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?

In the 1950s, Flagstaff had fewer than 10,000 people. The Babbitts were the town aristocrats, and Bruce Babbitt developed a sense of self-control and reserve early. A nun who taught Babbitt in the second grade at St. Anthony's Catholic School remembered her pupil as being "rather serious for a small boy."

As Babbitt grew into a teenager, he became what can only be called a nerd.
Uncoordinated and awkward, he had pimples, wore big glasses, excelled in his classes. He dressed in loafers, Levi's rolled up at the cuffs, neatly pressed short-sleeved shirts.

"Cool was the thing to be," says childhood friend Richard Anderson. "Everyone else was trying to be cool. You know. Levi's worn real low, ducktail haircuts, taps on shoes, weightlifting, fighting, being tough, drinking, lowrider cars. . . . Bruce was just not cool."

Oddly enough, Babbitt successfully ran for student-body president even though he never really fit in to the high school scene.

"I think he had a level of condescension that was not perceived as being condescending," Anderson says. "The guy was 50 [IQ] points more intelligent than anyone else in the class. And he had generations of social skills and dignity and general class that nobody else had. So he had to find a way to relate to people who were less ambitious, less intelligent, less well-bred, had less of the things that made success. . . . He had to put some of the things he was aside in order to engender the kind of respect necessary to get people to vote for him."

Babbitt graduated and went off to Notre Dame, where he majored in geology and was once again elected student-body president. He won a postgraduate scholarship to study geophysics in England. And then he was accepted to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1965.

None of this surprised Anderson.
Twelve years ago, when Babbitt was governor of Arizona, Anderson asked his friend to appoint him as a Yavapai County Superior Court judge. Babbitt refused until Anderson got the backing of the state bar association. "Bruce," says Anderson, "always liked to have everything preapproved."

After law school, Babbitt worked for two years for Volunteers in Service to America, a group organized by the Kennedy administration to work in America's poor communities. He served first in Washington, D.C., then in Texas.

He met his future wife, Hattie Coons, a Texan, on an airplane. They married in 1968, when she was still a college student, blond, beautiful, leggy, smart. Hattie Babbitt, who did not respond to a request for an interview, is a lawyer herself and now serves as the American ambassador to the Organization of American States--an appointment Babbitt is said to have pushed for before he would accept the Interior post.

Shortly after Bruce Babbitt married, he launched his ambitious plan for a political career. Although he hadn't spent much time in Arizona, he managed to be elected attorney general in 1974, largely because he enlisted the support of Burton Barr, a powerful Republican who was his cousin's best friend.

Barr's support of Babbitt, which virtually guaranteed his election, enraged Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat who had also aspired to be attorney general. (The rivalry between DeConcini and Babbitt has lasted for decades. When Clinton considered Babbitt for a Supreme Court nomination, for instance, then-senator Dennis DeConcini was said to have opposed it.)

As attorney general, Babbitt fought entrenched corruption and organized crime. He asked for a state grand jury to be appointed, then went after powerful land-fraud figures. He investigated a dog-racing monopoly and successfully pushed for a state racketeering statute. John Harvey Adamson, who was recently released from prison after serving more than 20 years for his role in the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, testified that Babbitt was also targeted for murder because of his anti-organized-crime crusade.

In 1978, after the sudden death of Arizona's acting governor, Wes Bolin (the elected governor, Raul Castro, had left his post to become an ambassador to Argentina), Babbitt was installed as governor of Arizona. For a day, he was upset, because he had never planned on being governor--only U.S. senator.

Then he warmed to the idea. He faced a hostile Legislature, but he was politically agile and began to experiment with a political style that has become his hallmark--consensus building.

Burton Barr, then the House majority leader, was his archrival--sort of. Barr recalls that the governor would often ride his bike over to Barr's house early in the morning, have a cup of coffee, read the paper and discuss "the politics of the moment."

Babbitt's first consensus-based victory was the 1980 groundwater management code, which is considered visionary even today. Farmers, industries, cities and environmentalists all agreed to the code, which is designed to prevent overpumping of Arizona's precious groundwater reserves.

"We fought it out night after night after night," recalls Barr. "We finally came to an agreement. Babbitt had a political sense. He appreciated what others also believed and tried to prevent the thing [the consensus group] from breaking up with real fights. He sensed how far he could go before everyone started to run out on him."

During the two terms Babbitt served as governor, he used his consensus-building skills to ensure the passage of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which provides health care for the indigent, and create the Department of Environmental Quality and visionary laws to protect the state's underground drinking-water reserves from industrial pollution.

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