Secretary James Watt, the celebrated music critic from Colorado, has accumulated a remarkable record of creating dangerous political undertows for his boss, but he may finally have gone too far in his abortive attempt to impose his musical tastes on the residents of the Washington area.
Somehow, Mr. Watt got the idea that the Fourth of July concerts and fireworks on the Mall were less than wholesome affairs. Rock music, he decided, would be out this year and uplift would be in. Uplift, in this case, was not a bra. It was--and still is--Wayne Newton, that uplifting family man who lives and works year round in that uplifting family atmosphere of Las Vegas and who happens to be a close friend and political supporter of guess who?
This, as anyone with an ounce of political smarts could have warned Mr. Watt, touched off a furor. The vice president came to the defense of the Beach Boys, who had played at the celebration in the past. So did Nancy Reagan. So did Michael Deaver, the deputy White House chief of staff, who it turns out took his wife and children and joined their neighbors on the Mall last year.
Secretary Watt and his wife, it is significant to note, did not go down to the Monument grounds. They entertained on the top floor of the Interior Department building and were spared the carryings-on of the hoi polloi. But somehow, Watt discovered that fireworks aren't the only things that got blasted on the Fourth of July at the Mall. His wife, we are told, discovered this by talking to a friend who was on the grounds and Watt discovered it by reading the newspaper. He discovered that some people drank, used dope, and assaulted each other, and he concluded that it was all because of the rock music which attracted what he described as "the wrong element."
Watt, typically, called it hard rock, which is presumably his musical analogue to ultraliberals and radical feminists and all the other bugaboos that stalk his life. In fact, as he later discovered to his chagrin, the rock groups he blamed for bringing in the "wrong element" are the kind of rock groups that parents listen to these days, not the kind that kids listen to.
As the storm gathered to hurricane proportions, a beleaguered Interior Department spokesman informed the world that when Secretary Watt was talking about "hard rock," he in no way meant to "take umbrage" at the Beach Boys. Watt, in other words, took the extraordinary action of banning a certain kind of music from a celebration that hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians enjoy year after year, without even having the courtesy to do a little homework before he acted so he would know what he was doing.
On the surface, Watt's intentions appeared to be perfectly sound. There is a great deal to be said for the idea of the interior secretary promoting an uplifting performance that families can enjoy on the Mall, and certainly the department has the responsibility to ensure that everyone behaves so everyone can have a good time. But what Watt did smacks much more of censorship than responsibility.
If, in fact, he wanted to plug his taste in wholesomeness he could have done it by simply diversifying the program. Where, for example, is it written that the Beach Boys, or a group like them, can't appear on the same program with Wayne Newton, an accommodation various people now are apparently trying to work out?
But finesse isn't Mr. Watt's style. He traded tact for innuendo, informed judgment for ragged impressions. He did nothing to make the Mall safer with his ban. The only "elements" that were--and perhaps still are--going to be driven away by his actions are people who can't stand Wayne Newton, and more importantly, can't stand having any particular performer shoved down their throats. The Fourth of July, after all, is a celebration of independence from tyrants.
Mr. Watt turned a local event into a national controversy that an embarrassed president moved quickly to turn into a joke. But as the laughter subsides, the administration will have to face the damage. Watt is a household word once again--and this time with teen-agers who will be voting in 1984. And the administration is saddled with a cabinet secretary who, with the most ironic timing, flaunted two qualities Americans have never liked in those who govern them, be they from Britain or Colorado: ignorance and arrogant abuse of power.