Babbitt Refuses to Be Sidelined by Probe
By Stephen Barr
He stops by Big Bend in remote West Texas, and frets about development around Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. He keeps close tabs on a proposed federal-state land swap in Utah. At every stop, there are hearty words about preserving America's landscapes and wilderness areas. Babbitt's burst of energy, though, comes at an unusual juncture in his Cabinet career.
He has spent more than six years in a job he did not seek, serves in a lame-duck administration and has endured the probing of an independent counsel investigation for 15 months. Other independent counsel investigations forced out colleagues Mike Espy at the Agriculture Department and Henry Cisneros at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But while he was badly shaken at the start by the probe into his actions concerning an Indian casino, Babbitt has bounced back by throwing himself into his work, according to friends.
More than ever, he tries to defuse skeptics with his engaging personality. He cuts pragmatic budget deals with congressional appropriators even as he maneuvers to hold off his GOP opponents. He tries to avoid abstract arguments by pulling out his maps during land and water negotiations with state and local officials.
Not only has he avoided being shunted to the political sidelines, he has aggressively launched trial balloons during his forays in the West this year. The hints of a new initiative have raised expectations among environmental groups that Babbitt will get President Clinton to protect hundreds of thousands of acres from logging, mining and other development--perhaps through a presidential decree creating new national monuments.
Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Babbitt "knows western landscapes and loves them and wants to leave a legacy of land protection. . . . I've watched him in the past six months, and he has really sort of come out swinging."
Jim Maddy, a longtime Babbitt friend and president of the nonprofit National Park Foundation, said: "You've got a secretary here who is an honest-to-God conservationist in every sense of the word, and I wouldn't expect him to pass up any politically do-able opportunities."
University of Colorado professor David Getches describes Babbitt as an "activist" who "will be indisputably in the top three secretaries of this country," joining Harold L. Ickes (Roosevelt and Truman) and Stewart L. Udall (Kennedy and Johnson) in the history books.
Babbitt, however, faces the prospect that his reputation could be tarnished by independent counsel Carol Elder Bruce, who is trying to determine whether Babbitt lied to Congress about his department's 1995 rejection of a proposed Indian casino in Hudson, Wis. He appeared before Bruce's grand jury in late June and returned July 7 for follow-up questioning.
The court order authorizing Bruce's investigation also allows her to examine alleged campaign finance abuses in the 1996 Democratic presidential race. Tribes opposed to the casino as a threat to their own gambling profits gave more than $350,000 to Democrats for the 1996 campaign, most of it after the casino application was denied.
When Bruce's probe began, Babbitt said the casino project was rejected on the recommendation of career officials at Interior unaffected by intense lobbying on both sides.
In late 1997 and early 1998, as the controversy grew and Babbitt awkwardly answered questions from congressional committees, friends described him as hurt by the attack on his integrity after 19 years in state and federal offices.
Fred DuVal, a White House official who has known Babbitt for 27 years, said the probe had "a numbing effect initially." Mike McCurry, press secretary to Babbitt during his 1988 presidential campaign and former press secretary to President Clinton, said the prospect of a lengthy investigation "got him down pretty bad."
But they and others said Babbitt has rebounded. Maddy of the National Park Foundation said Babbitt realized that " 'I can be secretary and accomplish something that is important to me while I am secretary, or I can let this investigation occupy me.' I think he sorted that out and came to grips with it fairly quickly."
In an interview before the grand jury appearance, Babbitt said he is now "philosophical" about the probe. "I'm confident of the outcome," he said. "The only thing that bothered me much--when it all came down--there was this piling-on effect, and I was concerned it would undermine my ability to do my job. And that didn't happen."
He has stayed at Interior, he said, because "I like the job. I really, genuinely like what I'm doing."
And what he is doing is maintaining a fast pace, such as the trips to the West to talk up ideas for enlarging federally protected lands. It also may get him into a fight with congressional Republicans.
The GOP's wariness about Babbitt goes back to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, when the president designated nearly 2 million acres in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. That irked Republicans, who contended they were not properly consulted, and it helps drive the current speculation that Babbitt will move to protect 650,000 acres on the Shivwits Plateau north of the Grand Canyon.
The plateau, named for a Paiute Indian tribe, includes grasslands and Ponderosa pine forests. Babbitt fears it will be overrun by development spilling out of the Las Vegas area, about 120 miles away.
Last November Babbitt, who grew up in Arizona, spent a night camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, talking with local community groups about the "gaps in protection" that render the canyon, Carlsbad Caverns and Missouri River Breaks vulnerable.
"You can't segment nature into a few preserves and then just proceed to decimate the rest of the landscape," Babbitt contends.
On the Shivwits Plateau, Babbitt said he will "invite the Congress to participate," but also promised that "we're going to fast-forward this."
If Arizona's congressional delegation cannot agree on legislation to protect the Shivwits Plateau, conservation groups expect Babbitt to lobby Clinton to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the plateau as a monument.
Invocations of the Western landscape, and especially Arizona's Grand Canyon region, where Babbitt grew up, weave in and out of his conversations. In person, Babbitt is rangy and relaxed. Folded into a wing chair in his spacious suite at the Interior Department, he easily slips into a story-telling session about unique places in the West.
He recently returned from an outing on the Missouri River in Montana, where he surveyed the White Cliffs that the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed in 1805. Author Stephen E. Ambrose served as one of his guides and, Babbitt said, "in a kind of rapturous mood" read aloud from the journals of Lewis and Clark as they rafted down the river. The Montana outing included a discussion of whether the Clinton administration could posthumously promote William Clark, who never received his captain's bars as promised, and whether York, Clark's slave, could be made an official member of the expedition. "I have agreed to do what I can to see if we can't arrange an event somewhere on the Missouri River to get some closure on Clark and York," Babbitt said.
Babbitt has won praise from environmentalists for his mastery of complicated issues. He has found ways to revamp grazing standards on public lands, slow down hard rock mining in the West, and help sort out Colorado River and California water fights.
But some environmentalists are uncomfortable with Babbitt's recasting of the Endangered Species Act, which has allowed development in some sensitive habitats, and they dislike his negotiating with congressional Republicans over budget riders aimed at easing environmental rules for particular states or industries.
"We have been very disappointed that Babbitt continues to interact with this Congress as if it is a reasonable body where he can get a reasonable outcome. It isn't, and he can't," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director.
Babbitt, for his part, acknowledges that he has not been the sort to take cues from environmental groups. "I don't spend a whole lot of time with the traditional constituent groups," he said, "and I think they view me as a loner."
Interior, he said, was not his first choice back in 1992 when Clinton began assembling his Cabinet. Babbitt wanted to be named the U.S. trade representative, had a "pretty extended talk" with Clinton about it and flew to Little Rock the week before that Christmas expecting the president-elect to announce his nomination.
But, after a long wait in a hotel room, Babbitt got a phone call on Christmas Eve informing him that Clinton had opted to place him at Interior. He was miffed, partly because environmental groups had pushed Clinton to nominate him, knowing he would work to reverse 12 years of GOP policies.
But he took the job and, in Clinton's first term, suddenly found himself on the short list for the Supreme Court. Now, along with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, he is among Clinton's longest-serving Cabinet members.
As he looks ahead, Babbitt, a former partner in a D.C. law firm, knows what he does not want to do: "I don't want to practice law. I will not be a lobbyist. I do not want to run for office." He hopes to take a year off "and do some serious writing."
He also wants to "make sense" of his time in the Clinton administration. "In public life, every day comes up and you're out there, hacking your way through it," Babbitt said. "It's been a remarkable, rewarding experience. I just haven't had time to assimilate it all. I'm eager to do that."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company