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Remembering Reagan - James G. Watt

President Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, Jan 1981- Nov. 1983

Doing What is Right Because it is Right

In the late summer of 1981 I was confronted with an issue that was highly controversial with the environmental community concerning a request for a drilling permit in Wyoming. Jim Baker, Chief of Staff, had returned from a fishing trip with then Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney and called to alert me to the seriousness of what had become an explosive political situation.

Baker asked me what I planned to do about the matter and I responded that I would probably have to deny the request for a permit. He quickly responded with a comment that sounded like an order, “You had better speak to the President about it.”

I did not want to go to the Oval Office with such a matter. In fact, I was embarrassed at the negative press attention I was getting because of the aggressive programs we were implementing at the Department of the Interior and did not want to have to explain the situations to the President.

Over my hesitations Baker set up a 15 minute meeting with President Reagan for the following morning.

After carefully, but briefly, explaining the specifics of the problem to the President, he asked why I was planning to reject the request for a drilling permit. I responded, “In addition to the broad opposition of the environmental community there are three specific reasons. My Wyoming congressional delegation - Alan Simpson the second ranking Republican in the US Senate, Malcomb Wallop chairman of my most important Senate Sub-Committee and Dick Cheney the third highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives - oppose the approval of the drilling permit.”

As I watched his eyes, I heard him saying, “Jim, if you don’t do it, who will? And, if not now, when?” With the kindness in his voice but firmness in his reprimand, I understood the message. “Jim, you do what is right because it is right.” I had heard those words years before from my parents and now I was hearing them from the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

With a new resolve, I told the President of several other emotional and politically charged issues that were confronting us at the Department of the Interior. With the confidence that he understood the nature of the political firestorms that were yet to come, I left the “15 minute meeting” after 45 minutes in the Oval Office.

When the attacks from the liberals were ugly and the headlines in the newspapers were mean, I would frequently receive a phone call from the White House and the messenger would say, “Jim, I have just been with the President, and he wants you to know that he supports you.” As I listened to those words, I heard in the recesses of my mind Ronald Reagan saying, “Jim, do what is right because it is right.”

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