. But because he's that kind of guy, very loyal. If his own assessment is that he's probably hurting the president, he's such a loyalist that he'll take himself out, probably sometime in the next year."

Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail king of the New Right, doesn't disagree. "Jim is a team player, and he might feel he could help his leader more by leaving," Viguerie says. "If he decided that, fine." But there will be a serious uproar on the right, Viguerie warns, if Watt were pushed.

Environmental leaders have mistakenly predicted Watt's imminent demise for so long that they no longer like to make predictions. Their political instincts tell them that Watt makes a good target right where he is, a convenient reminder for voters of what's wrong with Reaganism. But the environmentalists are not so cynical that they secretly wish for Watt's survival. Just as he is now a symbol of mindless plunder, Watt's preelection resignation would be a powerful symbol too. His departure would declare, loud and clear, that Ronald Reagan was wrong about the environment, and that the political opposition from those he calls "extremists" has been far more in touch with the nation's feelings than their government has been.