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?

And, besides, the allegations seemed utterly absurd on their face. Bruce Babbitt is a nerd who doesn't gamble.

The story, nevertheless, was thought to have killed Babbitt's chances for the Supreme Court nomination. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was chosen instead.

When Clinton considered Babbitt the second time, the Interior secretary was called to the White House for a midnight chat with the president. "Bruce has only talked to me about this in the most elliptical way," says Eckstein, who, among many media clients, represents New Times. "The president called Bruce up at midnight and invited him over to the White House. The president is sitting around in Levi's. It's a very rambling three-hour discussion. I think Bruce leaves the meeting thinking it might happen, but he leaves confused. . . . He called me up and asked me to draft a statement for him that would be used in his announcement. . . . I recall his words very clearly. He said it hadn't been promised, but he had reason to believe that something might happen as early as five hours from then."

Babbitt will only say he left the White House feeling "confused."
"I was ambivalent about the whole thing in the first place," he says. "I told the president, 'Look, you want me, fine. You ask me to accept the nomination, I will . . . But I gotta tell you, I'm divided. One day I think yes. The next day I think no.'"

Clinton chose federal appellate judge Stephen Breyer instead.
When the appointment was being considered, Babbitt was a focus of hatred for many Western politicos, and his nomination would have resulted in a Senate fur fight that Clinton did not relish. What's more, powerful environmentalists, including population expert Paul Ehrlich, lobbied hard to keep Babbitt at Interior. "I was very distressed when I found out Babbitt might be nominated to the Court," says Ehrlich. "I am a tremendous respecter of his mind."

There are plenty of other hardworking, honest people who could be Supreme Court justices, he says, and Babbitt's brains were necessary at Interior.

Babbitt says he was not shamed by being considered for the Court and not getting the appointment--twice.

"What he [Clinton] did with the Supreme Court appointments is actually good government," Babbitt says. "He surfaced his thought process in public. I don't think that's at all demeaning."

"Of course," he adds, "the ideal compromise would be in the year 2000, when this administration is turning out the lights, for there to be a vacancy in the Supreme Court."

As the presidential race heats up, Bill Clinton seems to be relying more and more on Bruce Babbitt's advice. Recently, in what appeared to be an effort to steal thunder from the Republican convention, Clinton rescued Yellowstone National Park from the pollution threat of a soon-to-be-reopened gold mine. The president announced that the federal government and Crown Butte Mines had entered into a land-swap agreement that would ensure the protection of Yellowstone, which is only two miles away from the proposed mine. The details of the agreement hadn't been hammered out, but the mining company agreed to surrender its rights to reopen the mine in exchange for as-yet-unidentified federal land elsewhere in the United States. Babbitt promised to forbid mining at the site for 20 years.

Congressional Republicans, however, are attacking the newly visible Babbitt. They, too, are talking about land swaps.

In July, the House's Resources Committee held a hearing on the results of an Interior audit released that same month. The audit questioned three Nevada land swaps conducted from 1992 to 1995 by an Interior agency, the Bureau of Land Management. The audit says that the government "may have lost $4.4 million" in the three exchanges because the BLM did not consistently follow regulations. In the swaps, the government traded land ripe for development for environmentally sensitive land. A Las Vegas newspaper reported that two of the swaps involved Arizona companies and a third involved the American Land Conservancy, a San Francisco company upon whose board Babbitt once served as a nonvoting member.

During the hearing, the committee could find no evidence that Babbitt was involved in the swaps. The BLM is reassessing its land-swap policies, a spokesman says, and has yet to write a final response to the audit.

Babbitt doesn't seem at all upset by the controversy, saying it happens with practically every high-profile land swap.

He was also unruffled earlier this month when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, investigated a questionable lease of Lake Havasu shoreline from the BLM to Harrison Burnett, who is a partner with Babbitt in an unrelated real estate venture. The lease in question appeared to violate a number of federal rules and was eventually canceled by the BLM.

The committee could find no evidence that Babbitt, who had disclosed his relationship with Burnett before he became secretary, had been involved in the lease.

So far, the controversies don't seem to have worn down Babbitt. But he won't say whether or how long he's going to stay at Interior. All he will say is that he likes his job.

As usual, Bruce Babbitt is late. Only this time, it is not a late flight or a call from the president that has delayed him.

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