For awhile, it seemed that James Watt was believing in at least one environmental law: noise control. He had been keeping mum. The decibels of his earlier stridency were lowered. The secretary of the interior, retreating from boisterousness, had embarked upon Operation Silence.
But now, in a combinational exhibit of bias and bluster, Watt has lapsed. He turned up on the front page of the Fresno Bee the other day by telling a California luncheon group that "I never use the words Republicans and Democrats. It's liberals and Americans."
This fine distinction was prompted by Watt's notion that the House of Representatives is "riddled with a bunch of liberals." The un-American offenses of these leftish House members, it appears, include a hesitancy to share Watt's compulsiveness to mine, drill, pave or gouge what's left of the American landscape.
Watt's us-against-themism was the basis of his political philosophy when a lawyer for a reactionary foundation in Denver. Despite a year's worth of exposure to a broader view that his job at Interior necessarily provides, Watt persists in seeing himself at the barricades defending America from liberals and environmental elitists.
It's a phantom view. Just as Congress remains professedly unriddled with liberals--which was true even before the 1980 election--anti-Watt groups like the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society actually are part of the constituency that Watt claims to represent.
In a recent poll, the National Wildlife Federation learned that its 4.5 million members voted for Ronald Reagan 2-to-1 over Jimmy Carter. An official of the organization says, "We're more Republican than Democrat, more western than eastern, more conservative than liberal. We're everything Watt says his basic support comes from. And we're seeking his removal."
It is much the same with the 475,000-member Audubon Society, another mainline group. Its board is heavy with people from the business and financial community. Audubon has vehemently opposed Watt. Its latest fund appeal, written as a "strongly worded call to arms," received an unprecedented response: nine times as much money came from eight times more members than ever before.
Rejected by what should be his natural support groups, and rejected as no other Interior secretary ever has been, Watt counterpunches with wild- swinging claims. He told "Conservative Digest" recently that while he has evoked "a hostile reaction," it "has been by a very few people."
Are the 4.5 million members of the National Wildlife Federation, the 475,000 members of Audubon and 1.1 million people signing a remove-Watt petition very few?
He says that these organizations "are liberal groups, not real conservation groups." This is false.
He says that on coming to Interior the department's programs "were way out in left field." In reality, programs governed by the federal strip mine law, the Alaska lands bill, the wilderness protection act and others were models of moderation.
In his connoisseurship of reactionary slogans--left field, liberals and Americans, environmental extremists--Watt has trapped himself in Wattspeak. It's as though he can't let go of the right-wing cant he thrived on while in the service of his ideology-bound masters at the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
Watt isn't pro-business, as many think. If anything, he is an embarrassment to sophisticated energy corporations. For them, yesterday's battles with the environmentalists are over. Workable compromises have been reached in Congress and in the courts. Watt, though, still wants to slug it out. He's the self-styled Sagebrush Rebel, except the rebellion has passed.
Already, two federal courts have found he went beyond laws involving coastal zone management and wildlife refuges in Alaska. Last month, the General Accounting Office rebuked him. No doubt in Watt's mind the courts and the GAO are "way out in left field."