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By Sarah May on
 June 10, 2023

Controversial Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt dies at 85

Popular with conservatives, yet consistently drawing the ire of environmentalists, Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt died late last month at the age of 85, according to a statement issued by his son this week on which the Washington Times reported.

No cause or location of death was specified for Watt, according to an obituary published in the Washington Post.

A Wyoming native, Watt assumed the role of personal assistant to the state's then-Gov. Milward Simpson, ultimately following him to D.C. after a successful Senate run.

From there, Watt spent three years working for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on mining, public lands, energy, and pollution issues, eventually rising to become an undersecretary in the Nixon administration's Interior Department, according to the Times.

Watt served as a member of the Federal Power Commission during the Ford administration, and after Jimmy Carter entered the Oval Office, he was the president and chief legal officer of a pro-development foundation in Colorado.

However, the role for which Watt was best known was that of Interior secretary under then-President Ronald Reagan, a position he held between 1981 and 1983.

The years he spent at the helm of the Interior Department were highly controversial for Watt, in large part due to his determination to reverse a number of environmental protections implemented by his more liberal predecessors, which he felt were impediments to economic growth.

Rarely one to self-censor, Watt also drew fire for certain of his public comments, including his answer – before Congress – to the question of whether natural resources ought to be safeguarded for the benefit of future generations. “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” he said, according to the Post.

One remark that arguably sent him careening swiftly toward the end of his time in the Reagan administration was when he took aim at affirmative action initiatives in the federal government by saying of a panel that was examining his policies that it contained “every kind of mixture – I have a Black. I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”

As the Times noted, “in an administration divided between so-called pragmatists and hard-liners, few stood as far to the right at the time as Watt,” a man who described the environmentalist movement as “preservation vs. people” and the broader citizenry in the country as a battle between “liberals and Americans.”

In the late 1980s, Watt courted legal difficulties as a result of consulting work in which he was engaged that involved federal housing funds.

It was in 1996 that Watt pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor related to his withholding of documents from a grand jury that was probing the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a decision that yielded a fine of $5,000, five years of probation, and community service requirements. The charge to which he was allowed to plea, however, was a far cry from the 25-count felony indictment he originally faced in the case, something which led critics to cry foul, as the Post noted.

Upon learning the news of Watt's passing, David Donger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, according to the Times, “While no one's death should be celebrated, he was the worst of MAGA before it was invented,” but the former secretary himself was philosophical about his role, saying in 1983 that one must “pay a tremendous price” to affect real change.

“I've paid that price. My objective was to bring basic change to resource management for America, to prepare us for the 21st century. I believe in the future. Now, ideally, you would get the results, plus be personally popular,” Watt mused. “But if I have to make the choice, I'll choose success with results rather than success with personal glory,” he added, and in the eyes of many conservatives with whom he worked over the decades, his success was undeniable.

Written By:
Sarah May

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