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?

Jose and J.O. decide to book Babbitt on a later airplane.
Babbitt, dressed in an elegant gray suit, enters the conference room. It's immediately apparent to anyone who has followed Babbitt's career that he's aging remarkably well. Except for a few liver spots on his hands, he looks much younger than his 58 years. Tall, unstooped, slender, he still has a full head of hair the color of a desert sand dune. He's tanned and fit from all the hikes and forest-fire fighting adventures that Republicans say amount to little more than campaign stunts for Clinton.

This is a tough audience. Several months ago, after allegations surfaced that the BIA had lost tens of millions in Indian trust-fund monies, a trustee appointed by Interior ordered an audit. The audit has yet to be concluded, but few Indians would dispute that the BIA is a top-heavy, inefficient bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, Babbitt urges Indians not to dismantle the agency. "If you all want me to abolish the BIA, I'll do it," he says. "I won't do it willingly. There is a fiduciary responsibility that cannot be ignored. If anyone proposes to get rid of the BIA, you ask them where that fiduciary responsibility will be going."

Although archives of Babbitt's speeches reveal he's fought not to reduce the BIA's budget, several Indians don't think he's fought hard enough. "You are dishonest," says one delegate. "The Bureau of Land Management and the national parks and other departments in the Interior carry a higher budgetary priority than the BIA."

"You can change the trend," Babbitt says when the man is finished, by helping to plan "how this budget goes to the Hill."

"We need you to dance that Indian dance for us," says another delegate. "We need you to direct the BIA to get more involved with us. Everything is a priority in Indian Country. It sort of bothers me, it seems to me I sound like I'm begging for things again. I need you and the BIA to stand with us. I need you to play a stronger role, an advocacy role. We have to say these things openly."

In the end, Babbitt wins over the crowd, impressing it with his detailed, current knowledge of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, water law and fishing rights.

When Babbitt strolls out of the room at 5:30 p.m., the group gives him a standing ovation.

Jose waits in the rental car.
Babbitt crunches his tall frame into the back seat, carefully folds his jacket, rearranges his books, briefcase and documents.

"I don't want to steer 100 miles off course, but I haven't eaten since breakfast," Babbitt tells Jose, who subsequently pulls up to a McDonald's in Prescott Valley. Babbitt jumps out, returns with a chocolate milk shake. He slurps through a straw, looking out the car window.

He missed the scent of the desert after a summer rainstorm so much, he says, that he once clipped a sprig off a creosote bush, carried it back to Washington and hung it in the shower, hoping to re-create the smell. He couldn't.

Bruce Babbitt has never had much to do with his family's cattle business. His father was a lawyer. Babbitt did not like to ride horses or rope steers. He rarely visited the family ranch.

But when it is politically expedient, he exploits the Babbitt clan's ownership of a ranch, a very large ranch, in northern Arizona. "I grew up in a little tiny town in northern Arizona in a family that has been in the ranching business since the mid-1880s, and which has kind of identified with that place and the experience of living as Westerners in that landscape for three, four, five generations, and I grew up in that cultural context," Babbitt said during an interview in 1994, when he was trying to reform outdated grazing policies on federal land.

The Babbitt clan was, indeed, what passed for aristocracy in Flagstaff, but the family made most of its fortune with its general stores and trading posts. Even today, many Babbitts are merchants, selling Fords, skis, hardware and practically everything else in stores that bear the Babbitt name and are scattered throughout northern Arizona.

When Babbitt was 5 years old, his father, Paul, then an attorney practicing in Los Angeles, returned to Flagstaff to become the family's corporate attorney.

Paul Babbitt was a soft-spoken, intellectual fellow who loved the out-of-doors, often taking his six children on Saturday outings to the country. You can live here your whole lives, Paul would say, and never know this place. He died in 1988.

People who knew Babbitt's late mother, Frances, recall she had elegant manners, was "powerful" and "dignified." Frances, who died in 1995, followed each detail of her son's political career, even to the point of clipping every newspaper article she could find that mentioned her son's name. When Bruce Babbitt, then the attorney general of Arizona, unexpectedly became governor after the sitting governor suffered a fatal heart attack, Frances expressed disappointment that her son's ambitious plan to run for Barry Goldwater's Senate seat had to be put on hold. When Babbitt ran for governor in the next election, Frances was sorry her son's victory came with a narrow margin.

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