And God said unto them . . . replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over . . . every living thing . . . --Genesis 1:28
"I WANT to change the course of America," says James Watt, secretary of the Interior. "I believe we are battling for the form of government under which we and future generations will live . . . That's the battle. The battle's not over the environment. If it was, they would be with us. They want to control social behavior and conduct."
"They" are the environmentalists, and what Watt considers their lackeys in the Eastern press. It's an unequivocal view, refreshing in a politician by virtue of its frankness, shocking otherwise. He believes it. "What I call 'commercial' environmentalists are hard-core, left-wing radicals, manipulating the press . . . They have a conspiracy of shared values. Their real objective is partisan politics to change the form of government."
Watt is the most controversial Interior secretary ever, including curmudgeonly Harold L. Ickes, who served under Roosevelt. Watt's responsibilities may be departmental, but his agenda is global, his theater celestial. He has raised a fortune for the Republican Party, and made radical changes in the management of public lands, granting oil, gas and coal leases that run for decades into the American future. His enemies, quite simply, hate him. William Turnage, director of the Wilderness Society, once summed it up: "James Watt is the worst thing that ever happened to America."
His fellow citizens don't require an understanding of climax forests or off-shore drilling to have an opinion of James Watt. He staged a controversial cocktail party in a public facility, the Custis-Lee Mansion, at public expense, then inspired a national clamor by proposing a dry, patriotic Fourth of July on the Mall. He's Reagan's lightning rod, the New Right's darling, and an enigma. Rarely has the object of so much attention remained so elusive, specter perpetually poised on the brink of political extinction.
Watt, 45, sits on a stool in the Washington studios of CBS, a Kleenex tucked into his collar, blind without his glasses. A beautician brushes makeup on his face, preparing him for "Face the Nation." In that exposed moment the features cartoonists love so--the expandable lips, prominent teeth and a bald pate that rises like El Capitan--seem boyish and unassuming.
"Where are you, Doug?" he asks.
"Right here, Jim," says Doug Baldwin, Watt's public affairs officer, a fellow Wyomingite. He has sideburns; a bumper sticker on his briefcase reads, "Here goes another . . . FRIEND OF JIM WATT." All week long one of Baldwin's staffers has been calling Watt supporters around the country, and telling them, "The secretary is going to be on 'Face the Nation' this Sunday. He thought you might like to know."
Watt puts on the thick glasses that have become the visual equivalent of sword and buckler. He shakes hands with a reporter with whom he has tentatively agreed to talk, though not today. His eyes are painfully wary. He gathers up a bunch of charts, part of a media campaign, and stands, a surprisingly tall figure in the uniform of the Washington careerist. His suit, white shirt and tie are offset, however, by boots. Not cowboy boots, but fastidious black ankle-huggers, secured with little silver studs.
Watt ambles onto the set, props the charts in front of the camera and practices flipping them.
"We've never had charts on this show before," the producer complains.
"Well, you're going to have them today."
"But there are no questions relating to charts."
"That makes no difference," Watt says good-humoredly. "Whatever questions they ask me, the charts will be seen."
And indeed they are. As soon as the show starts, Watt gets into an argument with the moderator, George Herman, who questions Watt's figures on expenditures for national parks. Watt shows more charts. Pressure seems to build inside the panelists' collective aorta: not only does Watt have contempt for their sensibilities, and the decorousness of such staged events, but he is also good--a fast-talking head with an other-worldly fascination.
"Sometimes he looks so vulnerable you want to protect him," says a panelist, The Los Angeles Times' Eleanor Randolph, after the show. "Other times, he enrages you. He lies."
The CBS studio switchboard is jammed, the calls overwhelmingly in favor of Watt. Outside, in the drizzle, is a clot of covered mini-cams, mikes on booms and soggy reporters. Watt is wonderful footage, a kind of ambulatory disaster, and television is not going to let him escape. Word reaches the press that Watt's limousine has pulled into the lot behind the building, and they rush off.
Only then do Watt, Baldwin and a U.S. Park Service policeman emerge through the front door. They climb into a Park Service sedan instead, and glide away through the dreary Sunday noon.
"Dammit!" says a cameraman, when the media clot returns to find Watt gone. "No wonder the press hates him."
"In a survey of journalistic attitudes that came out a year or so ago," Watt says a few days later, while riding through the Virginia countryside in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven pearl-gray Lincoln Town Car, "4 percent, or something like that, professed religious commitment. Well, gee, that's pretty low, isn't it? Something like 15 percent of journalists thought it was morally wrong to have extramarital relations. In other words, 85 percent didn't think there was anything wrong with that, and yet something like 57 percent thought it was morally wrong to use resources for people!
"So Jim Watt wants to burn coal? Or cut a tree? Or go hunting? See, there's basically a moral issue there. They think I'm immoral because I'm willing to cut a tree to build a house. And I am! We come at these problems from a totally different moral basis, and that's why the religious attack on me has been so vicious."
Doug Baldwin rides shotgun, the briefcase in his lap, carefully monitoring the conversation. Baldwin's office at Interior contains a photograph of Watt awarding Baldwin a seal of the secretary of the Interior on which the buffalo has been changed to face right, instead of left, a bit of ideological nose-tweaking. The inscription says, "To my best friend of 20 years . . . You are vital to our effort." Baldwin's raspy attacks on Watt's critics often go beyond mere friendship, but he can be something of a card. He pronounces Yosemite "Yose-mite," and says things like, "I sometimes put em-pha-sis on the wrong syl-la-ble."
Watt wears boots identical to those worn on "Face the Nation," except that these are brown. He ignores the scenery, concentrating on what he calls "one area of hurt." The hurt is elemental to his life and his politics, and essential to understanding both. It goes back to an experience in 1964.
"I stumbled into . . . that's not the right word . . . I went to a businessmen's group called the Pro-Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship meeting and heard successful businessmen telling about the claims of Christ on their life, how it changed their life. It was the first fundamental altar-call I was conscious of ever hearing, and I answered it. I went forward like you would at a Billy Graham crusade . . .
"The Holy Spirit moved on my life. I committed my life that very night. I've been active in the Pro-Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship ever since, and shared my testimony far and wide. Now, Christians who have a whole different philosophy, I get along with them anyway. Like Sen. Mark Hatfield R-Ore. . I would say Hatfield and I are very good Christian brothers. In the political realm we have some major differences. Mark's wrong . . ."
Watt's laughter is explosive. He puts his head back and gulps air, while Doug Baldwin shifts uneasily. "Remember, Mr. Secretary, this is on the record."
But everything is on the record with Watt.
"That doesn't prevent me from loving Mark as a brother in Christ," Watt says. "I can have total respect and brotherly love for those who have shared like-precious faith, regardless of denomination, or the fact that I have a Christian brother who's confused in the political world . . . I'm a fundamentalist in my commitment to the Judeo-Christian principles of America. The concept of stewardship is the Judeo-Christian teaching that you have a responsibility to take care of that which is given to your charge, and pass it on in better condition than when you got it, that you are your brother's keeper, that you have compassion for people, that you help another person get a job, feed his family."
And what if there are no trees to pass on?
He pauses. "You might have provided shelter, so somebody can live out of the blizzards of Wyoming."
His middle name is Gaius. It belonged to his father, who passed it on in Biblical devotion. (St. John wrote his Third Epistle to Gaius, "whom I love in the truth . . . I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper . . .") Watt passed it on to his own son, and to his daughter, Gaia, in a fundament of Old West begatting.
Had Wyoming found its way into the Bible, the writers probably would have described it as a desert, albeit a beautiful one. Wyoming is considered by some to be a last redoubt of individualism and American entrepreneurial e'lan; environmentalists describe it as a prostitute, beckoning to developers.
Whatever it is, it shaped James Gaius Watt. He looks like he was preserved in aspic in 1957, in Wheaton, Wyo. Watt was no homeroom nerd tormented by James Deans smoking in the boys' room, but a class valedictorian and a star athlete who didn't cuss or drink. "A bigshot," he says.
"An all-American boy," says his former roommate at the University of Wyoming, without irony, who remembers Watt standing up at a rally in 1960 and asking Ted Kennedy a question about his brother's presidential aspirations. Kennedy replied, "Is that a question, or a speech?"
His father was Republican county chairman, and a lawyer. He taught Watt not to trust the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His mother encouraged him to paint houses in the summers, pump gas, drive a truck, dig ditches, bellhop, hawk pots and pans and cook short-order, all for the experience. "I would always ask, 'Experience for what?' I never did get a good answer."
(In fact, he says, the job he has now is the only one he's ever taken for sheer enjoyment.)
After law school--also at the University of Wyoming--Watt campaigned for Milward Simpson, the father of Wyoming's senior senator, and moved to Washington as the senior Simpson's aide. Soon after that, the hurt began.
"I'll get personal on this. I was an aide to Governor Wally Hickel of Alaska in 1968. Nixon selected the governor to be his secretary of Interior, and I brought him through the hearings. He was subjected to such a brutal, harsh, ugly attack that it changed his whole personality and style of behavior . . . He raced to the left to prove to the environmentalists that he was one of them. He ran so far to the left that Nixon had to fire him.
"In 1975, a dear friend of mine and Doug's, who served as governor of the State of Wyoming, Stan Hathaway, was selected by President Ford to be secretary of the Interior. A fine man, he was subjected to the same brutal attack that Wally Hickel was . . . Because of the victory the hard-line left had achieved in attacking Governor Hickel, through the tool of environmentalist activism, they took on Governor Hathaway. It was ugly, demeaning, brutal, inhumane treatment. I was with him, I was at his side. He had a nervous breakdown and quit after six weeks.
"Where does my resistance come from? The hard-line left successfully destroyed two men of a more conservative persuasion, they caused my predecessors to capitulate before a fight. Jim Watt walks onto the scene spiritually, emotionally and physically ready to do what the president wants done . . . Having lived through those experiences, I was determined to resist, to bring about the change to restore America. I believe it deep down. Every breath of my being will be spent for spiritual freedom and political liberty . . .
"Here we use the phrase, 'Don't Hickel-ize yourself.' We came in determined not to let committees of Congress take away our constitutional duties . . . I was nominated, and I met with thirty or forty environmentalists who flew into Denver. We had a fine meeting. They went out and said they thought they could work with Jim Watt. A week or so later there was an all-out assault on me, just the ugliest thing. They didn't want to work with me, had never wanted to work with me. Then I had them in here for some meetings. In fact, I had Mike McCloskey of the Sierra Club a couple of times. I even bought his lunch! A few days later he announced the million-signature campaign against me . . .
"I did not cower, I did not cave."
Watt can't say who had the greatest influence on his life.
"I always knew somebody would ask me that question."
It obviously bothers him that he can't say. Others suggest that person is his wife, Leilani. Watt has known her since he was in the eighth grade. She rode a bus 30 miles to school every day and says she knew instinctively "that Jim Watt was a good catch . . . Nobody thought he was a prude because he wouldn't fight" in country where boys use their fists. It was a matter of principle, she says. Likewise his politics. "From high school on he had strong ideas about free enterprise and private property."
And this: "You have to understand what it is, being from Wyoming, where the whole climate is free enterprise."
She's a small, pretty, resilient woman, with slate-green eyes. They were married when Watt was 19. They had children before he was 21. She still makes a lot of her own clothes. Missionaries from the American Sunday School Board converted her when she was 9 years old, in her home. It was Leilani Watt who sent her husband to the Pro-Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship Meeting.
"Jim didn't become a Christian until then," she says, despite the fact that he had always attended the Congregational Church. In her view, a Christian is a committed Christian.
In his office on the sixth floor of Interior, Watt walks across a meadow of russet carpet. On the paneled walls hang photographs of endangered species. There's an expansiveness, a palpable sense of tradition and the West. Other departments may have more power or more money, but Interior has real estate--768 million acres of it, a kingdom twice the size of Alaska, four times as big as Texas, as Watt likes to point out in his speeches. Splendid portraits of previous secretaries hang in the deep reception hall. The oil rendition of Ickes--the man who administered Roosevelt's WPA--is ignored by the new conservatives who pass every day.
"Twenty, thirty or forty years ago," says Watt, "the conservatives were trying to hold onto the dignity of the individual, and the liberal was coming on to change government, to bring more power to Washington, D.C. The liberals won. Now the liberals want to hold onto their Great Society programs, and FDR's programs, the Fair Deal or whatever he called it . . ."
His office used to be Ickes' bedroom; now it's a way station on the road to salvation. There's an American flag, but remarkably few political mementos for a man who has spent 15 years in the bureaucracy. Watt does not keep a diary or even a telephone log; he says he won't write a book. "People deal with me under the circumstances, not for creative memory to warp some story in the future."
Books have never been particularly important to him. His wife says he hangs wallpaper for relaxation, a revelation that doesn't please him.
"How much wallpaper can you hang?" he asks rhetorically. "I like to work with my hands, because you get a product. At home I built furniture and taught my boy how to work with wood . . . and all that stuff, 'cause that's life."
Leilani Watt lets another cat out of the bag: Watt's favorite movie is "Ben Hur."
"I've seen it dozens of times," he admits. "The great quote that has some meaning for me is when ol' Judah Ben Hur says, 'I felt His voice take the sword from my hand.' That's an inner thing. It's taking that spirit of bitterness, resentment, rebellion out of Ben Hur, where he wasn't fighting Rome anymore."
He considers what he has said. "So some writer tries to cream a guy like me, if that's his objective, saying, 'Watt's got a sword in his hand, that's why he's trying to chop down the liberals!' I don't have a sword in my hand."
He sweeps back his jacket. "I don't even have a belt!"
The hurt. It's there even when he laughs, the desperate joviality seen in the newspaper photograph of Watt in front of the White House after his public humiliation over the Beach Boys, a good soldier who had raised the ire of the president's wife, not an enviable position in this administration.
"I've gone from flap to flap," he says, unrepentant.
There was that unpleasantness over American Indians, and socialism.
"It's absolutely true, I restate it every chance I get. If you want to see the failures of socialism, you need not go to Russia. Come to the American Indian reservations. What this government has done to the dignity of the individual is terrible . . . My gosh, the Indian community is rallying around this thing. It's the first time in memory a secretary of the Interior has opened up a door of opportunity for them to get what they need from Congress."
And dividing the country into Americans and liberals.
"That was a one-liner in a speech made to a bunch of California water-users . . . It's a great joke, but the liberals can't laugh at themselves. So they take a one-liner out of context, twist it into an ugly thing, and then gouge you with it until they kill you."
And the suggestion that Watt was squandering public resources because the Second Coming was imminent.
"All Christians and all Jews believe that the Messiah will come. Now, because we don't know when He's coming, we have a responsibility--and the Bible's very clear, it does not tell us when He's coming--to show compassion, to feed the hungry and care for the widows and orphans, and the land and everything. Until He comes."
And suggesting to the Israeli ambassador that he might like to back the Reagan energy plan.
"The media think, 'Jiminy Crickets, what's Watt doing with the ambassador from Israel?' I go to a Bonds for Israel rally, and he and I hit it off like that . . . So I write him a note: 'Blah, blah, blah,' and six weeks later it breaks as a big deal . . . The net result of this is that the American Jewish community has rallied behind Jim Watt . . ."
And the Beach Boys flap.
"I happen to believe this goof-up I made on rock music will strengthen my base considerably. I had the courage to say what I believe. There are those who always put a malicious intent on it . . . The movers and shakers of the reality--not the press corps, the real movers and shakers--are with me."
The movers and shakers of the White House gave him a papier-mache foot with a bullet hole in it, bronzed, now resting on the table.
"I though it was a pretty good way to handle it. I called Gergen and Fuller and complimented them on pulling that one out of the sack."
Leilani Watt shows slightly less equanimity than her husband on the Beach Boys question. "He never even mentioned the Beach Boys. They weren't even here last year. Parents for a Drug-Free Youth"--her smile gets a little flinty--"the group Nancy Reagan works with, had complained to me, 'How can you allow it (unruly behavior on the Mall)?' Jim said, 'Hey, wouldn't a patriotic Fourth be super? Little girls in pigtails, and strollers, and bands.' "
Every July Fourth, she says, "The furniture is moved out of the ceremonial office, we have congressional staffers and Interior employes up. There's popcorn, hotdogs and mustard all over the rug . . ."
Watt was a stranger to Reagan until 1980, when the newly elected president heard about Watt from his friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.). Laxalt heard about Watt from Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) at a meeting in December 1980 that included three other western senators, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Malcolm Wallop and Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
"They asked me," Watt says, " 'Are you tough enough to handle it?' You never know whether you can withstand these axes . . . I said, 'I'll only be able to tell you when we're through!' "
Ed Meese took him to Blair House to meet with Reagan. "I outlined a program I would pursue if I were asked to join the team. He Reagan quickly picked up on everything . . . I told him it would cause tremendous controversy. 'You'll have to back me and back me and back me until you have to fire me.' And he said he would back me, or fire me, or probably both.
"We have a common heritage, we come from a western background where you speak bluntly . . . I speak privately as I do publicly; I'm not two persons. That's one of my problems. My characteristics are my strengths and my weaknesses. Reagan has the same dimensions. Philosophically, we get along beautifully. I mean, we're just a match for each other. I can make a comment to him at a Cabinet meeting, and he'll nod, smile, make a two- or three-word comment, and I know what he means, how to carry it out."
Watt helped batten down the flap over the Environmental Protection Agency, explaining to EPA head Anne Burford that she would have to resign. "It was a test doing what was right for the country, the president and Anne Burford. It was a balancing act with lots of personalities involved . . . It worked with beautiful harmony--everybody was protected . . . We're still not aware that anything was really done wrong."
As director of the Mountain States Legal Fund, a lobbying group in Colorado, Watt was a friend of Burford and her present husband, who were both in the state legislature. They and their colleagues, adamant free enterprisers, were known as "the crazies."
"They were crazy enough to believe that one man could make a difference," says Watt. "If that's the definition of crazy, I am a crazy!"
He then greased the ideological skids for Burford's successor, William Ruckleshaus, who had been unacceptable to the right wing of the Republican Party. Watt serves as Reagan's unofficial envoy to that contentious barony, which considers Watt its most effective spokesman in the administration. The movers and shakers of the 1984 Republican reality are presently weighing Watt's political virtues against his indiscretions.
Meanwhile he sits in Harold Ickes' bedroom, listening to controversy build over federal coal leasing out West.
"I have no ambitions . . . We've set these programs in motion, and the bureaucracy's hard to change. You have to pay a tremendous price to change it. I've paid that price. My objective was to bring basic change to resource management for America, to prepare us for the 21st century. I believe in the future. I'm an optimist."
A blue light flickers in the thick lenses.
"How could you be more successful? Now, ideally, you would get the results, plus be personally popular. Wouldn't that be nice? Oh, I'd much rather be popular, and successful. But if I have to make the choice, I'll choose success with results rather than success with personal glory."