James Watt is dead. Finally. Of all the Reagan appointees, Watt has a serious claim to be the worst. And that’s a high bar!
Born in Lusk, Wyoming in 1938, Watt graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1960 and then from Wyoming’s law school in 1962. He became friends with another young Wyoming Republican—Alan Simpson, whose father was the state’s senator. He became an aide to Millard Simpson, working on natural resource issues. Simpson and Watt were politicians of the rural West dedicated to ensuring the government worked for ranchers, miners, and timber operators and that the growing environmental movement did not impact those areas at all. Watt got a job with the Chamber of Commerce, working as the secretary of the Natural Resources Committee and Environmental Pollution Advisory Panel of the Chamber, working to fight for more pollution.
This all led Watt into the halls of power. Richard Nixon, Last True Liberal Unlike Sellout Barack Obama For Signing Environmental Legislation That Passed Congress 415-3, named this stalwart environmentalist deputy assistant secretary of water and power development in the Department of Interior in 1969. Then Ford named him vice-chairman of the Federal Power Commission in 1975. He left that when Carter took power in 1977 and became the head of the loathsome Mountain States Legal Foundation.
This was the baby of Joe Coors, fascist and beer capitalist. Outraged that crazy things such as affirmative action and pollution controls were applied to the West, Coors hired Watt to run this lobbying organization. Some of his early acts were to file lawsuits opposing lower utility rates for the elderly, opposing affirmative action, and opposing safety inspections for corporations. Nice guy. The Mountain States Legal Foundation under Watt was also very involved in the most astroturf movement of all time—the Sagebrush Rebellion, in which rich landowners and their employees started raising havoc in the West over government control of resources, which they were always fine with so long as the government served their interests. But with environmentalism a thing now, they had no use for competing interests and demanded the return of these lands to the states. In other words, Cliven Bundy and his followers are followers of James Watt. This is the kind of person Watt empowered.
Watt headed the MSLF until 1981, when Reagan tapped him to become Secretary of Interior. Environmentalists were horrified. Greg Wetstone was the chief environment counsel for the House Environment and Energy Committee. He noted that, along with the vile Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA (yes, mother of Neil), Watt was one of the two most “intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees” in American history. This is true, at least to that point, though of course Donald Trump has completely blown this out of the water. Watt’s appointment represented the politicization of environmentalism and a backlash by industry interests. People forget that much early environmental legislation was sponsored by fairly conservative Republicans. It took a solid decade of environmentalism for corporations to even figure out how to respond. People such as Watt showed that by 1981, they had figured it out. It would take another couple decades to really turn the corner on repealing the gains of the environmental movement, but Watt’s appointment really laid the groundwork for what is happening today.
Watt brought the Sagebrush Rebellion to the halls of Washington. Giving a speech in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, he stated, “We inherited an abused land from that administration that was kicked out of office…. What I inherited was a land that had been set aside and deprived of development.” Instead, as he frequently said, “We must restore America to her former greatness.” MAGA! Greatness of course being the massive exploitation of resources for the few. He argued that his task was to “undo fifty years of bad government,” by which he meant protecting natural resources. He came up with plans to decertify national parks. He bragged about how much of the ocean he was leasing to oil and gas companies. He wanted to give over the entire American West to the same oil and gas interests and he strongly resisted even private owners giving land to the government for permanent protection.
Now, Watt’s effectiveness in pushing that corporate agenda was undermined by the fact that he was a complete fool. His appointment led to record donations to the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, mobilizing the environmental community against the upcoming corporate assault like nothing else to that date. At the very least, that provided a bulwark against anti-environmentalism over the next decade. Statements such as saying environmental regulation “is centralized planning and control of society” akin to fascism and socialism and bragging that “we will use the budget system as an excuse to make major policy decisions” certainly kept reminding environmentalists of the catastrophic threat of the Reagan administration.
Moreover, Watt routinely embarrassed himself. Before Congress, he testified, I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations…. It’s been 2,000 years since the last coming of Christ and it might be another 2,000 before the second coming.”
He openly talked of his apocalyptic version of Christianity as part of his resource management plans. Why bother long-term planning when Christ was returning at some point in the future? He stated, “my responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.” Just make the money now!
Then there was his war against The Beach Boys. Between 1980 and 1982, The Beach Boys and The Grass Roots, a somewhat lesser known band today that had some hits in the 60s, played Independence Day concerts on the National Mall. In 1983, Watt banned them. Why? He thought rock music encouraged drugs and alcohol and that these concerts were bringing “the wrong element” to Washington, leading to rock fans robbing other people. I really question whether Watt had even heard a Beach Boys song. He wasn’t that much older than them, but he was as square as his native state. Instead, Watt invited someone nice and wholesome to perform instead: Wayne Newton.
Watt also didn’t realize that Nancy Reagan was a fan of the Beach Boys. Even George H.W. Bush said, “They’re my friends, and I like their music.” I kind of doubt Bush was hanging out with Brian Wilson, but this had become a political football, the ultimate in unforced errors. Watt was highly embarrassed when the Reagans publicly apologized to the band. Newton was still invited to perform, as he was a big Reagan supporter, but he was booed when he came out. Watt became the butt of Johnny Carson jokes, not really what corporate hacks were looking for out of their toadie.
All of this led to early speculation that Watt would be the first Reagan Cabinet member to go, although Al Haig’s power grab after the assassination attempt led to him winning that sweepstakes. He was such a political hothead that he threatened the Republican Party throughout the West. California Republicans feared he would cost them the state in 1982 because of the issue of offshore drilling, a sensitive subject in the state after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, though George Deukmejian did pull out a tight victory over Tom Bradley for the governorship that fall. It helped that other leading Republicans, including Barry Goldwater and California senator S.I. Hayakawa, came out strongly against the drilling. Moreover, because Democrats controlled Congress, they managed to stop most of Watt’s agenda. Morris Udall, who headed the House Interior Committee, noted that even Republicans thought Watt was nuts; “White House people are beginning to worry that this department is being run by a guy so far off the mainstream that he is going to get them into all kinds of trouble.” On the other hand, the head of the National Coal Association said of him, “We’re deliriously happy.” Of course the coal industry would love Watt.
Watt’s idiocy knew few bounds. He gave an interview where he stated, “If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don’t go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations.” Note that the Bureau of Indian Affairs falls under the Interior Department and people like Watt had been seeking to eliminate Native people from any governmental jurisdiction for a very long time, including the Republican-led Termination program of the 1950s. Finally, Watt was pushed out after giving a speech in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he mocked affirmative action by saying of a departmental coal leasing panel, “We have every mixture you can have. I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” Three weeks later, he was gone, not so much because of the sentiment. I can only imagine the racist and sexist jokes told inside the Reagan White House. But Watt told them publicly. He would have fit perfectly in the Trump White House, but there were still quiet parts then. Watt was so bad that he was named #6 on a Time Worst 10 Cabinet Officials list. That’s about the only accolade he ever deserved.
One would like to think Watt was permanently shamed after he left office. But in truth, he was tremendously influential. His legacy, minus the big mouth, is what Republicans now look for in a Secretary of the Interior. George W. Bush’s first Interior choice, Gale Norton, was a direct protégé of Watt. Trump’s horrible choice, Ryan Zinke, seemed intent of giving Albert Fall a run for his money on corruption while engaging in Watt-esque land management practices.
Watt himself instantly made bank by going to work as a lobbyist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He went full-on corrupt at this point. In 1983, he was indicted on making false statements to a grand jury investigating influence peddling at HUD and in 1996 pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of perjury and withholding documents. Of course, he suffered no real consequences, getting five years probation, 500 hours of community service, and—wait for it—a whole $5,000 fine. Wow, I’m sure one of the most connected Republicans in America really went bankrupt over that overbearing example of justice!
Watt was of course ecstatic over George W. Bush’s election, the imposition of Norton upon the nation, and Bush’s natural resource policies. In truth though, Bush committed less damage on this front than environmentalists feared. Somewhat, uh, distracted with other issues, the Orwellian named Healthy Forests Act and other such Wattesque laws didn’t receive the push they needed to return the West to the 50s-era exploitation of Watt’s dreams.
I can’t find any particularly useful information on Watt’s later life but he ended up in Arizona, where he died. America is much better off without him.
As for the image, I found this years ago while doing archival research for my book Empire of Timber. I think it comes from the Hoedad papers at the University of Oregon, which was a countercultural reforestation collective in the 70s and 80s. They did not like James Watt. I’ve been saving it for this occasion.