It must be nice for Interior Secretary James Watt to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and know that he, at least, is normal. Actually, he is more than normal. He is one of the chosen few. He is a white Christian male American. He is whole.
Being a white male American, he was raised with the knowledge that all things were possible for him. He could become a lawyer (law schools didn't discriminate against white men, unless they were Jewish,) and he could get a good job on the Hill and in the Nixon administration, (neither the Hill nor the Nixon administration discriminated against white males.) White males were in. They always had been. They were the ideal against which all other people were measured. They got the jobs in government, they ran everything, they made the decisions.
Then the country fell apart. The Jews started wanting a piece of the action. Then the blacks did, then the cripples, and heaven help us, finally the ladies.
Some people took it better than others. A lot of people still told jokes about Jews and blacks and about handicapped people and about women, but after a while they started confining the jokes to the locker room, the golf course, or the privacy of their own homes.
Society changed and instead of racism and anti-Semitism and sexism being funny, people started understanding that when you define people by their sex, their handicaps, their religion and their race, you demean them.
The country was doing some growing up; we were getting to know each other and beginning to realize we were all in the same boat. Blacks were able to become friends with whites, Jews were able to become friends with Gentiles. "Cripples" became people with handicaps and we made a national commitment to ensure their dignity and improve the quality of their lives. Women became people who worked, voted and wanted government jobs. Some white American males understood that they weren't the only people entitled to play in the sandbox anymore. Some did not.
Enter James Watt, fighting his own personal war with the late 20th century, a modern-day well-poisoner of the first order. James Watt doesn't understand that we're all in this together. As far as he's concerned, there are the good guys and the rest of us. The good guys are the white Christian male Americans who were running things by and for themselves for two centuries.
Watt's a realist, though. When the time came to appoint a commission to review his coal-leasing program, he threw some political crumbs to the rest of the people. Then, he made public jokes about it. He went before a crowd of 200 lobbyists who belong to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and he had the--what's the word?--gall? nerve? folly? viciousness?--to say:
"We have every kind of mix you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."
Having demeaned every single member of the commission in three short sentences, Watt, amid an instant furor, apologized. He called Richard Gordon, a coal-policy expert from Pennsylvania State University, whose arm is paralyzed as a result of polio and who is Jewish, and he apologized. Watt, in the understatement of his public career, called his remarks "unfortunate."
Watt has a long history of saying things that are rude and divisive, but what he has done this time goes a step further: by singling out people by utterly irrelevant characteristics, he has diminished their worth and their dignity. His use of the term "cripple" speaks for itself. He has implied that the commission members are there because of their race, their sex, their religion and their physical disability, not because of their talents and qualifications to review national coal leasing policies. And in so doing, Watt has insulted Jews, blacks, women and people who are handicapped.
Watt tried to brush his comment off with the statement that it was a joke. Nobody's laughing. It was in poor taste. It wasn't funny. It wasn't nice. It betrayed a lack of respect toward those who weren't privileged to be born into the same exclusive set that Watt was born into.
Watt is not some Bible-thumping bigot preaching hellfire and brimstone in Southwest Nowhere. He is Secretary of the Interior, a cabinet member, a representative of the Reagan administration. The question now is whether the president will tolerate Watt's remark--and let it stand as a benchmark of his administration's tolerance for bigotry--or whether he will have the decency to fire him.