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?

Or is Bruce Babbitt a man so guarded and complex that neither friend nor enemy has grasped his essence?

During the course of Bruce Babbitt's political career, journalists have profiled him any number of times. He is often cast favorably, but thinly, as a larger-than-life, archetypal Western character, the intellectually gifted scion of a ranching family who became environmentally enlightened and rode off to Capitol Hill to fight the evils threatening the planet.

Babbitt, who dismisses such characterizations as "superficial," can name only two articles about him that he really likes. One, a 1993 Rolling Stone piece detailing his ideas on environmental reform, he remembers because it made him sound more profound than he recalls being. The second, a piece written by Primary Colors author Joe Klein, appeared in New York magazine following the 1988 presidential campaign. One small section of the article describes Babbitt pulling on a beer in an Iowa bar and asserting that his failures in the campaign drew him closer to his sons, Christopher and TJ, who learned that their struggling father needed their support.

When several of Babbitt's friends are asked to describe him, they all immediately note that he's a devoted parent. And they say he is an eclectic intellectual, an avid reader, a fan of writers Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner, a guy who truly has a reverence for the land.

If none of these observations seems to run deep, that may be because Bruce Babbitt has talked publicly about all of them. And although these "public" character traits seem to be genuine, Babbitt has also used them to his political advantage.

It is clear that Babbitt has a real, spiritual connection to land and a passion for the out-of-doors. Reverence for the land showed up in Babbitt's early writings, long before he expressed political ambitions. And as a young man, Babbitt became disenchanted with the Catholic religion and explored spiritual philosophies of Native American friends.

Recently, Babbitt framed one of his political goals--saving and rethinking the Endangered Species Act--in a spiritual context. And religious leaders, traditional allies of the far right, rallied to help defeat a Republican bill that would have gutted the act.

The "newly elected Congress was armed with an agenda that was both hostile to God's creation and determined to dismantle the very legal tools--especially the Endangered Species Act--that allow us to restore it," he said to a religious convention several months ago.

And he meant it.
But even Babbitt's closest friends and relatives are hard-pressed to explain how he really feels about most other things.

"People vastly underestimate his breadth of character and emotion. It is because he is very self-contained and measured," says Fred DuVal, a longtime friend and former gubernatorial staffer who is now a deputy campaign manager for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign.

"He's very shy, and his reluctance to be emotionally overt comes from his shyness, not from a lack of emotional depth. He's a very sensitive guy, but he's not communicative about his emotions. You learn to read it in his face, his demeanor, his reaction to things."

Babbitt is comfortable having one-on-one conversations about policy and philosophy, but is awkward and clumsy in social situations. Some friends joke that Babbitt fibbed when he admitted, during the 1988 presidential campaign, that he'd tried marijuana years before.

"Bruce has a hard time being one of the guys," a close friend says. "He tries, but it just doesn't come across."

Babbitt himself says not having to go to parties and fund raisers is one of the better things about his Interior job. Friends, meanwhile, say he may be content to soldier along for Clinton because he's lost much of his political ambition. Unless he is nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court or to an ambassadorship, he may have attained his highest political post.

"I'll buy that, I guess," Babbitt says, when asked if his ambitions are diminished.

But he seems uncomfortable when he's queried about emotions, or how he feels, often deflecting the question with a joke or a platitude. "I'm not very introspective," he says, suggesting that he's always been too busy to spend much time looking inward.

"I've got a lot of things to do when I get up in the morning," he says, with just a hint of sarcasm.

Luckily for the people attending a Native American conference in Prescott this midsummer afternoon, Bruce Babbitt has no last-minute travel changes, no eagles to release.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is an agency within the Department of the Interior, and the conferees in Prescott are planning next year's budget. They need Babbitt's political clout to derail drastic cuts proposed by the Republican majority.

But he's an hour late. And the conferees wonder whether he'll show up at all.

Finally he arrives, dashes into a side room, gets briefed by aides.
A well-muscled man named J.O., who is one of Babbitt's driver-bodyguards, clears the men's rest room in case Babbitt needs to use it before speaking. J.O. seems a bit harried. He mutters something about how Babbitt's Washington scheduling office doesn't understand the vast distances in the West. It's almost four o'clock. Babbitt has yet to speak to the group. That will take at least an hour. Maybe two hours. How in the world will Jose, the relief driver, be able to deliver Babbitt to the Phoenix airport, at least a two-hour drive from Prescott, in time to catch a 6:30 flight to Oregon?

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