Q. Mrs. Burford, are you getting ready to resign?
A. I'm getting ready to go to work, gentlemen. And it's becoming increasingly difficult when I have press people peering through my windows while I'm trying to get dressed.
That exchange between Anne M. Burford and reporters occurred as her car pulled up to the Environmental Protection Agency two days before her resignation and about two weeks after she became the latest public official to experience the ordeal of stakeout journalism.
The incident to which she referred had taken place while she was dressing inside her Arlington home. She looked up to find herself staring--eyeball to eyeball, as a member of her staff later described it to this reporter--at a member of the press positioned at her window. The same sorts of things took place when Richard V. Allen's home became a press campground earlier in the Reagan administration. Members of the press climbed trees to look into the windows of the national security adviser's home, seeking what deathless insights and information one can only guess.
These episodes form a familiar and unhappy pattern. They reinforce an already strong belief that some of the ways in which the press performs contributes to the continuing destruction of public officials.
The idea that Burford has become the latest victim of the superheated Washington media/political/congressional drama, in which the leak, the innuendo, the anonymous charge and the stakeout are central ingredients, undoubtedly will take deeper root. She alluded to it briefly in her farewell news conference when she spoke of the problems of "government by allegation," and the president appears to be one of those who believes she was deposed through media-political excesses.
Serious problems certainly exist in this respect, not the least being that the circus atmosphere obscures examination of the issues.
On the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, Wallace Stegner, the western writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, in a provocative article commissioned by this newspaper, posed a series of questions about how the new president would handle the concerns of the American West.
"Does Reagan represent the West and, if so, what West?" he asked. "He owns a ranchette and a couple hundred head of tax-deductible cows, and he is often photographed on a horse. Is he a westerner such as LBJ, with knowledge of and interest in western problems, or one such as Richard Nixon, whose priorities were elsewhere and who was almost totally indifferent to problems of the region? How much does Reagan actually know about the West?"
Stegner's main question, as he raised it, was whether Reagan as president would ride with the raiders or the conservationists. That is, whether he would take his stand with the pro-development, anti-government, anti-regulationists as embodied by the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion hard-liners who want to turn over public lands into private hands. Or whether he would attempt to set a national record of environmental concern and conservation achievements of which he had boasted during his days as governor of California.
To Stegner, Reagan's announced choice of James G. Watt as interior secretary was not reassuring. "Watt," he observed, "expresses Reagan's probable intentions as bluntly as a kick in the shins." Still, the final answers awaited the unfolding of the Reagan presidency.
It certainly can be said now, after two years of experience, that Watt was the model and example for others. He took his cue from Reagan and rode with the raiders. And Anne Gorsuch Burford faithfully followed their lead in carrying out their policy wishes.
There should be no surprise about this. During his presidential campaign, Reagan strongly backed the Sagebrush Rebellion Haynes Johnson MODEL ----people. He reiterated his support for them after his election. On this, as on so many other matters, he has been entirely consistent and aboveboard. Not once has he tried to hide his views or refrain from stating them publicly.
Glance through newspaper files of the last two years, and you'll find them filled with Page One stories about anti-environmental actions of Watt's Interior Department and Burford's EPA. Repeatedly, Reagan has defended them, and his record, in the strongest terms.
His latest remarks on the subject, delivered with heat at a news conference Friday, again lumped his critics as "environmental extremists," a phrase Reagan has employed continually and since long before he became president. His flavorful reference to their wishing to make the White House look like a bird's nest merely underscores the strength of his conviction.
Nor do all of the sinister accusations about EPA's coziness with business and polluters really break new ground unless, of course, it is shown that proven criminal misconduct has been taking place internally there. The basic relationship between the two in this Reagan era has been there for all to see all along. The question has been how faithfully and well the public interest has been upheld, as mandated by laws governing various environmental actions and procedures. That has been what Republican and Democratic members of Congress alike have been seeking to document in multiple inquiries.
The question, as the president expressed it Friday, involves a matter of public interpretation. Is the Reagan environmental record one that inspires public confidence and respect or not? The president believes so. "This administration can be very proud," he says.
Whether that judgment will be endorsed by other Americans, and especially westerners, remains to be seen. If the president really holds no doubts on that score, his political operatives should, especially if he plans to run for reelection, as appears more and more likely. Washington carnival aside, something more than a made-by-the-media-and-political-opportunists has been at work lately.
Members of Congress of both parties know the importance of pollution of the environment as an issue with constituents. In terms of genuine concern, it ranks with Social Security and health care. It surely will figure as a major political issue in the 1984 presidental election.
Depending on how Reagan handles EPA and Watt's actions at Interior, the environmental issue seems certain to bear directly on another crucial aspect of next year's presidential choice--the West's electoral power. In terms of population and electoral votes, the way to the White House lies through the West, increasingly a Republican presidential route. Only once since 1964 have Democrats managed to carry a western state, and that, narrowly, was Washington in 1968.
The guess here is that unless this administration shows a change of course in this area, that solid Republican presidential West will crack next year. And it will be Reagan, the westerner, who will pay the political price.
A word about the press, prompted by what we've been witnessing.
Every reporter, including this one, has experienced the problems of being part of the herd on a major story. Of necessity, much of our business involves catastrophe. We are forced, like it or not, to participate in journalistic death watches, literal or figurative. Often these make us seem like ghouls or harpies, bad news moths flickering around the tragedies of life. Many legitimate questions flow from these incidents, and many are probably unanswerable.
One thing's for sure. You don't have to break and enter or violate someone's privacy to get a story or a picture. Whenever that happens, it diminishes not only the press. It demeans the entire process by which the public is informed.