Babbitt's Interior

As the White House flips and flops, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt takes his environmental losses and victories in stride. Is his stoicism a necessary virtue or a political vice?

Richard Anderson and Bruce Babbitt were the best of pals growing up in Flagstaff during the 1950s. They lived half a block away from each other, played childhood games together, skied together, went to school together.

And one day, Anderson remembers, he punched Bruce Babbitt in the face.
The youngsters, then students at Flagstaff High School, were attending Arizona Boys State, a legislative and governmental seminar for teenagers interested in public service. During the course of "a horrible political argument," Anderson says, his cerebral friend remained calm and controlled, showed no emotion, pressed his point over and over.

"I got furious," says Anderson. "Finally, I smacked him. He maintained control, looked at me and walked away. I felt very badly about that and still do."

Outwardly, at least, Bruce Babbitt has always been a measured, guarded person--the type who can take a punch and merely blink and walk away.

That imperturbability has served him well throughout his political life--as Arizona attorney general, two-term Arizona governor, failed presidential candidate and Secretary of the Interior, where he has endured a thrashing from all sides.

President Clinton twice came to the verge of nominating him to be a Supreme Court justice, only to pass him over both times.

Babbitt accepted with stoic grace what most saw as a humiliating snub.
He arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1993 with great plans, initially backed by the Clinton administration, for broad reforms of arcane grazing, mining and timber regulations on federal lands.

But some of those hoped-for reforms failed after the White House withdrew support, buckling to pressure from Democratic senators from mining and ranching states.

Then, in 1995, Clinton signed a rider to an appropriations bill that sabotaged federal logging restrictions--restrictions that had been agreed to in the Northwest Forest Plan, a much-publicized agreement in which Babbitt played a key advisory role.

As a result, neither environmentalists nor industry groups have been happy with Babbitt's performance at Interior.

Babbitt's brother Charles, a Phoenix attorney and environmentalist, says, "It's no secret that a lot of the stuff that made environmentalists mad was played against the backdrop of Clinton getting reelected."

William Myers, director of the Public Lands Council, a lobbying group for the livestock industry, contends that Babbitt has a trust problem. "He says one thing, it sounds good, you feel good about talking to him and everyone is all smiles. And then it will not turn out to be the way he says," Myers says.

Even the Babbitt accomplishments that the White House hasn't undercut--especially those dealing with his search for consensus solutions to Endangered Species Act conflicts--have been criticized by environmentalists, who say the pacts suffer from insufficient science and too much politicking.

Of course, Bruce Babbitt would never say anything publicly about being let down by the White House. The consummate, controlled appointee, Babbitt understands political realities: Clinton withdrew support for grazing and mining reform in 1993 to get Democratic and Republican support on other issues--health care, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the budget.

The idea that Clinton abandoned him, says Babbitt, is simply wrong.
"I'm a big boy," Babbitt said in one of two interviews with New Times. "I was hired to lead these fights, not to sit around and whine about where everybody was. Whatever happened in 1993, I gotta tell ya, he's [Clinton's] there now."

And now, Clinton seems to have rediscovered Babbitt. Especially after White House pollsters learned that the majority of American voters actually do favor strong environmental protection, Babbitt became the point man in the administration's defense against Republican efforts to gut critical environmental laws, including Babbitt's favorite, the Endangered Species Act.

The Republicans have responded with an attack of their own. They will hold hearings next month on the results of a recently released audit that alleges irregularities in three Nevada land swaps handled by the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior. Although no evidence has surfaced suggesting that Babbitt was involved in the swaps, two of the deals involve Arizona companies and the third was put together by a conservancy group that Babbitt once belonged to.

Despite the poor publicity, the White House is not abandoning Babbitt. And Babbitt is standing by Clinton.

Literally.
On the Fourth of July, Babbitt stood near Clinton when the president released a rehabilitated wild eagle into the Maryland sky in what appeared to be little more than a campaign event.

Just the day before, Babbitt had no firm idea that he would be with the president on the Fourth of July. In fact, Babbitt had plans to be in Arizona. But when the president called, Babbitt immediately changed his schedule and raced back to Washington.

After releasing the eagle, the president thanked Babbitt, explaining that the Interior secretary had endured more "personal attacks for standing up for America's environment" than any other member of the administration.

"He has fought a long and sometimes lonely battle," Clinton said.
Everyone applauded, but Clinton's comment raises central questions: Is Bruce Babbitt's willingness to put up with a White House that seems continually to hang him out to dry a sign of political finesse, a recognition of the realities of policy-making at the cabinet level, as his friends suggest? Or does it reveal a chameleonlike flexibility, the ability to subordinate important policy concerns to political expediency and ambition, as his enemies suggest?

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