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Bruce Babbitt, Alone in the Wilderness
He was hailed as the Secretary of the Interior who would finally make a difference. Now his friends are abandoning him, his enemies are outmaneuvering him, and the president is nowhere to be found. Will Bruce Babbitt's missteps on the road to reform prove to be the downfall of an honorable man?
By Chip Brown
Had he the chance to tinker with his fate, Bruce Babbitt's forefather
Edward might have found a muzzle for his dog. Or a place at the
pound. When he popped up in Plymouth in 1639, 12 years of age, the
progenitor of the Babbitt clan started the family's tradition of
frontiersmanship in America. In time Edward bought a farm, married
the daughter of a Boston leather dresser, and fathered 11 children.
Then came the bad day in 1675 when he spied some Indians filing
through the woods. He scrambled up a tree and hid in the canopy.
The plan might have worked, too, but his loyal fool dog began to
bark, and Edward was suddenly more conspicuous than a finalist for
the Supreme Court. The Indians yanked him down and put him to death.
His children bred like Babbitts, though. The generations edged west.
Two centuries later, a notable bunch rode the Atlantic and Pacific
railroad out of Cincinnati. In 1886 Geronimo was still at large,
and Flagstaff, Arizona, was just a chapped outpost in the ponderosa
pines. With his four brothers, Babbitt's grandfather C. J. bought
into the cattle business. They roughed it in tents, eating sowbelly
and white beans washed down with coffee. Capitalizing on the depression
of 1893, they acquired ranch land all the way to the Grand Canyon.
Theirs were the pieties of Manifest Destiny; their empire, one of
the grandest in Arizona Territory--more than three million acres
of range, lumberyards, slaughterhouses, grocery stores, trading
posts, mortuaries, a bank. As a family, the Babbitt brothers were
noted for thrift, hard work, benignity of power, and civility. Brother
David's house had Flagstaff's first bathtub.
And so cow towns became cities and the frontier was settled. Today
the West holds some of the most urban areas of the country, and
its future defines a new kind of frontier, one of limits and compromises
and trade-offs, where myths collide and cowboys communicate by fax
modem. It's fitting that another Babbitt--C. J.'s 56-year-old grandson
Bruce, the former two-term governor of Arizona and onetime candidate
for president of the United States--should come along to seek his
fortune on it. The quandary of the West today is encapsulated in
the adventure of the Babbitt family itself: Where do you go, what
do you do, when the train you've been riding for ten generations
reaches the end of the line?
Clownishly bundled in a red nylon survival suit, Bruce Babbitt peered
from the helicopter at a world that is a measure of what the West
once was. Wildness reached for the throat. Icebreakers prowled the
inhospitable waters of the Beaufort Sea. The white welter of pack
ice massed in the north like an army. To the south, gray swells
gave way to the green march of the continent.
As he had on the outbound flight to the Kuvulum oil-drilling rig,
Babbitt's U.S. Park Police bodyguard, Norbert Bonjo, looked uneasy.
Hail peppered the chopper like buckshot spilling on a drum. The
mid-August temperature was in the low thirties. Bonjo's nine-millimeter
might have stopped a disgruntled mining-claim holder or delayed
an intemperate polar bear, but it couldn't save the boss from hypothermia.
Even Babbitt, whose survival suit would give him an extra 20 minutes
as Secretary of the Interior in event of a crash, seemed a little
daunted by the exposure. And well he should have. The domain below
would sooner have killed him than heard another word about ecosystem
management. There's no escaping the absurdity of presiding over
a land where climate and geography mock the very conceit of human
jurisdiction. Perhaps the look on Babbitt's face recalled poor Edward's
apprehension in the primordial forest of Massachusetts.
Then again, it could have been jet lag. Babbitt is known for having
the stamina of an arctic tern, but it had been a long day, and it
still wasn't over. The day before, he had flown from Washington,
D.C., to Anchorage, addressed 700 Interior employees in the evening,
and gotten up at dawn for the leg to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay.
Already this morning Babbitt had been briefed by executives from
Arco who urged him to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for
oil exploration. ("A congressional decision," he repeatedly
pointed out.) He had toured the $300-million Kuvulum off-shore rig;
dropped in on a British Petroleum drilling site; and moseyed around
the modular Alaska Pipeline moon-base at Prudhoe Bay, where the
air smells like New Jersey but the roads, as eager-to-seem-green
oil officials pointed out, have been platted to skirt fox dens.
At mile zero of the pipeline, Babbitt bantered with Alaska Governor
Walter Hickel, his ideological antithesis, whose land-use philosophy
has more in common with Babbitts from the nineteenth century.
"I don't know if the governor of Alaska wants to be seen in
the company of the Secretary of the Interior," Babbitt said
lightly, a honeymoon line, possible only when the opposite is true.
In the months to come, when the honeymoon was over and his plans
were unraveling and his prestige was tarnished, Babbitt would not
have the luxury of undercutting himself so insouciantly. Posing
by the pipeline, his pale blue eyes set in a basset-hound face,
he made for a relaxed and rangy figure, his air of assurance born
of ranching aristocracy and a star résumé. Boredom
sometimes can make Babbitt look like a basset hound trapped in a
kennel with a bunch of dimwit Irish setters. Since high school he's
had to grapple with the liability of being the smartest boy in class,
and one wonders whether he didn't develop his self-deprecating humor
to cover the temptation to condescend to intellectual inferiors.
When asked whether the look he was affecting for the news photographers
was "lugubrious," he shook his head and suggested "enigmatic,"
and he put so much English on the word that it seemed to encompass
the farce of public life, image-mongering, and journalism, too.
"All the world's a stage," he sighed as a photographer
Babbitt's detachment, his air of preoccupation, usually plays in
the press as a charming trait, a central aspect of his comic persona.
Journalists have patronizingly detailed his repertoire of facial
tics and twitches and served up the stories about how he often forgets
to keep money in his wallet or leaves the house in suit pants that
don't match his jacket. It's all part of the lore of St. Bruce,
the man of ideas, the man of books, the principled man of Nature
who gains in stature by losing presidential bids, and who is untainted
by the expediencies and vanities of political life. Bruce Babbitt,
the man who has a theory of the world that is sometimes sweetly
out of sync with reality.
The Secretary of the Interior is high sheriff of some 503 million
acres of public land, most of it in 11 western states. Throughout
the eighties and early nineties public-land policy was made by sheriffs
who put ideology ahead of science--well-connected men who winked
at laws they didn't like and sometimes seemed to confuse the Department
of the Interior with the Department of Commerce. Bruce Babbitt's
appointment came as the answered prayer of nearly every environmental
group in the country. Here was a smart, unapologetic environmentalist
committed to protecting the land. He had degrees in geology and
law. He liked to ski. He had already hiked a lot of the acre- age
in his charge. After that lance-and-donkey bid for the 1988 Democratic
presidential nomination, he'd headed the League of Conservation
Voters, where he wrote in the 1991 National Environmental Scorecard,
"We must identify our enemies and drive them into oblivion."
Even better, he had an agenda to go with the oratory. Much of it
had been laid out in Charles Wilkinson's 1992 book Crossing the
Next Meridian. Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado,
argued that federal mining, logging, grazing, and water legislation
was stuck in nineteenth century assumptions and served interests
that did not reflect the demographics of a changing West. The West,
Wilkinson wrote in a phrase that Babbitt quickly slipped into his
speeches, was ruled by the "lords of yesterday." Mining
companies shouldn't be permitted to haul billions of dollars of
ore from public lands with the public getting virtually nothing
in return. Ranchers shouldn't be allowed to graze sheep and cattle
on public land at rates way below market. Babbitt supported reauthorization
of the Endangered Species Act, a landmark law that has become a
target for politicians in parts of the country where the economy
is languishing. The year 1993, he said, was going to be the year
of reform. He had set a new tone at Interior from the get-go, standing
outside the C Street headquarters to greet employees as they streamed
in. Morale soared.
That glorious entrance is starting to look like the setup that precedes
the downfall of an honorable man. You can't be the kind of Interior
Secretary that Babbitt wants to be without making enemies, especially
in the West, where millions of acres of public land are provincially
viewed as semiprivate backyards. It's often, as Babbitt has been
saying lately, a thankless job in which "no good deed goes
unpunished." But after almost two years, Babbitt finds himself
known less for his reforms than for his missteps on the road to
reform. His program to stop the abuse of public land is fast becoming
a front in an ongoing culture war over who should control the West.
Thanks to his less-than-adroit entry into capital politics, Babbitt
has made himself a symbol of high-handed federal trespass and has
pulled off the miserable trick of emboldening foes and alienating
friends. True, some of his friends had wildly unrealistic expectations.
And true, his tenure at Interior is still a work in progress. And
it should be said that what he is trying to accomplish may not lend
itself to quick judgments or to conventional methods of assessing
winners and losers. But Babbitt's months on the job have exposed
a troubling contradiction between his environmental heart and his
political head. In his desire to achieve results, he seems to be
playing a dicey game of bringing his talents for negotiation and
compromise to bear on what he knows are uncompromising natural limits.
Not everyone in the environmental community expected him to crucify
himself on his principles, but they did expect real changes, not
window dressing; tough stands, not cave-ins; and maybe a few lines
drawn in the sand. They did not expect an administration that seems
hell-bent on placating political enemies.
A number of environmentalists have begun to criticize what they
see as Babbitt's lack of leadership skills, what one calls his Lone
Ranger style. They worry that he assumes people will follow his
ideas just because he has thought a solution through. They worry
that he tries to do too much alone and that he's busy seeking a
consensus when he should be mobilizing an army.
"He's vacillated wildly on his positions," says Jim Owens,
executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Western Ancient
Forest Campaign, a group dedicated to preserving old-growth forest.
"In two years the wool has been stripped from our eyes and
people are dissatisfied. He wants the middle ground, but there isn't
room to compromise on these issues, so when he goes for compromise,
environmentalists go crazy."
In calmer moments, environmentalists are also asking: What has Babbitt
really accomplished? Where is this vaunted political force called
the New West, those urban voters committed to preserving rather
than plundering America's public lands? Where is the crusade Babbitt
was supposed to lead? After 12 years as outlaws in the Republican
wilderness, they thought the struggle was over. Their man was high
sheriff, and things were supposed to get easier.
When I first caught up with Babbitt in Washington, questions about
his leadership had not acquired their current urgency. It was last
fall, during round two of the grazing debate, and Babbitt was just
a few weeks back from his adventure in Alaska. He had shed the Patagonia
jacket and the Merrell boots for a custom-tailored striped suit
and a tie so perfectly nondescript that it seemed part of the connective
tissue of Washington.
Babbitt was still riding high as the "green knight" who
had gotten top marks for appointments and hope-stirring speeches.
Interior employees should think of themselves as working in the
Department of the Environment, he had said. The country had to shift
the focus from endangered species to endangered habitat; it had
to embrace the concept of ecosystem management. He was creating
a new bureau that would map and study the nation's ecosystems, and
was in the midst of brokering an innovative agreement between environmentalists
and developers to help preserve the habitat of a threatened songbird,
the California gnatcatcher. Although the national forests are the
purview of the Department of Agriculture, Babbitt had emerged as
one of the chief architects of the deal to resolve the spotted-owl-versus-old-growth-timber
impasse in the Pacific Northwest, a deal that may be considered
one of those perverse triumphs of democracy in that it pissed everybody
"Environmentally, things are at once better and more threatened,"
Babbitt said, sitting in the famous sixth-floor lair of Secretaries
past. A large piece of bowhead whale baleen, a gift he received
in Alaska, was stashed on a side table. He was still in a position
to emphasize strategy before tactics, and his views were informed
by his deep sense of history. "The condition of the West and
the ecological health of the land has in many ways been improving
since Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot got started," he
said. "Nineteen hundred was the breaking point. Prior to that
time, it was every man for himself, in classic frontier fashion.
Since then the institutions have been getting stronger. The problem
is, the race continues. The empty spaces--the commons--are filling
up. We've made tremendous progress in the way we manage the land,
but it's been continually threatened by demands for resources. The
premise of sustainable development is that we must recognize that
there are limits to the carrying capacity of the land. The metaphor
I've found useful is Haiti and Holland. Haiti and Holland are the
two most densely populated countries on earth. One has gone to devastation,
the other is the most intensely managed land in the world, and it's
What Babbitt was determined to prevent were the "train wrecks"
that occurred during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The ghastly
collision in the Northwest between loggers and environmentalists
could have been avoided, in Babbitt's view, if federal managers
had wanted to make the Endangered Species Act work. They preferred,
he believed, to exacerbate tensions between environmental protection
and economic development in order to weaken the law. Babbitt pointed
to his California gnatcatcher agreement, which offered room for
growth and protection for the endangered bird. The chance for such
flexibility had been forfeited in the Northwest.
At the time, nine months into the job, what Babbitt had learned
about Washington was that "it's just like state government,
only there are three more zeroes on every number." But he'd
had some bitter lessons in the art of the possible, and more were
to come. He'd been passed over (for the first of two times) for
the Supreme Court. He'd been embarrassed by leaked memos written
by his staff. Like the legion of reformers before him--notably John
Wesley Powell, the 19th-century explorer whose farsighted advice
on the allocation of water in the West was ignored by Congress--he
was discovering the old Washington maxim that being right is not
the same as being effective. His promise to make 1993 the year of
change would not be fulfilled. His power to reform presumed a level
of presidential support that he wasn't getting, and perhaps a degree
of political skill that he didn't have.
He'd been in political circles too long to be considered a Washington
naif, but Babbitt's campaign to hike the price of grass on federal
land and to improve the care and protection of the range had enough
farcical plot twists and humiliating reversals to brace every welfare
cowboy west of the 100th meridian. Round one: In the spring of 1993
Babbitt was reportedly furious (he insists that he was merely "befuddled")
to learn that the White House had stripped the 1994 budget of his
proposals to impose a 12 percent royalty on hard-rock mining and
to raise the price of public grass. The move had happened behind
his back after a group of western senators got a meeting with Mack
McLarty, then Clinton's chief of staff. The retreat, now known in
environmental circles as the Great Cave-in, highlighted the president's
unwillingness to rankle western Democrats, whose support he'd need
to win re-election in '96.
Babbitt has a formidable ability to put a positive gloss on bad
news. When I spoke with him last fall, he was quick to accent the
bright side of his grazing setback. "It raised the visibility
of the issue," he said. "Grazing reform is being discussed
on Sunday talk shows and by the National Taxpayer's Union and the
reinventing-government crowd. It's not just a quiet outrage in a
At that time, Babbitt was still having trouble believing that such
a fuss had been stirred up over a cushy deal for some 27,000 leaseholders
whose cattle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency,
had left the crucial riverine habitats of the West "in the
worst condition in history." Even more amazing, the debate
had been framed as a little-guy-versus-the-evil-feds morality play.
(A number of the bigger leaseholders were corporations, including
an insurance company; one leaseholder was Montana Senator Max Baucus,
who might well have recused himself from the debate instead of leading
Babbitt had spent the week shuttling over to the Hill to lobby for
a bill, introduced by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, that would raise
grazing fees and impose national standards on range management.
Reid represented the New West, a progressive, urbanized mentality
centered in large Western cities, but some senators, notably Orrin
Hatch of Utah, had mounted a filibuster, calling the proposals part
of the "Clinton-Babbitt assault on the West."
When, by week's end, the Old West senators had beaten Babbitt's
effort to break the filibuster, it was clear that if Washington
was like state government with more zeros, the politics were vastly
more complex. What struck others at Interior was Babbitt's failure
to estimate the opposition and, more tellingly, the lack of support
from the White House, where there is no one on staff from the intermountain
West. Last spring, when he set off for rounds of BLM-sponsored public
meetings on grazing reform, he was not working from a position of
strength. He returned to Washington with a set of proposed regulations
that, in the name of the laudable goal of consensus, left range
management largely in the hands of the people whose stewardship
had created the mess in the first place. His friends in the environmental
community and his allies in Congress were appalled.
"The common wisdom is that we lost and everything's been downhill
since then," Babbitt said when I spoke with him on the phone
in July. "My own view is that the grazing plan, which is now
moving toward implementation, is in many ways a superior product
to the Reid proposal, which was what the filibuster fight was all
about. It's a different product. There are elements of compromise
in it--some are not as strong, others are stronger. I view it in
a kind of dialectical sense."
But in politics the appearance of pusillanimity is tantamount to
a faint heart. Babbitt looked weak in his first big fight, and people
noticed. Earlier this year, under heavy political pressure from
Democratic western governors, in particular Cecil Andrus of Idaho,
Babbitt forced the resignation of Jim Baca, director of the Bureau
of Land Management. Baca was arguably the most reform-minded director
that the BLM has ever had, but his head-on style--"he was raking
his nails on blackboards all over the West," as one Interior
official put it--apparently didn't jibe with the politics of consensus.
For his part, Baca was frustrated with Babbitt's remoteness; he
never met with the secretary one-on-one to discuss issues, only
personnel matters. When, to pick one example, Baca was repeatedly
rebuffed in his attempt to get federal predator-control agents to
comply with BLM regulations, he came to the conclusion that "western
governors and senators are running Interior more than Interior is."
By late spring Babbitt had hit something of a nadir. The League
of Conservation Voters, which he had headed in the early nineties,
gave the Clinton administration's environmental record a grade of
C-plus. When Babbitt's name surfaced a second time for the Supreme
Court in May, the environmentalists who had protested the first
attempt to separate their green knight from his charger were notably
silent. Despite front-page stories saying that he was being fitted
for the gown, the emissaries of the Old West promised a confirmation
fight in the Senate, and Babbitt lost out again. Clinton called
him "a very effective secretary...in one of the most sensitive,
complex, and difficult posts," adding that he didn't nominate
him for the Court because he "couldn't bear to lose him from
the cabinet." Babbitt was a graceful and disarmingly funny
loser, referring to himself as the Susan Lucci of the administration.
He got an ovation from his staff when he returned yet again to Interior
to tell the troops that he was staying on, forgoing the "great
indoors" for the "great outdoors."
"The one thing I've learned in the last year is that Congress
is not in the mood to deal with environmental subjects," Babbitt
said in July. "In the 1980s, the EPA and Interior did nothing.
Congress responded by passing more and more laws giving more and
more administrative authority, which was never used. Now it's the
other way around. Congress has thrown in the towel, and the challenge
is to dust off the administrative authority we have from the eighties."
But that authority doesn't exist in a vacuum. In May Babbitt staged
a press conference to call attention to the egregious law that allows
mining companies to strip countless tons of hard-rock minerals from
public land while paying virtually nothing, but he declined to use
his administrative power to force the industry to swallow reform.
("It hasn't exactly been Profiles in Courage," says Katherine
Hohmann, the Sierra Club's Washington representative for public
lands, of Babbitt's role in the mining debate.) Part of what makes
the corridors of the nation's capital more complex than the power
hallways of Phoenix is that the agenda is larger by many orders
of magnitude. Bill Clinton obviously has more pressing concerns
than public-land interests in the West. But if the president hasn't
thrown his focus-like-a-laser rhetoric behind Babbitt's proposals,
neither has he kept him on as tight a rein as he might--apparently
to Babbitt's surprise. During the grazing fight last fall, the phone
rang once during a staff meeting, and Babbitt joked, "Don't
answer it, it might be the president."
Most of the boys in the Flagstaff High School yearbook of 1956 look
like Buddy Holly clones; the girls, like cupcake homemakers. And
then there's that mole-eyed senior with the bee-stung lips and the
mournful placidity of a romantic poet. As the photo suggests, Bruce
Babbitt was an anomaly from early on. He was born in Los Angeles,
the second of six children. His mother, Frances, always claimed
that the secret of her second son's energy as an adult was that
he had spent most of his childhood sleeping. She was an accomplished
pianist and cellist, the founder of the Flagstaff symphony. She
instilled in her children the ethics of work and duty, and a respect
for thrift. Babbitt was brought up to be the sort of person who
would worry for years because a clerk had let him take a soda pop
when he was a nickel short and he had somehow neglected to repay
His father, Paul J. Babbitt, was a bright lawyer with a talc-dry
sense of humor. But like a lot of Babbitts, he was reserved and
self-effacing, too retiring to pose for pictures when the local
paper wanted a portrait of the governor's father. Paul had brought
his family back to Flagstaff from California after the death of
Bruce's uncle James E. Babbitt, who had been the Babbitt Brothers
company lawyer. The white clapboard house on LaRoux Street where
Babbitt grew up--his mother, now a widow, still lives there--is
astonishingly modest. Flagstaff in 1948 had only about 7,000 people,
but it boasted a university, an observatory, and a yeasty mix of
cowboys, professors, and scientists. Local scholars and visiting
intellectuals were frequently invited to the Babbitt house for supper.
Almost every weekend tuna sandwiches were packed in a picnic basket
and the kids were bundled into a 1938 Ford and the family headed
out--to Oak Creek Canyon, to Fish Lake, to the Grand Canyon. They
hiked on the red-rock trails. They climbed the San Francisco Mountains,
where Bruce learned to ski and where his enthusiasm for the sport
survived two broken legs. His father, an amateur geologist and archaeologist,
helped Bruce comb the earth for meteorites and Devonian fossils,
and the boy assembled a mineral collection that remains his proudest
Babbitt was a straight-A student throughout high school, manager
of the football team, president of his senior class, and valedictorian.
He went off to Notre Dame and en route to a degree in geology was
elected student-body president. He was also exposed to Catholic
writers whose ideas of social justice enlarged his political identity
beyond the conservative Republicanism of the Arizona rancher. Babbitt
was eager to broaden his small-town outlook. Home once, he dropped
by to visit an old friend, Paul Sweitzer. "He said, 'I think
I need to learn something about opera. Can you help me?'" Sweitzer
recalls. "We listened to Tosca with Renata Tebaldi and George
London as Scarpia. I taught him how to use a libretto."
In 1960 Babbitt won a coveted George Marshall fellowship, which
took him to the University of Newcastle in England, where he received
a master's degree in geophysics. Like any young man, he had a series
of epiphanies. On the Dover-to-Calais ferry, he read Aldo Leopold's
classic, A Sand County Almanac, and began to see the landscape of
his youth in a new light. "My attachment to land was absolutely
emotional," he says. "What Leopold showed me was the living
earth. When I saw a pine tree, I smelled the bark and saw its silhouette
against the sky. I didn't make any effort to understand its place
in the forest or how it nurtured the squirrels or the elk browsing.
Leopold showed me that this tree belongs to a system of parts."
In Bolivia in the summer of 1962, flying around in helicopters doing
graduate fieldwork in geology, Babbitt was struck by the economic
disparity of his life and the lives of the half-starved villagers.
He suddenly understood that he, too, belonged to a system of parts,
a system that countenanced inequities he hadn't been exposed to
in Flagstaff. He decided that he didn't want to spend his life analyzing
the magnetic orientation of rock specimens. He wanted to be of use.
He swerved out of science and into Harvard Law School, but the course
work bored him. In the summers he returned to South America. He
dug sewer-pipe ditches in shantytowns above Caracas and led a student
work camp in the Andes.
After he got his law degree he worked for VISTA and the federal
Office of Economic Opportunity. It was 1965, the midst of the civil-rights
upheavals. Babbitt participated in the march on Selma. He helped
put together legal-services programs for the Choctaw Indians and
helped integrate Head Start programs in Louisiana and Mississippi.
But the times were getting crazier. Riots were breaking out in the
cities. After two years he grew disillusioned with his work, the
experience serving mostly to sharpen his sense of the limits of
what the federal government could do. He was 28 years old. It was
time, as his mother might put it, to get serious. He wanted to find
a wife, a lawn to mow, a community to be a part of that wasn't so...abstract.
The morning air was sharp and chilly as Babbitt buckled himself
into the belly of a government floatplane. He'd already burned off
his strawberry pancakes hiking up a draw above camp in the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge. He'd watched a lone musk ox lumber through
the willows and up the scree slope, its long fringe of fine hair
swinging like the grass skirts of a hula troupe. He'd affected a
lugubriously enigmatic look for Anchorage TV crews.
The plane took him over flat-bottomed Fire Creek and past a mesa
where oil-company helicopters drop bigwigs for a million-dollar
box lunch. Then it turned north, threading the mountain defile of
the Katakturuk River, crossing a bluff where oil actually seeps
from the ground and the air, it's said, "smells like money."
The plane turned east again, and the pilot circled around to give
the secretary another glimpse of a grizzly sow and her yearlings.
Farther off, small groups of caribou were running--soon to join
the herd of some 160,000 animals heading south. Still farther east
the party interrupted a pack of wolves feeding on a kill. They scattered
over the great green plain--one black, one white, four gray. The
spectacle of the frozen Arctic Ocean and the icebreakers on the
horizon was still in Babbitt's thoughts, and now, with the wolves
and the bears and the caribou and the incalculable feeling of wildness,
it was occurring to him that this must have been what it was like
once on the Great Plains, the caribou standing in for buffalo. He
felt like he was looking back in time, at the West that his family
had helped to settle, to tame, to finish.
The next day, in Fairbanks, Babbitt spoke to the theme that had
been assembling in his thoughts at a large gathering at the University
of Alaska's Wood Center Ballroom. Norbert Bonjo had been advised
that people crazy enough to live in Fairbanks could get pretty vehement
exercising their First Amendment rights, and while he didn't have
his gun drawn, he was watching the crowd carefully. A news photographer
wondered aloud: "Do you think Norb would take a bullet for
"When we developed the western frontier," Babbitt was
saying, "we paid a terrible price. We wiped out Indian tribes,
separating them from the buffalo. We homesteaded and settled land
that couldn't sustain farming. We dried up and dammed every single
stream. We let logging companies go wild. That's a price we don't
need to pay in Alaska. Here we have a last chance to learn from
200 years of American history, to see if we can't find that equilibrium.
Government is not always the enemy."
"Not always, only most of the time," said a woman in the
"We're going to try to lower the rhetoric a little bit,"
Babbitt continued. "We've got to do that by trying to start
with the facts. I understand there are many people who believe our
choice is either jobs or the environment. One side says jobs and
to hell with the environment, the other side says the opposite.
I've always felt that's a false choice."
When Babbitt opened the floor to questions, a horn-handed white
man stood up. "Why should Alaskans be scapegoats for 200 years
of progress in the Lower 48?" he asked. "I'm a subsistence
hunter. Why are gay activists and vegetarians regulating our lives?"
Just bad luck, one would guess; Babbitt didn't have an answer. A
miner asked him why he wouldn't publicize what it actually cost
to mine on an acre of land. "You mean when am I gonna quit
lying?" Babbitt said, defusing the tension.
Finally a friendly face appeared at the microphone, brandishing
a sheaf of petitions. "I have 10,000 signatures here opposed
to oil development," the young man announced. The room divided
into cheers and hisses. Later that night, Babbitt said, "The
kid with the petitions made one mistake." He looked around
the table to see whether the journalists accompanying him had any
idea what it was. They were clueless. "He didn't hand them
Perhaps the most compelling thing about Babbitt is the spectacle
of a private man caught up in the bad theater of public life. Politics,
which is fundamentally immodest, is not the natural milieu of a
man who has been brought up to downplay his intelligence for fear
of seeming arrogant or proud. As his experience trying to break
the grazing-reform filibuster suggests, Babbitt's never been the
sort of backslapping pol who can slip effortlessly from a joke to
an appeal for money at a chicken-fricassee fund-raiser. He's turned
himself into an effective public speaker, but in the early days
his speechifying was so wooden it was hard to tell Babbitt from
the lectern. His 16-year-old son T. J. is still appalled by the
falseness of Dad's hand motions and the hearty, pushed throb in
his voice when he really wants to put something over.
Born politicians also start with some emotional affinity for people
and hunt around for issues; Babbitt is the opposite. He proceeds
from an intellectual agenda and hopes that the troops will rally
behind him. Within the Interior Department some complain that Babbitt
turns staff meetings into lectures and makes policy on his own.
Babbitt is as capable as the next person of ladling out Boy Scout
pieties about public service and team play, but what seems to fascinate
him about public life is the chance to compete in the game, his
discomfort on stage notwithstanding. He's compensated for his handicaps
with an ability to conceptualize and to charm the press. During
his 1988 presidential campaign, when nothing was igniting voters,
he developed a truth-telling style that his staff called "the
pander of candor."
When Babbitt returned to Arizona at the end of 1967, he joined the
law firm of Brown and Bain and began to do legal work for the Navajo.
He hadn't intended to seek public office, but he got to talking
with an assistant state attorney general when they were trying a
reapportionment case. "I'd ask him, 'How can you use public
money to defend the most blatant case of racial gerrymandering?'"
says Babbitt. "We'd banter back and forth, and out of that
I thought that if I had his job I could use my skills. I felt I
was switching lawyer jobs rather than becoming a politician."
With his family roots in the state, Babbitt seemed like the perfect
candidate for attorney general, but an early poll showed the Babbitt
name didn't count for much, despite its ubiquity.
"Bruce had the same name recognition as a name picked randomly
out of the phone book," recalls his wife, Hattie Babbitt, who
is now the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Babbitt announced his candidacy at news conferences in Tucson, Flagstaff,
and Phoenix with such a remarkable absence of flair that his supporters
wondered whether they hadn't made a terrible mistake.
Babbitt got a makeover. It was drummed into him that "look"
was important; eventually he consented to dressing in tailor-made
suits. He had a mole removed from the right side of his face and
started wearing contact lenses. In 1974 he was elected attorney
general and immediately roiled the backwater office, becoming a
champion of public access to public land. He made it a condition
of state grazing leases that ranchers leave their gates unlocked.
Soon thereafter he learned that he'd been on an organized crime
hit-list for, according to one theory, vigorously prosecuting land
By a series of events that would not be credible in fiction--the
resignation of the governor and the sudden death of the lieutenant
governor--Babbitt woke up one morning in 1978 in charge of Arizona.
He was 39 years old. "I got the call about 5 A.M.," he
recalls. "I never even went back to the attorney general's
Even among conservative Republicans, Babbitt is widely considered
to be the best governor Arizona has ever had, the man who consolidated
executive authority in a state that for decades had been dominated
by the legislature. He established his reputation as a consensus-builder
by hammering out a plan for the management of Arizona's groundwater--an
issue so polarized that it had been considered impossible to resolve.
He picked his fights carefully and used his veto power 118 times,
more than any other Arizona governor before him. Along the way he
also got a reputation for arrogance--integrity being more important
to him than loyalty.
"Bruce's greatest weakness is his incorruptibility," says
his friend Ron Warnicke, who served as chief of staff during Babbitt's
first ten months as governor. "His support was always a mile
wide and an inch deep. Bruce Babbitt cannot personally involve himself
in traditional, ward-heeling, Chicago-style politics. It's a sin
in his view to reward a friend or a relative or someone who helped
him, even when it's expected by the system."
Yet he'd had nothing but success in political life. He won his second
full term as governor easily, with 62 percent of the vote. Looking
for a bigger forum, he set his sights on the presidency. It was
a long shot, he knew, but as his career attested, anything could
happen in politics.
The experience was humbling. Babbitt ran aground on his own disdain
for the salesmanship and the image-mongering of campaign-by-television.
He finished fifth in Iowa. In March of 1988 his father died. It
was time to go home.
"Bruce Babbitt," he said, extending his hand at the Primrose
Turnout, mile 17 on the Denali Highway. Governor Hickel had rejoined
the Babbitt cavalcade for a 90-mile drive through Denali National
Park. When the vans stopped along the road, people flocked around,
recognizing the secretary, not the governor.
Car traffic is barred from most of the Denali Highway. Tourists
take buses; a seat on a bus is hard to get during the short summer
season. Hickel, who is famous in Alaska for grandiose development
schemes and for lines like "you can't let nature run wild,"
wants to get more people into the park by building new roads. But
more roads, more traffic, would drive away the moose and bears and
wolves that everyone wanted to see.
"Joe Muldoon down the road says he can't use the park,"
said Hickel to Babbitt and Russ Berry, the park superintendent.
The cavalcade had stopped for coffee and conversation at a lodge
owned by Wally and Jerryne Cole.
"We don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,"
Wally Cole chimed in.
"I want you guys to get this," Babbitt said to journalists
who were along for the ride. "This guy is a concessionaire,
an old-fashioned capitalist."
"I'm with you guys, ecology and wilderness and all that,"
said Hickel, sounding plaintive. "But what are you going to
say to Joe Muldoon down the road who says, 'I want to see the park?'"
"That's a philosophical change in the purpose the park was
established for," said Jerryne Cole. "You have to address
whether you want to do that."
Babbitt turned to the superintendent. "Next time we have an
opening in the Park Service, you might encourage these people to
Later in the day, Berry took Babbitt on a hike down the Horseshoe
Lake Trail, one of the few things you can do without a reservation
or a permit in Denali. As the U.S. Park Police know well, Babbitt
is a speedy hiker. Jose Torres, who had to guard Babbitt on a trip
to Bolivia, figured he couldn't keep up with his boss alone, so
he arranged a relay of four men to cover the secretary's route on
16,000-foot El Cumbre. Babbitt walked the younger man into the ground.
"I was so tired I could hardly hand him off to the next guy,"
Fortunately the Horseshoe Lake Trail is just a lazy little loop.
Norbert Bonjo was concerned, though, and approached Russ Berry and
the assistant superintendent, Linda Toms.
"Is it a secure trail?" he asked.
Berry looked at Toms. She didn't have a clue how to answer either.
Berry decided he might as well wing it. "Yes," he said.
Bonjo looked relieved and retired for the evening as Babbitt and
the rangers marched off. The Horseshoe Lake Trail leads to a patch
of land sandwiched between the Denali Highway and the Alaska Railroad.
You can hear truck traffic and coal trains rumbling past. The tourist
traps up the road are in plain sight. Mount McKinley, the tallest
peak in North America, might as well be a million miles away. Yet
this is still Alaska, and the patch of land is home to moose and
herons. And to beaver. Babbitt spotted one swimming in a black pond
and trained a pair of borrowed binoculars on it. The hush that fell
over him silenced the rest of the hikers. He advanced carefully
to get a better view. Between cars and trains, it was so quiet you
could hear the beaver chewing. Babbitt stood rooted in the saw grass.
Ten, 15 minutes went by. Berry was amazed.
"Would James Watt do that?" he asked.
In trying to break the cycles of boom and bust--to balance environmental
protection with the pressures of economic growth--Bruce Babbitt
has the unenviable task of trying to postpone the apocalypse. He's
proud of the new National Biological Survey, which will catalog
every plant and animal species in the United States and which has
been attacked by some westerners as a backdoor federal zoning conspiracy,
a ruse under which the government will usurp property rights. Ignorance
has to be more expensive than knowledge, Babbitt argues. It was
the dearth of information about the thought-to-be-endangered snail
darter that held up construction of Colorado's Tellico Dam in the
seventies. With a comprehensive inventory of the country's biological
resources, scientists and planners would have known that snail darters
existed elsewhere. Babbitt is also proud of his landmark compromises:
the forest plan in the Pacific Northwest, the deal between the Park
Service and Florida's sugar industry to clean up the Everglades,
and endangered-species negotiations like the one between Georgia
Pacific and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve the habitat
of the red cockaded woodpecker. In his view, these pacts represent
a new chapter in environmental history.
"This concept of ecosystem management is a sharp break from
the past," he said when I talked with him in July. "The
patchwork, ad-hoc approach has to yield to something else; it's
impossible to make progress anymore without dealing with the whole
landscape. Your only hope is to complexify, to throw all factors
into play. In the Pacific Northwest we've reached a solution that
covers hundreds of species. We've scaled back the volume of timber
cut by 80 percent. We've set aside millions of acres of new old-growth
timber reserves. We've put an end to clear-cutting. That is an enormous
bite. There's no precedent for that in environmental history."
As for the bitter criticism that his compromises have engendered,
Babbitt sees it as a by-product of a new order. "In the politics
of ecosystem management," he said, "there are lots of
players, and no one gets 100 percent of what they want, and everybody
goes away unhappy." He cited an incident that occurred last
spring, when he was coming out of a hotel in Miami after a press
conference on the Everglades. He was greeted by enraged sugar-industry
pickets on his right and enraged environmentalist pickets across
the street. The moral, once again: No good deed goes unpunished.
Someone should stitch it on a sampler.
"There's lots going on that's hopeful," he said at the
end of one of our conversations. "Population curves are flattening.
The sustainable development debate is underway. We're aiming at
goals that don't sound utopian and don't smack of the hair shirt
but involve reasonable, manageable changes in the way we live. The
New West is out there. It's aborning. It comes in fits and starts.
You just don't wake up with the millennium on hand one summer morning.
The transition is always the tough part."
And if he falls short of his goals? If the transition is too brutal
and the machinations of Washington make a mockery of public-land
reform? In Alaska he had joked, "Then I'll go back to Arizona,
write my memoirs, and take a teenage mistress." But last summer,
after what he called his "roller coaster" year, he was
taking comfort in the history of his department, which shows that
by some standards Bruce Babbitt already may be an unqualified success.
Only about a third of all Interior secretaries completed their terms.
Something about the job drives people nuts. The second man to hold
the position was committed to a mental institution after 11 days.
Gerald Ford's Interior Secretary, Stanley Hathaway, left for a sanatorium
after three months. And of course there's the inevitable quip that
the secretaries from the Reagan-Bush years had an advantage because
they started off crazy.
But the point should not be obscured by all of the deflecting humor,
all of the smooth talk about common ground and working together:
Nothing will hold necessity at bay. Environmentalists may be whining
pains in the neck, but they understand that some limits can't be
transcended. At this hour, ecologically and politically, neither
Clinton nor Babbitt has much room to move. For all of the gains
in the Northwest, the forest pact really wasn't a win-win solution.
To environmentalists and loggers alike, the deal was lose-lose,
a train wreck any way you looked at it. What compromise can there
be between a fixed number of trees and loggers whose livelihoods
depend on them? "Win-win is a false god," says one environmental
lobbyist. Babbitt might be able to prevent train wrecks caused by
deliberate neglect or by failure to find creative solutions to tricky
issues, but not those brought about by unlimited demand for limited
resources. Compromise may buy time, or mitigate the loss of species,
or slow the destruction of habitat, but it cannot postpone choices
that have to be made. Even now, by default, we are making those
choices. We have chosen salmonless rivers and range that is infested
with cheatgrass and irrigated farmland that is poisoned with salt.
Nature does not know compromise. So much has already been destroyed
by the politics of moderation and compromised past the point of
health in the name of balance. If the choice between Holland and
Haiti isn't itself a false choice, isn't it an awfully claustrophobic
metaphor for the future of what was once a heritage of open-ended
It wasn't until his last week in Alaska that the Secretary of the
Interior got close enough to the West's West to know it in his bones.
And to be reminded anew, perhaps, that there is no compromise with
nature. After pinballing from Deadhorse to Kotzebue to Fairbanks
to Anchorage to Dillingham to Kodiak, he had flown to Glacier Bay
National Park, in southeast Alaska, for five days of kayaking with
his wife and their two kids. Another U.S. Park Policeman had relieved
Norbert Bonjo. Each Babbitt family member had a kayak and a guide.
The lead guide was Dennis Kelso, who in his other life served as
commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
The flotilla made its way toward the snout of McBride Glacier, where
the ice had pulled back, leaving a new world of bare rock and young
willows. Icebergs were floating in the small bay at the foot of
the glacier. It was midday. The party would be folding its Kleppers
and meeting up with a floatplane that evening for the trip out.
They'd seen the glories of the habitat: sea otters and harbor seals
and orcas and humpback whales. Babbitt had inspected rock faces,
tidal pools filled with pink salmon, and the stages of forest succession.
Now he paddled into the outlet to get a closer look at the raw ground
revealed by the retreating glacier. Two eddies flowed around a gravel
bar in the inlet's mouth, forming a kind of vortex. Suddenly, Babbitt's
boat got caught. It knocked against an iceberg and rolled over,
dumping the Secretary of the Interior into the drink. His guide,
Judy Brackel, scrambled onto a piece of floating ice, but Babbitt
was stuck in the water, as far from political life as you can get.
He was wearing a life jacket, but in the lethal chill of Glacier
Bay his limbs were already going numb. Within minutes he would be
too cold even to make a fist.
Those who are partial to the mission of Bruce Babbitt might like
to think that the future of the West was hanging in the balance,
but with his long view he would be the first to say that dialectical
forces are larger than one man and that in nature it is the dynamic
equilibrium that matters, not the individual. Still, he was grateful
that Kelso and his son Christopher paddled quickly alongside his
capsized kayak. He kept calm, minding the thin margin of life that
separated him from progenitor Edward and all the other Babbitt shades.
"Hang on to the stern," Kelso shouted, and they dug for
shore. Kelso beached the boat, and Babbitt quickly got into dry
clothes and then into a sleeping bag. Kelso opened a thermos of
hot water and made cocoa.
The experience, Babbitt would say later, was "interesting."
But it was not something that his horseman-pass-by reserve would
make too much of. Within half an hour he was up and about, the butt
of new jokes. Some frontiers you don't cross before your time.