Babbitt Viewed as Practical, Able
By Tom Kenworthy
Redirecting the sprawling Department of the Interior after 12 years of Republican rule, a Democratic congressional aide said recently, would take a secretary with "the heart and soul of an accountant, the resolve of a Marine and the thick skin of a rhinoceros."
Those who know Bruce Babbitt, named yesterday by President-elect Clinton to head the department, say that although he is not much like an accountant, the former Arizona governor is smart enough and tough enough to reorient a department that environmentalists believe has been the captive of commodity interests, such as the oil, gas and mining industries.
In some ways, Babbitt, 54, fits the usual mold of interior secretaries, who frequently are drawn from the ranks of Western politicians conversant with the difficult natural resource conflicts that make up the bulk of the agency's portfolio. His family has deep roots in Arizona, where his grandfather settled in 1886 and where the family built a commercial empire from cattle and trading posts.
Babbitt, an avid hiker and outdoorsman, brings an activist background to the department and the kind of conservationist ethic not seen at Interior at least since the 1976 selection of Democrat Cecil D. Andrus or perhaps the choice of Stewart L. Udall by President Kennedy in 1960. Babbitt's views about the fragility of the arid West were nurtured by writers such as Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner, and he developed his early ideas about the role of government in the civil rights and anti-poverty movements.
Cerebral, shy and policy-oriented, Babbitt, like Clinton, brings to government a practical, problem-solving approach. His seriousness is leavened with an impish, self-deprecating humor. Of his efforts to improve on his wooden television style during his unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid, Babbitt said: "If they can teach Mr. Ed to talk, they can teach me."
Officials of national environmental groups were delighted at the selection of Babbitt. "It's wonderful to have a conservationist as interior secretary for a change," said Dave Albserwerth, public lands director for the National Wildlife Federation. "He really understands the changing demographics of the West and the changing expectations among Westerners for what the public lands should be."
Babbitt, a natural resources lawyer and president of the League of Conservation Voters, will take over the helm of a vast empire on Jan. 20, a post often viewed by many Westerners as more important than the presidency. The department has 75,000 employees spread among almost a dozen separate and frequently warring agencies with jurisdiction over hundreds of millions of acres of public land and a diverse range of responsibilities that include national parks, endangered species, federal water policy, mining, Indian affairs, U.S. territories and public range management.
Those who know Babbitt say that as governor of Arizona, he proved adept at reconciling the kind of competing demands that he will face at Interior. He is credited, for example, with developing in 1980 a pioneering groundwater protection plan that brought together farmers, environmentalists, industry, rural and urban interests and utilities.
"Intellectually, he's very well prepared," Udall said in a telephone interview. "My advice to him is to stay eight years, and if he does, he can be one of the best interior secretaries of this century."
© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company