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?

"Working with a hostile Legislature in Arizona was great training," says Babbitt, who waxes nostalgic talking about his Arizona years, when he and his political opponent Burton Barr "knew how to feed the lions in the press."

"After sunset," Babbitt remembers, "when the issues were at stake, we always managed to find common ground."

"I thought in the major leagues the game would be a little more dignified," says Babbitt. "But in fact Congress is a much worse place than the Arizona Legislature of Burton Barr and Stan Turley [another political opponent]. There is no seriousness of purpose, there is no attempt to find common ground, it is all for show. No one is interested in facts or constructive solutions. It's all rhetoric for political consumption."

Babbitt's gubernatorial years were not without controversy. He drew criticism in 1983 for calling out the National Guard during a copper-miner strike in Morenci. When the Phelps Dodge Corporation hired replacement workers, Babbitt sent the guard to quell unrest. Strikers renamed Babbitt "Scabbitt" and were angry that a Democratic governor would send the guard to protect the mine's private property.

And Babbitt drew even more criticism when, in 1986, he spent large amounts of time out of state trying to capture the Democratic nomination for president.

He and his family took a campaigning bike ride through Iowa, but in the end, Babbitt didn't win a single primary, dropping out after the Iowa caucuses. Nevertheless, he counted his loss as a win. He emerged as a national figure, a moderate liberal with an eclectic program: eliminating the budget deficit with a 5 percent national sales tax on everything but medicine and food, with exemptions for poor people; a "needs test" to make sure those getting government benefits deserved them; taxes on Social Security benefits that went to rich people; an environmentally sensitive "land ethic" for public and private property; "workplace democracy" that gave workers more power with their employers; and free trade.

Actually, after his failed presidential bid, Babbitt seemed happier than ever. He signed up with the Steptoe and Johnson law firm in Phoenix, which has good connections to Washington politics. He had time to be with his sons and was making more money practicing water law than he'd ever made in his life. "Look at my calendar," he burst out to a business associate during his early tenure at Steptoe and Johnson. "I only have two appointments today!"

But Babbitt's quest for political power was not over. He still had plans and worked hard to keep himself in the public eye. He became president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental activist group. He monitored elections in Nicaragua. He wrote articles for the Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic. He studied trade issues. He helped his friend Bill Clinton, whom he'd met when the two were governors, campaign for president.

And after Clinton won, Babbitt was not terribly surprised at being called to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be briefed for a Cabinet position.

Bruce Babbitt will be the first to admit that when he went to Little Rock, in December 1992, just weeks before Clinton's inauguration, he didn't want to be Secretary of the Interior.

He wanted to be a U.S. trade representative.
"I flew to Little Rock with a trade speech," he says. "And before 24 hours was over, I gave my speech to Mickey Kantor. I said, 'Yeah, sure, I'd be happy to be Secretary of the Interior.'"

Actually, the appointment process was more complicated than that. Clinton was serious enough about naming Babbitt to the trade post to send a staffer to brief him on the position. But when environmentalists who'd helped elect Clinton learned that the Department of the Interior would be headed by Bill Richardson, a New Mexican, they protested, saying Richardson had no real empathy for environmental causes. Babbitt, on the other hand, was a long-standing environmentalist.

Clinton was forced into last-minute juggling. He named Federico Pena to be Secretary of Transportation, thus filling the Hispanic post in his multicultural cabinet. He moved Babbitt to the Interior Department, which pleased environmentalists. And he named Kantor trade rep.

Babbitt also pushed to have his wife Hattie, who is fluent in Spanish, appointed ambassador to the OAS.

"I was very involved in Hattie's appointment," says Fred DuVal, who is quick to defend Hattie as being "appointable in her own right." Hattie, he says, "had political tickets, linguistic tickets, a very close relationship with the First Lady and an Interior secretary who was saying it means a lot to me that this will happen."

As soon as he became Secretary of the Interior, Babbitt identified three public-lands issues that needed immediate attention: the massive cutting of timber on federal lands, the reform of ancient federal grazing regulations and the redrafting of the 1872 mining law. He waxed eloquent about Americans entering a "third great environmental movement" in which they would use laws already in place, like the Endangered Species Act, "not just to stop decline, but to reverse it."

Environmentalists were encouraged, not only because Babbitt's heart seemed in the right place, but because he understood the complexities of environmental science.

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