It is perhaps a lamentable Eastern provincialism that has kept me cool on the subject of Interior Secretary James Watt while others screamed over his oil-drilling plans for the bathing beaches or his get- tough policy on grizzly bears.
Admittedly, it seemed a bit vulgar to throw a cocktail party, as he did, in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery. And a man who makes an enemy of the Audubon Society may be overplaying his hand. But who's perfect?
And anyway, for an intractable easterner there is something perennially exotic about the Department of the Interior. During the last administration, the noisiest controversy there revolved around the serving of rattlesnake meat at a popular Washington brasserie.
But now James Watt has everybody's attention, even mine. He has given an interview on the plight of the American Indians. "If you want an example of the failure of socialism," said the secretary in a Satellite Program Network interview, "don't go to Russia. Come to America and see the American Indian reservations."
Lower-level exegetes of Wattisms at the Interior quickly explained that the secretary wasn't knocking but sympathizing with the Indians. He had in mind the mismanagement of their interests by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other federal overseers.
This is quite possibly the right reading of Watt's buffoonish remark. But alas, Business Week was simultaneously quoting the secretary on the danger that environmental "extremists" might slide into a form of Nazism. This reinforces the impression that Watt is, to say the least, dangerously loose with analogies.
Now, there are among historians a good many who think that the recent surge of popular sympathy and penitence over the treatment of Indians--stimulated, for instance, by Dee Brown's bestseller "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"--is sentimentalized. Even so, there is overwhelming agreement that Indian problems are more deeply rooted in American history, with its episodes of forced removal and broken treaties, than in the plots of the Socialist International.
And even in an administration whose virtues do not include a striking sympathy for the weak, it is unusual to find such stark insensitivity.
Is it appropriate to have a chief trustee of Indian affairs whose mind is so historically barren that he can't discuss the problems of the reservations and tribes without dragging in a European ideology? A man who, as the director of the Sierra Club says, "fails to see the difference between Hermann Goering and John Muir"?
Obviously not. But perhaps Watt was merely following the example of his president. Ronald Reagan used to find it enlightening to trace certain elements of the Roosevelt New Deal to the inspiration of Mussolini. Little has been heard lately of such potted analogy. But there is always someone who doesn't get the word.
What is perhaps most objectionable about Watt's remark, apart from insensitivity, is a historical disorientation bordering on yahooism--an inability to frame distinctly American problems in appropriate terms.
Socialism, whose evils are in some manifestations real enough, seems to explain far too much for the far-out fringes of the Reagan administration. It is the handy, all-purpose culprit, whose invocation leaves aside such human failings as greed, bad faith, racial and cultural conflict, and maladministration.
James Watt's turbulent stewardship at the Department of the Interior may, as his defenders argue, be a matter of pluses and minuses. But whatever the secretary's virtues on good days, he arouses such violent antipathy that they are hardly noticed.
President Reagan, himself something of a conservationist by sentiment, ought to find an interior secretary who could pursue conservative policies without gross insult to American history.
Detractors have been calling for Watt's scalp at every opportunity, and there has been no dearth of opportunities. But he seems to benefit from the "let 'em scream" view that there is advantage in alienating conservationists (and now Indians) just for the hell of it.
It must amuse the president and his advisers to keep Watt around for more or less the same reason that it amuses some people to keep surly dogs in their yards.
But when you have acknowledged the barking dog excuse, what other justification for Watt is there?