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?

This time, he's fighting a forest fire near Flagstaff with the Arrowhead Hot Shots.

Convinced he won't show up for his press conference, several television reporters have already given up, packed their cameras and driven back to Phoenix. Others wait it out, fighting off the chill of the mountain air.

Finally, a U.S. Forest Service truck pulls up. Babbitt steps out. He's stiff from carrying a heavy water pack on his back; his eyes are bloodshot and rimmed with ointment. Except for a white area around his eyes that has been protected by goggles, his face is covered with soot. The face is fatigued, but happy. He's been outside all day.

How do you account for this tough fire season, the reporters ask.
The fire season is bad because there is a severe drought, Babbitt answers without a visible hint of condescension. And then he uses the press conference to promote one of his favorite ideas: the use of controlled burning to prevent forest fires.

He jokes, saying it's less stressful on the fire line than in Washington. Then he walks stiffly back to the truck, which will take him to the fire camp, where he will eat spaghetti and garlic bread and collapse in a tent, pitched in the camp of the Arrowhead Hot Shots.

The next day, his birthday, he will not be with his family or the president. He will not fight about grazing or take flak for his endangered species proposals or answer questions about the Supreme Court.

Instead, he will get up at five o'clock in the morning, eat breakfast and board the bus. Once he gets near the fire line, he will put a heavy water pack on his back and spend the first day of his 59th year on Earth alone, extinguishing smoldering trees left in the wake of a wildfire.

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