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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Michael Hiltzik

Michael Hiltzik: A farewell to James G. Watt, environmental vandal and proto-Trumpian

Last week was so chock full o' news, what with the Trump indictment and the deaths of religious right-winger Pat Robertson and the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, that I'm concerned that another significant passing has received far less attention than it deserved.

That's the death of James G. Watt at 85, which occurred on May 27 but was announced by his family last Thursday. Most leading newspapers granted Watt an obituary, proper for someone who was Ronald Reagan's Interior secretary for just under three years.

The New York Times called him "polarizing," the Washington Post "combative," this newspaper "sharp-tongued and pro-development." Did those adjectives do justice to Watt, however?

I think not. They focused on his actions while in office from 1981 to 1983. What they missed, however, is his legacy as a Republican ideologue on environmental policy.

That's important, because much of what he attempted to do under Reagan became orthodoxy under subsequent Republican presidents. His approach to congressional oversight, moreover, presaged the arrogance of successors such as Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, Trump's Interior secretaries.

Watt also should be remembered for his malign approach to California's environmental concerns, particularly those related to offshore oil drilling. In 1982, he proposed to lease the entire outer continental shelf of 1 billion acres to oil and gas drillers.

The sheer audacity of the proposal stunned environmental organizations and coastal state governors, coming as it did when the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was still very fresh in the public memory; Congress had responded to the disaster by mandating that Interior "take more account of environmental factors in granting leases," according to a 1990 legal analysis of Watt's tenure. (Reagan, remember, was governor of California at the time of the oil spill.)

Even the oil and gas industry was displeased, since expanding production on the scale Watt envisioned would drive prices down.

Watt came to office flaunting a born-again religious persona that he often exploited to justify treating political and environmental opponents with contempt, prefiguring the rise of the evangelical right wing in American politics. Asked at a House committee hearing in 1981 to give his view of his agency's statutory responsibility to act as a steward of natural resources for future generations, he replied, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns."

Nor was he shy about promoting a narrow view of American culture and history, as in 1982, when he banned musical acts from Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall in Washington, which came under Interior's jurisdiction. He ordered the National Parks Service to see that future Fourth of July celebrations "point to the glories of America in a patriotic and inspirational way that will attract the family."

As he acknowledged in his 1985 memoir, "The Courage of a Conservative," his concern was that musical acts such as the Beach Boys, who had appeared at previous Mall events, attracted drug and alcohol use — the "wrong element," he said at the time of the ban. His approach finds an echo in the fixation by right-wing Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for president, on eradicating "woke" policies and suppressing educational curricula that acknowledge America's complicated racial history.

Watt, a Wyoming native, consistently took the side of ranchers and growers who resented federal regulation of their access to public lands in the West. He proclaimed himself a partisan of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a political movement that had backed Reagan's presidential campaign.

Prior to joining the Cabinet, he had been the original president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which was founded in 1976 by the reactionary beer brewer Joseph Coors to fight the environmental movement. In that role, Watt oversaw the filing of numerous lawsuits challenging federal regulations that, as Interior secretary, he inherited the responsibility to defend.

Watt dodged the obvious conflict of interest stemming from the legal foundation's lawsuits by promising to recuse himself from decisions relating to the litigation, but not from "policy questions that might be related to the cases," as Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker reported in 1981. His promise, in other words, was conveniently narrow, and didn't prevent him from pursuing policies that his Mountain States clientele would find extremely advantageous.

Perhaps David Bernhardt, Trump's second Interior secretary, examined the Watt archives when facing similar conflicts — in his case, those arising from his pre-Cabinet work as a lawyer and lobbyist for farmers and water firms with matters before the agency.

Interior's ethics officials finessed the issue by categorizing some loosely as "matters" on which Bernhardt could weigh in, rather than "particular matters" involving former clients, from which he had pledged to recuse himself.

Through his policies, Watt revived the old debate about "conservation" versus "preservation" that originated with John Muir's battles to safeguard the Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy valleys around the turn of the last century. The issue is whether the wilderness should be exploited, albeit carefully, or preserved in pristine condition for the meditative contemplation of nature.

Muir advocated forcibly for the latter. He largely won on Yosemite, which remains a jewel among the national parks. But he lost decisively on Hetch Hetchy, which San Francisco was permitted to turn into a reservoir providing water for its residents. (Muir's family maintained that the loss hastened his death in 1914.)

Watt stated bluntly, as was his style, that he would "always err on the side of public use versus preservation." Reminded again that his department was entrusted with the stewardship of natural resources, he replied: "My concept of stewardship is to invest in it. ... Do we have to buy enough land so that you can go backpacking and never see anyone else?"

Almost from the day he took office, Watt moved to eviscerate the Interior Department's enforcement capabilities. He fired scores of veteran officials, depriving the agency of decades' worth of expertise.

"We cleaned every one of them out and then we started appointing good people," he told a pro-business journal in an interview. Among other effects, the firings "essentially destroyed" the division tasked with policing coal strip-mining operations, the 1990 analysis observed — damage that still had not been repaired a decade later, if ever.

Watt often defended his tolerant treatment of ranching and farming on federal lands as blows on behalf of "individual liberty and economic freedoms," as he described his views for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank originally co-funded by Coors.

Yet this claim was fundamentally a lie: The ranches and farms grazing and growing on federal lands were among the most generously subsidized businesses in the country, receiving federal water and federal pasturing rights at "a fraction of market value," the 1990 analysis noted.

In the end, Watt was undone by the arrogance of the true believer. His critics often observed that he might have come much closer to his stated goals had he not expressed and pursued them with such ferocity and impatience, or treated his critics with such hauteur.

By provoking a concerted backlash in court, Watt's crusade even made things rougher for his patrons. Legal challenges to his offshore drilling policy, for example, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that strengthened the ability of states and the federal government to impose environmental regulations on offshore drillers even after they had obtained their leases — precisely the opposite outcome from what the drillers wished for.

It was Watt's self-confident bluster that finally brought him down. In September 1983, in referring to a coal leasing commission in a speech to a business group, he remarked, "I have every kind of mix you can have ... I have a Black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

It was a shocking statement harking back to the casual bigotry of an earlier time — and foretelling the resurgence of a similar brand of malevolence toward minorities and the disadvantaged that reemerged during the Trump presidency. Eighteen days later, Watt was forced to resign.

His fortunes continued along a downward slope. An advisor to the Department of Housing and Urban Development after leaving the Cabinet, he was indicted in 1995 for lying about his work to Congress and the FBI, which were investigating corruption at HUD. He pleaded to a single misdemeanor and was sentenced to community service and charged a small fine.

We should not overlook James Watt's acrid bequest to Republican Party politics. He may not have pioneered the blunderbuss technique of deregulation, but he provided a model. He portrayed almost all regulation as an infringement of business interests' rights and freedoms.

The principle he followed in office was to dismantle every obligation with which Congress had invested his agency; those he could not dismantle by fiat he undermined by firing anyone with expertise and replacing them with a staff that was not up to the task — or even committed to the tasks — they were bound to perform. He behaved as though basic standards of ethics and morality didn't apply to him.

In his memoir, he posed as a victim of an all-powerful "liberal establishment," writing: "Whether one is talking about labor, education, business, the media, the arts or even government bureaucracy, liberalism reigns." Conservatives, he wrote, "are the ones calling for change."

Sound familiar?

Watt may not have achieved all he wished, but he provided a model for those who followed, in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and towering over them, Donald Trump.

Elements of his leadership, such as it was, persist among Republicans to this day. We are all poorer for James Watt's time on Earth.


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