5 April, 1983
James Gaius Watt, US Secretary of the Interior 1981-83, was once listed by Time as one of the 10 worst cabinet members ever in American history.
Among his various faux-pas could be numbered a quip regarding “a black, a woman, two Jews and cripple”; he was also considered a nightmare by those who fought on behalf of environmental issues when he leased huge amounts of land to coal-mining companies. Hardly the sort of thing expected from a man who’d once been secretary to the environmental pollution advisory panel of the US Chamber Of Commerce. But on April 5, 1983 Watt outdid himself.
“We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism”
James wyattm US Scretary Of The Interior
The farrago’s beginning was hardly seditious. From 1980 to 1982, in the wake of a Mike Love notion to perform free Independence Day shows, the Beach Boys and The Grass Roots had performed separate concerts on Washington DC’s National Mall before large crowds. But in April ‘83, Watt, who had been appointed Interior Secretary by President Reagan, announced that he was banning both bands from performing further at the Fourth of July celebrations in the city because, he alleged, previous concerts by such alleged miscreants had attracted a bad element. “We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism,” said Secretary Watt (possibly thinking of party-loving Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson).
To continue employing these bands, he believed, would lead to criminal elements robbing people and families being loath to attend any similar events in the future. But, Watt, who didn’t know Brian Wilson from Woodrow Wilson, proudly announced, he had a solution to the problem. Instead of The Beach Boys and The Grass Roots, he would employ Las Vegas based family entertainer Wayne Newton to save the day and head the musical entertainment.
Mob Affiliated Replacement...
In October 1980 Newton had been accused of being mob-affiliated; “I was accused of fronting for the Mafia and being a member of the Mafia and then being extorted by the Mafia,” he later stated – but he was also a friend of President Ronald Reagan’s and a contributor to Republican Party campaign funds.
The announcement caused media uproar. A DC radio station reported that it had received over a thousand phone calls berating Watt’s actions, while even the White House seemed alarmed. The President and his First Lady, Nancy Reagan confirmed that they were Beach Boy fans, Vice President Bush adding: “They’re my friends and I like their music.” Watt was duly summoned to the White House and presented with a cast plaster foot with a hole shot in it symbolizing the error of his ways. The late Rob Grill, then lead singer with The Grass Roots proclaimed that he felt, “highly insulted” by Watt’s remarks, terming them “nothing but un-American”, while the Beach Boys pointed out to anyone who would listen that the Russians “did not feel that the group attracted the wrong element” when they had been invited to play in Leningrad during 1978 (Watt’s thoughts on this meeting of commie kids went unrecorded). “We sing about patriotic themes - like Surfin’ USA,” protested frontman Mike Love. He and the other members of the group were rewarded when they too were invited to the White House to receive compensation by being photographed with their high-flyin’ buddy Ronald Reagan.
Later, in July 1985, the Beach Boys would perform in front of 750,000 on the Washington Mall – the same day that they played to an afternoon crowd of one million in Philadelphia and added their name to the record books. However, on top of the Independence Day ban, 1983 proved a downer year for the Beach Boys. Psychotherapist Dr Eugene Landy had to be brought in to halt the decline in Brian Wilson’s health, while his brother Dennis drowned that December, just after his 39th birthday.
In the event, Wayne Newton, the man dubbed Mr Entertainment, also proved unlucky in his capacity as a replacement for the Beach Boys. Though his Washington concert attracted some 215,000 punters, a rainstorm drenched those who attended.
As for James Watt - his tenure in office only lasted a few more months. Years later, in 1995, he found himself on the wrong side of the law and was indicted of 26 counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, eventually settling for five years probation after some plea bargaining. So much for the man who once proclaimed “If it wasn’t Amazing Grace or The Star Spangled Banner, I didn’t recognize the song.”