Jim Watt has a problem. In the Reagan era no public official, short of the president, has been the subject of more news stories, articles, analyses, cartoons, profiles and, certainly, controversy. Yet despite all this almost daily attention, he said, he has not been able to "penetrate Page One."
Oh, he's on Page One, all right. But what you see there is false, or so he believes.
"It's a shameful thing that the truth has not been able to get outside," he said. The truth is that "we have such an outstanding record" and that "we've moved America" and that "we've really had a phenomenal program." He added:
"We introduced some philosophies that the Congress adopted in spite of Page One. Because what I'm going to tell you is totally inconsistent with Page One. We've brought all this through the process, through the appropriations. All of my critics have voted with me. Without exception. Which is an interesting phenomenon. The hypocrisy of Washington never ceases to amaze me."
This was all part of a process, he said across a luncheon table in his office the other day, in which "I'm going to lobby you hard on the truth."
Which he did, in typical Watt fashion: absolutely sure of himself, candid, quietly combative and saying things that are, at the least, provocative and will probably generate even more criticism from his legion of detractors.
In its 134 years of existence, the Department of Interior has been led by 43 secretaries. Some have been great. Among them are Gifford Pinchot and Harold Ickes, who added luster to the record of American public service. Some have been corrupt. Albert B. Fall, Warren G. Harding's interior secretary, the most notable, or infamous, in that category, ended up in the penitentiary over the Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s. Most are unremembered.
Where James G. Watt eventually will stand among this group remains to be seen, but already he rates as one of the strongest and most controversial interior secretaries in history. He is, to a degree unmatched in this reporter's experience, the model of the true believer come to power.
"When I interviewed for the job with Reagan, and he offered it to me, and I said I would come," he recalled, "I said there had to be this understanding: that I would bring controversy if I were to accomplish his agenda. And by the way his agenda, the third paragraph in his acceptance speech in Detroit, called for the reduction of dependency on foreign energy sources. It's that high of an element.
"So I said if I bring the changes you've outlined in your campaign, there will be tremendous controversy, and you'll need to back me and back me and back me until you no longer can back me--and then fire me. 'Cause we weren't coming in here to run a popularity contest. We were coming in here with an agenda to change the course of America."
That theme of tenacious determination runs through his conversation. "My popularity is soaring with the people I respect," he said. "Not with the masses. But I didn't come to be popular."
Most importantly, he remains convinced that he has the total backing of Ronald Reagan. "We have--these are my words, not his--a soul-brother relationship," Watt said. "We are from the same philosophical cut. Yes, different generations, but he speaks as a westerner. We speak the same language. He can give me instructions with a nod or a word that he might have to spend with an eastern dude three paragraphs."
Problems at the Environmental Protection Agency, which led to the resignation under pressure of his friend and, in some respects, protege, Anne M. Burford, inevitably make Watt think what might happen if he, too, becomes a political liability for the administration.
"I'd leave immediately," he said. "I'm here to serve the president. Cabinet officers are expendable and should have no rights. You're here to serve the pleasure of your master. The president owes me nothing, the party owes me nothing, the country owes me nothing. When my usefulness, in a substantive or political role, has expired, I should be jettisoned. And I will jettison myself, or the president will, without fuss or fanfare."
If anything, Burford's fate has strengthened Watt's determination.
"It's made me realize how tenuous life is," he explained. "And we're more determined in driving harder and faster here to accelerate the pace so our agenda will be completed when I leave. You don't have any more opportunities. So I've got to be successful. And so instead of causing a personality like me to back off and say, 'Well, let the waters calm,' my objective is not to survive and hang on, my objective is to serve the president and bring about the changes that are essential for this country. And we've got a long ways to go."
Of the Burford affair, Watt spoke with uncharacteristic guardedness.
"The press didn't bring her down, and the White House didn't bring her down. She didn't bring herself down. She was brought down by external forces I'm not free to talk about. It is a battle that is not yet over, and I intend to make it a battle. Because of the tremendous respect I have for her and absolute loyalty I have for the president, I'm not free to pursue it. But it confirmed to us many things that we knew. It confirmed the lessons that we had learned throughout these years.
" . . . I came with Hill experience, with lobbying experience, with seven years' experience here, with two years as vice chairman of the Federal Power Commission, and I knew the system. I knew how to come in this town and get along by going along, the old Sam Rayburn type of thing. And fit in and leave in eight years as a nice guy that everybody kind of enjoyed. Nice Old Jim. He's a good guy.
"The president framed the issues in 1980 in a way that I viewed life. And I realized that we had one opportunity to make the massive change that I thought essential to the country. And that you couldn't bring about the change in the traditional--let me say, I don't mean this in the degrading way--but in a traditional Jerry Ford manner. The old establishment working it out.
"I had a luxury that I defined for myself that helped me approach this: that if I failed in the orthodox approach, I would equal the record of my predecessors." He laughed. "So the risks were very little."
Watt's view, of course, is that by employing what he calls "an unorthodox approach," and to his critics a radical, destructive one, he has succeeded. As he said, "We have chosen to use the budget process to bring the massive change we've wrought--and, boy, we've brought massive change. I mean, it's really massive. But we've done it through the appropriations process by changing the allocations and priorities and so forth."
It is here that Watt's view of his achievements and those of his critics collide dramatically.
To Watt, the record shows that he has begun a program to restore America's national parks; that his record is vastly better than that of the Carter administration when, as he said, his congressional critics "not only voted to cut restoration funds but acquisition funds, and they won't 'fess up to it," and that the Reagan policies are leading the way to make the United States independent of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Arab oil states. By opening up public lands, by dramatically accelerating leasing of drilling sites off America's coastline, he is paving the way to energy independence in the future. None of this is understood by the public. It doesn't make Page One.
There, Watt believes his critics triumph. Once nonpartisan environmental groups have turned against Reagan and himself and become "a partisan, hard-line, left of center action group . . . that has waged vicious battle on us" and has "spent millions of dollars preaching hatred and manipulating the press to put up their point of view without regard to fact."
Lunch was over. An aide told Watt he was late for his next appointment, an unscheduled meeting in the grand wood-paneled formal office of the interior secretary. He walked into the room to find it filled with his political appointees and his wife. They had assembled as a show of support for him in view of the abuse, as a speaker said, he has been taking lately.
Then he was presented a gift, a large circular wooden plaque, handcarved by the father of an aide. Inside a ring bearing the carved words of the United States Interior Department was the figure of an exquisitely fashioned buffalo.
It was, as Watt was told amid applause, appropriately facing right.