Former Secretary of the Interior James Watt says commentator Bill Moyers smeared him by falsely claiming he was a religious nut who told the U.S. Congress that protecting the environment was not important because Jesus would come back soon.
Watt, who served under President Reagan, has asked Moyers to apologize for his assertions in a speech published Jan. 30 as an op-ed piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Commenting on President Bush after receiving an environmental award from Harvard Medical School, Moyers said the administration’s environmental policies are “based on theology” and therefore “delusional.”
Remember James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever-engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”
Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn’t know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious.
Watt came upon the Moyers piece through the popular weblog Power Line and called one of its contributors, John Hinderaker, to set the record straight.
Watt said the quote is fraudulent, originating in a book published in 1990 by Austin Miles. The claim that he made the statement before Congress was added by Grist, a left-leaning online journal.
But Hinderaker says the real issue is not the quote, but what Moyers says about its context.
Moyers claims Watt “told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.” But the only time Watt can recall a reference to the Second Coming in congressional testimony, he is on record espousing the opposite of what Moyers claims.
He forwarded to Hinderaker this passage of text from the House Interior Committee session in February 1981:
Rep. Jim Weaver, D-Ore: Do you want to see on lands under your management, the sustained yield policies continued?
Weaver: I am very pleased to hear that. Then I will make one final statement. … I believe very strongly that we should not, for example, use up all the oil that took nature a billion years to make in one century.
We ought to leave a few drops of it for our children, their children. They are going to need it. … I wonder if you agree, also, in the general statement that we should leave some of our resources — I am now talking about scenic areas or preservation, but scenic resources for our children? Not just gobble them up all at once?
Watt: Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the secretary of the interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.
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.
Weaver: Mr. Chairman, I want to conclude, if I might, seeing the secretary brought up the Lord, with a story.
The Chairman: The conversation will be in order.
Weaver: In my district, Mr. Chairman, there are some who do not like wilderness. They do not like it at all. I would try to plead with them. I go around my district and say do you not believe — I would plead with their religious sensibilities — that we should leave some of our land the way we received it from the Creator?
I have said this frequently throughout my district. I got a letter from a constituent. … He said, “Mr. Weaver, if the Lord wanted to leave his forest lands, some of them in the way that we got them from Him,” he said, “why did He send His only Son down to earth as a carpenter?”
Weaver: That stumped us. That stumped us until one of my aides, an absolute genius, said that the Lord Jesus before He determined His true mission spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.
Hinderaker noted that Watt’s biblical reference was “not fire-breathing or apocalyptic, as suggested by Moyers, but rather part of a friendly, even jocular exchange with members of the Interior Committee.”
Watt gave Hinderaker a copy of a letter he wrote to Moyers:
I have never thought, believed or said such words. Nor have I ever said anything similar to that thought which could be interpreted by a reasonable person to mean anything similar to the quote attributed to me.
Because you are at least average in intelligence and have a basic understanding of Christian beliefs, you know that no Christian would believe what you attributed to me.
Because you have had the privilege of serving in the White House under President Johnson, you know that no person believing such a thing would be qualified for a presidential appointment, nor would he be confirmed by the United States Senate, and if confirmed and said such a thing would he be allowed to continue in service.
Since you must have known such a statement would not have been made and you refused or failed to do any primary research on this supposed quote, what was your motive in printing such a damnable lie?
Hinderaker comments: “Before the advent of the blogosphere, Bill Moyers — arrogant, rich, powerful and well-connected — would merely have thrown Mr. Watt’s letter into the trash. Today, he may still do so. But he and his friends in the liberal media no longer have a monopoly on information, and those who have been defamed by them, like James Watt, now have the means to make their voices heard.”