Friday, January 21, 2011

The Reagan "revolution": Watt-me-worry? Plenty

Passing by a newspaper stand, I observed one publication “celebrating” the 30th anniversary of the start of the “Reagan Revolution.” I experienced a large part of the “revolution” in the Army. I suppose from a certain perspective there was a revolution; a significant pay raise (it wasn’t hard to be “significant” given my $220 monthly private’s pay), and the awesome new gear that was being built for us to play with. The M60 tank looked so uncool next to the super-sleek West German Leopard 2; the new Abrams M-1 was a vast improvement, at least in style; the tank had been in development for years and had first been put into service a year before Ronald Reagan took office, but he managed to get the credit for that as well as other new weapons systems. He did spend lots of money on the military, because, he said, he wanted to restore pride in being a soldier. Geez, thanks Commander-in-Chief. Truth-to-tell, most soldiers were impressed with Reagan—at least relative to Jimmy Carter, whose effort to rescue the hostages in Tehran was a horrifying disaster. Reagan allegedly conspired an “October Surprise,” promising the Iranians arms in exchange for holding the hostages until after the 1980 election; there is no incontrovertible evidence to prove this, but the Iran-Contra scandal demonstrated that Reagan was not adverse to dealing with the Iranians in such a fashion.

At any rate, I had already soured on Reagan by the time I heard our black platoon sergeant sheepishly confess that he was voting for Walter Mondale in 1984, since most soldiers couldn’t understand why anyone would vote against our sugar-daddy—even if there were some questions regarding his age, the physical effects from the 1981 assassination attempt, and his mental firmness (I recall thinking that if he could string a coherent sentence together without a teleprompter during the first debate with Mondale, his re-election was a certain thing). But Reagan seemed to me someone who just didn’t give a damn about ordinary people; people who were poor were guilty of “envy” of the rich, and should accept their place in the world. This “place” would be all but assured by “trickledown economics,” one of the most monstrous fairy tales perpetrated on the country; perhaps more than any other reason this has been responsible for the ever widening income disparities in this country, and continues to be an example of how the Reagan “revolution” has become devolution. And then there were, of course, all those major scandals that seemed to plague the administration: The rigging of housing contracts in favor of Republican contributors which seemed to involve the entire HUD department, and the Savings and Loan scandal, brought about by an almost total lack of regulation—and referred to as "the largest and costliest venture in public misfeasance, malfeasance and larceny of all time” by economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Although Reagan was not accused of any criminal wrong-doing in Iran-Contra, Oliver North would later claim that Reagan knew “everything.”

But all that was in the future. For the present I watched with some amusement and bewilderment this character that Reagan had installed as Interior Secretary, James Watt. Watt had never held political office—meaning he hadn’t been trained in fooling the masses speech techniques—and had grown-up in a community that was referred to as being stuck in a 1890s time warp, and apparently never ventured far from his Wyoming stomping grounds. Like many in his home state, Watt had an “old west” view of the world, full of wide-open spaces that could be used and abused at will. Watt founded the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a law firm which claimed to be "dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government and economic freedom,” which is a benign way of saying it is a front group for anti-environmentalists opposed to every major environmental regulatory body or law; the Foundation also has found considerable time to dabble in anti-affirmative action and anti-voting rights cases. Watt’s environmental philosophy was little differentiated from what would become known as the “wise use” wing of the anti-environmental movement, which many critics claim uses “populist” rhetoric to garner support from rural people and private property owners, but is in reality a front for commercial and mining enterprises who want to exploit public lands indiscriminately. In her book “Divine Destruction,” journalist Stephenie Hendricks also charges that some “wise use” fanatics, calling themselves “Dominion Theologists,” are "biblical fundamentalists who believe exhausting natural resources will hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”

Not surprisingly, many people at the time expressed confusion and indignation that Reagan would have the gonads to offer-up an anti-conservation fanatic like Watt as Interior Secretary; if they knew who was going to tag along—Anne Gorsuch and Rita Lavelle—they’d probably would have had an aneurism or two. Unfortunately, the Republicans had a slight majority in the U.S. Senate, and Watt managed to squeak by in the confirmation proceedings. But it didn’t take long before Watt was making headlines for his inability to keep his mouth shut and for being a constant source of embarrassment for the administration. I recall an Oliphant cartoon showing Watt with a “Big Bertha” gun rolling out of his mouth on a rail; the gun barrel had exploded in his face. In regard to the responsibilities of his office, suffice it to say that Watt opposed and tried to declaw anything and everything that had to do with conservation, environmental and species protection. But there was more, a lot more to this fool who could not keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it. Among the “highlights” of Watt’s brief career as Interior Secretary:

* He claimed that the Beach Boys were unfit to appear on stage on the Capitol Mall during Fourth of July celebrations, and announced he was banning them from performing, since “rock bands” attracted the “wrong element.” This managed to embarrass even the president, and Nancy Reagan made a public apology to the band. Watt was presented with a plaster foot with a hole in it at a White House “ceremony.” Perhaps for effect, the foot should have been planted in Watt’s fundament.

* Watt was a Pentecostal, and naturally he never tired of alluding to the coming Endtime. He told a House panel "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.” On other occasions, Watt “suggested” that we didn’t need to protect and conserve the environment, apparently because the Lord wouldn’t consider such things as sufficient justification to delay the End. We might as well use-up the earth’s resource while we still have time.

* Pentecostals also have been known to speak in unrepressed, unintelligible “tongues,” which is supposed to indicate that they are awash with the Holy Spirit, or something. Unfortunately for Watt, his unrepressed tongue was all too intelligible. In keeping with the race-conscious “concerns” of his legal foundation, Watt could frequently be heard degrading minority groups. On one occasion, he compared the failure of Communism to Indian reservations; one wonders what he thinks now about the capitalist Indian casino enterprises that are raking-in money. But Watt got into real trouble when in 1983 he told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce audience that "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent” on a coal-leasing panel—meant to be an “ironic” comment deriding affirmative action. Although Reagan probably shared similar views, to say so in such a reckless, insensitive manner probably was too much even for him given the Barnum and Bailey Circus that Interior had become in the public eye; soon after Watt’s comments were made public, he “voluntarily” resigned.

Watt’s stupid mouth hasn’t exactly stayed out of trouble since. In 1991 he told a Wyoming cattlemen’s association that "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used." Sarah Palin would be proud. For anyone who claims that the Tea Party movement and its “Second Amendment” solutions is a “recent” phenomenon that doesn’t have roots in past extreme-right “movements,” this should dissuade such ignorant talk. In 1995, after a stint as a lobbyist in the late 1980s, Watt was the subject of federal grand jury indictments on perjury and obstruction charges involving the previously-mentioned HUD influence-peddling scandal; he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that he withheld evidence, and received a wrist-slap as punishment.

While Watt was busy making the evening news, his henchpersons—EPA “administrator” Gorsuch and her deputy Lavelle—were busy doing the “dirty work,” cutting staff and replacing them with industry hacks, reducing funding, reducing claims against polluters, and reducing the effectiveness of the Clean Air and Water acts. Gorsuch also aroused the ire of Congress when she refused to hand over documents detailing the administration’s implementation of Super Fund projects. She resigned after she was forced to hand over the documents, which showed that the EPA not only was lackadaisical in initiating clean-up projects, but was even more so in forcing the polluters responsible for creating the toxic messes in the first place to reimburse the government for clean-up costs they were legally obligated to pay. The person who was “responsible” for “advancing” the administration’s Super Fund floppery, Lavelle, would soon be forced to resign herself; she would be convicted of perjury for making false statements in regard to her spending Super Fund monies on activities that seemed to have nothing to do with what they were intended for. Like the Big Boss, Lavelle wasn’t quite finished; in 2004 she was convicted and sentenced to federal prison for wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. The case involved Lavelle and a partner using forged documents to charge a client for services (involving hazardous waste clean-up!) that were not in fact rendered.

The Reagan “revolution” was so in that it changed the economic, social and environmental priorities of the country—and almost wholly for the worse; even in its effort to create "smaller government," its tax philosophy only produced greater deficits and greater income disparity. We can see those changes easily enough in the economic and social sphere, but the disastrous impact of the “revolution” on environmental policy will take time to be fully appreciated by the public. And Watt’s “legacy” remains with us: His disciple, Gale Norton, became George W. Bush’s first Interior Secretary. Watt himself joyed over the fact that all his nefarious designs were finally coming to fruition after 20 years. After she resigned for “personal” reasons, Norton was replaced by Dirk Kempthorne, who may have been even more an anti-environment fanatic. He attempted to “sneak” through new regulations that further weakened environmental regulations in the waning days of the Bush administration, and during his tenure in office, it was reported that not one single species had been placed on the Endangered Species list—a “record.” Employees in the department also complained of “abusive” treatment from the department’s Bush appointees, like Julie MacDonald, probably because they wanted to do their jobs; after an investigation by the Inspector General during the course of which MacDonald was obliged to resign (sounds familiar), there was further found to be wastage of” hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars” on activities that basically were used to cover-up the management’s “misdeeds” rather than enforce environmental laws.

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