James G. Watt

James G. Watt
43rd United States Secretary of the Interior
In office
January 23, 1981  November 8, 1983
President Ronald Reagan
Preceded by Cecil D. Andrus
Succeeded by William P. Clark
Personal details
Born James Gaius Watt
(1938-01-31) January 31, 1938
Lusk, Wyoming, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Leilani Bomgardner Watt (m. 1957 - present day)
Children Erin Watt
Eric Watt
Alma mater University of Wyoming
Religion Pentecostal, Born-again Christian

James Gaius Watt (born January 31, 1938) served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983. Often described as "anti-environmentalist", he was one of Ronald Reagan's most controversial cabinet appointments. Watt's pro-development views played an instrumental role in ending the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Early life and career

Watt was born in Lusk, Wyoming, the son of Lois Mae (née Williams) and William Gaius Watt. He attended the University of Wyoming, earning a bachelor's degree in 1960 and a juris doctor degree in 1962. Watt's first political job was as an aide to Republican Party Senator Milward L. Simpson of Wyoming, whom he met through Simpson's son, Alan.

A lifelong Republican, he served as Secretary to the Natural Resources Committee and Environmental Pollution Advisory Panel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a conservative organization that supports primarily Republican candidates.[1] In 1969, Watt was appointed the deputy assistant secretary of water and power development at the Department of the Interior. In 1975, Watt was appointed vice chairman of the Federal Power Commission. In 1977, Watt became the first president and chief legal officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm "dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government and economic freedom."[2] A number of attorneys who worked for Watt at the firm later became high-ranking officers of the federal government, including Ann Veneman and Gale Norton.[3]

Secretary of the Interior

In 1980, President-elect Reagan nominated Watt as his Secretary of the Interior. The United States Senate subsequently confirmed the nomination.

His tenure as Secretary of the Interior was controversial, primarily because he was perceived as being hostile to environmentalism, and endorsed development of federal lands by foresting and ranching, and for other commercial interests.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Watt had the record, among those who served as Secretary of the Interior, of listing the fewest number of species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The record was later surpassed by Dirk Kempthorne, a George W. Bush appointee who, as of August 27, 2007 , had not listed a single species in the 15-month period since his confirmation.[4]

Greg Wetstone, the chief environment counsel at the House Energy and Commerce Committee during the Reagan administration, who subsequently served as director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued that Watt was one of the two most "intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees" in American history. (The other was Anne Gorsuch, director of the EPA at the time.[5] Environmental groups accused Watt of reducing funding for environmental programs,[6] restructuring the department to decrease federal regulatory power,[6] wanting to eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund which aimed at increasing the area of wildlife refuges and other protected land,[6] easing regulations of oil[6] and mining,[6][7] directing the National Park Service to draft rules that would de-authorize congressionally authorized national parks, and recommending lease of wilderness and shore lands such as Santa Monica Bay to explore and develop oil and gas.[6]

Watt resisted accepting donation of private land to be used for conservation.[8] He suggested that 80 million acres (320,000 km²) of undeveloped land in the United States all be opened for drilling and mining by 2000.[8] The area leased to coal mining quintupled during his term as Secretary of the Interior.[8] Watt boasted that he leased "a billion acres" (4 million km²) of coastal waters, even though only a small portion of that area would ever be drilled.[8] Watt once stated, "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber."[9]

Watt periodically mentioned his Dispensationalist Christian faith when discussing his method of environmental management. Speaking before Congress, he once said, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations."

One apocryphal quote attributed to Watt is "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back", although the statement has not been confirmed. Glenn Scherer, writing for Grist magazine, erroneously attributed this remark to the 1981 testimony by Watt before Congress.[10] Journalist Bill Moyers, relying on the Grist article, also attributed the comment to Watt. After it was discovered that the quote was mistaken, Grist corrected the error, and Moyers apologized.[11] Watt denied the attribution, and protested such characterization of his policy.[12]

Other controversies

From 1980 through 1982, The Beach Boys and The Grass Roots separately performed at Independence Day concerts at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attracting large crowds.[13][14] In April 1983, Watt banned the concerts, on the grounds that the "rock bands" that had performed on the Mall on Independence Day in 1981 and 1982 had encouraged drug use and alcoholism, and had attracted "the wrong element", who would subsequently rob attendees of similar events.[14] Watt then announced that Las Vegas singer Wayne Newton, a friend and an endorser of President Reagan and a contributor to the Republican Party, would perform at the Independence Day celebration at the mall in 1983.[14][15] During the ensuing controversy, Rob Grill, lead singer of The Grass Roots, stated that he felt "highly insulted" by Watt's remarks, which he termed "nothing but un-American."[14]

The Beach Boys stated that the Soviet Union, which had invited them to perform in Leningrad in 1978, "obviously... did not feel that the group attracted the wrong element."[14] Vice President George H. W. Bush said of The Beach Boys, "They're my friends, and I like their music."[14] Watt apologized to The Beach Boys after learning that President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were fans of the band.[16] Nancy Reagan apologized for Watt.[17] The White House staff gave Watt a plaster foot with a hole for his "having shot himself in the foot."[18]

At the 1983 event, Newton was booed by the audience when he came on stage.[16][19] The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson poked fun at Watt's last name, saying "James What? What?"

In an interview with the Satellite Program Network, Watt said, "If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don't go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations."[20]

A controversy erupted after a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in September 1983, when Watt mocked affirmative action by making the following statement about a coal leasing panel: "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."[21] Watt resigned within weeks of making this statement.[21][22] In 2008, Time magazine named Watt among the ten worst cabinet members in modern history.[23]

Later life

In 1995, Watt was indicted on 25 counts of felony perjury and obstruction of justice by a federal grand jury, accused of making false statements before the grand jury investigating influence peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he had lobbied in the 1980s.[24] On January 2, 1996, Watt pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor of withholding documents from the grand jury. On March 12, 1996, he was sentenced to five years' probation, and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000 and perform 500 hours of community service.[25]

In a 2001 interview, Watt applauded the energy policy of the Bush administration, stating that its preference of oil drilling and coal mining to conservation was just what he recommended in the early 1980s.[26]

Personal life

Watt married Leilani Bomgardner on November 2, 1957. They have two children, Erin and Eric Watt.


  1. Gold, Matea; Geiger, Kim (8 October 2010). "Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce buys ads supporting Democrats". Los Angeles Times.
  2. Mountain States Legal Foundation
  3. Kempthorne Wins 2007 Rubber Dodo Award : Protects Fewer Species Than Any Interior Secretary in History
  4. A look back at Reagan's environmental record | By Amanda Griscom | Grist | Muckraker | 10 Jun 2004
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 James G. Watt Summary Review and Analysis
  6. Lipske, Michael (1995). "Cracking down on mining pollution – environmental lawyer Thomas Galloway develops Applicant/Violator System to find violators of mining law". National Wildlife.
  7. 1 2 3 4 The Legacy of James Watt Time Oct. 24, 1983
  8. Mountain States Legal Foundation
  9. Scherer, Glenn (2004-10-27). "The Godly Must Be Crazy". Grist. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  10. Strupp, Joe (2005-02-09). "Bill Moyers Apologizes to James Watt for Apocryphal Quote". Editor & Publisher. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  11. Watt, James (2005-05-12). "The Religious Left's Lies". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  12. "July 4: Day of Music, Parades, Fireworks", The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., July 3, 1982, p. D1.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Phil McCombs, "Watt Outlaws Rock Music on Mall for July 4", The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., April 6, 1983, p. A1; Phil McCombs and Richard Harrington, "Watt Sets Off Uproar with Music Ban", The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., April 7, 1983, pp. A1, A17.
  14. Campaign contributions of Wayne Newton in website of NEWSMEAT by Polity Media, Inc. Retrieved 2010-01-29.
  15. 1 2 Tim Ahern, Associated Press, "Newton concert goes off despite rain", Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 5, 1983, p. 7 in Google news. Retrieved 2010-02-18.
  16. "The Beach Boys Bio" in website of yuddy.com by Yuddy, LLC. © and TM Yuddy, LLC. Retrieved 2010-01-29.
  17. Associated Press, "Newton Performance Dampened by Rain", Reading Eagle, Reading, Pennsylvania, July 5, 1983, p. 27,in Google news. Retrieved 2010-02-18.
  18. John Katsilometes,"Newton’s recounting of Beach Boys controversy a telling moment in ‘Once Before I Go’", in "The Kats Report", October 30, 2009, in website of the Las Vegas Sun. Retrieved 2009-01-29.
  19. "Watt Sees Reservations As Failure of Socialism", The New York Times, 19 January 1983. Retrieved on 2010-5-29.
  20. 1 2 556. James G Watt, US Secretary of the Interior. Simpson's Contemporary Quotations. 1988 at the Wayback Machine (archived September 20, 2000)
  21. RMOA – Document
  22. Top 10 Worst Cabinet Members. Time Magazine, November 12, 2008
  23. Crimes Against Nature : Rolling Stone (p. 3)
  24. "CNN – U.S. Briefs – March 12, 1996". Archived from the original on October 29, 2004.
  25. http://courses.washington.edu/alisonta/pbaf590/pdf/watt_applauds_energy.pdf

External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to: James G. Watt
Political offices
Preceded by
Cecil D. Andrus
U.S. Secretary of the Interior
Served under: Ronald Reagan

Succeeded by
William Patrick Clark
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