I have a question: What in God's name is James Watt talking about?
The secretary of the Interior has already divided the country between Liberals and Americans, compared conservationists to Nazis, likened Indian reservations to socialism, said he has a special appreciation for Holocaust victims because he, too, has been persecuted, and of course, thought that Wayne Newton was more wholesome, not to mention more American, than the Beach Boys.
Now, in an interview in The Washington Post, Watt shows that none of this was a slip of the tongue. He reveals himself to be a man perched on the edge of Armageddon, engaged neither in politics nor in a particular form of land management, but in a battle with enemies of the Republic over nothing less than the future of American democracy. Listen:
"I believe we are battling for the form of government under which we and future generations will live . . . " Watt said. "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."
Now I leave it to you to decide whether it is the administration with its squeal rule for teen-age girls or its Baby Doe rule for hospitals that wants to control social behavior or whether it's its critics. But while we may not be able to decide on that, we can decide that these are not issues about the fundamental nature of the American government. Only Watt sees things in such stark terms. Only Watt thinks his critics do not oppose him for his policies, but as a way of changing the American system of government. Listen some more:
"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 to change the form of government."
Who is he talking about? The organizations that are his critics represent the dull center of American society, groups composed of bankers and stockbrokers who like to backpack on the weekends. He is talking about the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and--about as far left as you can go--Friends of the Earth. None of these organizations is exactly the Socialist-Nihilist Caucus, and if they want to change American society, it is by making it cleaner. Clean air ain't exactly a Marxist notion.
No matter. In an interview last January in Business Week, Watt talked about his critics' proposals as if they were penned by Marx with a rewrite by Hitler. Their real goal, he said, was to achieve "centralized planning and control of society. Look what happened to Germany in the 1930s. The dignity of man was subordinated to the powers of Naziism. The dignity of man was subordinated in Russia. Those were the forces that this thing can evolve into."
None of this makes any sense unless you understand that Watt sees himself as a martyr--someone personally holding back the forces of evil. He has a darkly religious outlook, but sincere and profound religious convictions do not excuse a view of the world in which critics are evil and society in such peril that radical steps must be taken. Watt might think he is fighting for Christianity and the American Way, but really, he is only the secretary of the Interior and the fights are over the use of public land. He cannot possibly either listen to or respect his critics if he thinks their secret purpose is not simply to save trees but to corrupt the country's moral values.
The trouble is that Watt has been saying these sorts of things for so long that the nation has become inured to them. Hardly a week goes by without Watt saying one outrageous thing or another, insulting one group or another. But since he stays clear of conventional Washington sins--corruption, public lewdness--he continues on his merry and bizarre way.
That, though, does not alter the fact that he remains the secretary of the Interior, a member of the president's cabinet, a policymaker in the Reagan administration--and, it seems, out of touch with reality. That may not be the same as corruption. But it is the awful reality of James Watt.