Interior Secretary James G. Watt yesterday characterized the commission reviewing his embattled coal-leasing program by saying, "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."
Watt made the remarks in a speech defending his energy-development programs at a breakfast meeting of 200 lobbyists who belong to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Amid the torrent of criticism that followed from commission members, Jews, blacks, members of Congress, environmentalists and the handicapped, Watt issued a statement calling his words "unfortunate."
"I have apologized to the one member of the commission who is handicapped," Watt said in a statement. "I remain very proud of the commission, which is made up of highly talented people, reflecting a broad cross section of our population."
Commission member Richard L. Gordon, a coal-policy expert from Pennsylvania State University, said in a telephone interview that Watt called him shortly after the speech, said he had made the remarks "in jest" and apologized for referring to him as a "cripple." Gordon said that his right arm is paralyzed.
"Depending on how you define crippled, I am the cripple, and I am one of the Jews. I fit two of them," Gordon said after hearing a tape of Watt's remarks.
"I am disturbed that he decided to describe our race, religion and other characteristics.
"The point should be that we are intelligent, experienced, well-informed people undertaking a serious and conscientious study."
Watt appointed the five-member panel at the behest of Congress to investigate charges that his coal-leasing program has cost taxpayers $100 million by placing too much government-owned coal on the market at a time of recession and slack demand. The commission is expected to report by Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Senate, in a surprising setback for Watt, voted, 76 to 18, yesterday to place a moratorium on the leasing program until 90 days after the commission's report is delivered.
Watt told his audience that the panel, chaired by University of Illinois economist David Linowes, also includes three Democrats and two Republicans.
Linowes, noting that he is Jewish and a Democrat, said Watt's remark "may strike me as of less concern than it strikes others" because he knows from experience that Watt "does not have a track record of bigotry."
Asked by a member of the audience if his remarks were ill-advised given the administration's poor standing with minorities, Watt responded, "It shows you don't have a sense of humor if you can't laugh at yourself . . . . If you can't joke about things, you shouldn't be in Washington."
After the speech, commission member Donald C. Alexander, who was in the audience, said he confronted Watt and told him, "I did not find the remark to be funny. I don't think race, sex, religious affiliation or physical disabilities are funny. Nor do I think they are relevant to our work."
Alexander is a Washington attorney, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and a Republican. "In view of the fact that I'm not a woman, I'm not black and I'm not a member of the Jewish faith, then presumably I'm a mental cripple," he said he told Watt.
Watt's remark touched off a media furor. In response to requests from the three major television networks, the Chamber of Commerce distributed videotapes of the speech.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote to President Reagan saying he was "disgusted and appalled" by Watt's "gross insensitivity." An aide said Coelho, who has epilepsy, wrote the letter as a handicapped individual, not as a Democrat.
The remarks, known to many Watt watchers as "Wattisms," were the latest in a series of inflammatory statements by Watt.
In others, he has distinguished between Democrats and Republicans as "liberals and Americans." He has warned the Israeli ambassador that U.S. support for Israel may be jeopardized if "liberals of the Jewish community" oppose his offshore oil drilling program.
He has also described Indian reservations as "examples of the failure of socialism in America" and has likened the environmental movement to the forces that created Nazism in Germany.
Watt has also said that he can sympathize with survivors of the Holocaust because he has been persecuted in Washington for his beliefs. He recently likened support for legalized abortion to "the forces that created the Holocaust."
In each case, Watt has said afterward that he was misinterpreted. Yesterday his spokesman, Douglas Baldwin, said that Watt "was attempting to convey that this is a very broadly based commission."
"He knew as soon as he said the word, cripple, he should not have used it. And lo and behold, a word made news," Baldwin said.
Asked how Watt knows that two members of the panel are Jewish, Linowes said that the commission attempted to hold one of its organizational meetings this month on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Linowes said he and Gordon pointed out at the time that they would be attending religious services.
Baldwin said that Watt sees no need to apologize for his remarks other than his reference to Gordon's disability. But commission members other than Linowes apparently disagreed.
Commissioner Julia Walsh, a Washington investment-management adviser, said that she considers Watt's remarks "terribly unfortunate."
Andrew F. Brimmer, president of a financial consulting firm and a former member of the Federal Reserve Board, said, "I personally do not object to the secretary or anyone else noticing I'm black, but I would have expected when the secretary looked at us, he would see first of all a diverse group of highly talented Americans."
Linowes, who worked with Watt a year ago investigating oil and gas royalty payments, said, "It would take someone trained in a very different discipline than mine" to explain Watt's penchant for controversy. "Maybe somebody will have to go back into his childhood."
Watt's remark drew laughter from his audience, which was composed predominantly of trade association executives who belong to the chamber. But Alexander said, "I'm not sure whether they laughed because they found it to be funny or embarrassing." The Chamber declined to comment on Watt's remarks.
In his off-the-cuff speech, which lasted about 20 minutes, Watt criticized the House and Senate for attempting to place a moratorium on coal leasing at a time when, he said, U.S. energy supplies are threatened by the Iran-Iraq war and the fighting in Central America.
"The world is ready to ignite," Watt said, "and your secretary of the Interior has to deal with 535 members of Congress that don't seem to be concerned about the future supply of energy in America."