James Watt, the Reagan administration’s sharp-tongued, pro-development interior secretary who was admired by conservatives but ran afoul of environmentalists, Beach Boys fans and eventually the president, has died. He was 85.
Watt died in Arizona on May 27, son Eric Watt said in a statement Thursday.
In an administration divided between so-called pragmatists and hardliners, few stood as far to the right at the time as Watt, who once labeled the environmental movement as “preservation vs. people” and the general public as a clash between “liberals and Americans.”
With his bald head and thick glasses, he became the rare interior secretary recognizable to the general public, for reasons beyond the environment. He characterized members of a coal advisory panel using derogatory language and in 1983 tried to ban music from Fourth of July festivities on the National Mall, saying it attracted the “wrong element.”
The Beach Boys had been recent mall headliners, and their fans included President Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan. With Watt’s statement facing widespread mockery, the Reagans invited the Beach Boys for a special White House visit. Watt, meanwhile, was summoned to receive a plaster model of a foot with a hole in it.
In his 1985 book “The Courage of a Conservative,” Watt wrote that the controversy “actually arose because I was a conservative. Members of a liberal press saw an opportunity to create a controversy by censoring the facts and avoiding the real issues.” He said the initial stories about the rock music ban “only mentioned that the Beach Boys had performed in the past. Yet before we knew what was happening, banner headlines proclaimed that I had banned the Beach Boys. I was astonished.”
“Our excellent record for managing the natural resources of this land is unequaled — because we put people in the environmental equation,” Watt wrote.
But eight days after writing to the president, he rode horseback into a cow pasture down the road from Reagan’s California ranch to announce his resignation. He was succeeded by a longtime Reagan aide, William Clark.
“I had outworn my usefulness,” Watt said of his decision, adding that others “wouldn’t get off my case” about his insulting coal advisory panel comment.
While Jimmy Carter was president, Watt worked in the private sector as president and chief legal officer of the pro-development Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver.
He did consulting work after leaving the Reagan administration, at one point turning heads when he agreed to represent Indian tribes in oil operations and hotel developments after previously labeling Indian reservations “the failure of socialism.” He also accepted six-figure consulting fees to represent developers of a federally subsidized housing project.
Over the years, Watt expressed fears that unless they were stopped, radical environmental movements like Earth First! would persuade the “cowards of Congress” to ban all hunting, eliminate all logging and livestock grazing on public lands and further jeopardize the minerals industries.
He lived in his later years in Wickenburg, Arizona, with his wife, Leilani.