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How an encounter with Reaganite oil lobbyists transformed Professor Carl Livingston’s conception of wealth and power

When a young Carl Livingston agreed to be the resident advisor for his university’s dorm building, he anticipated the customary rowdiness and antics that accompany herds of adolescents departing from their parent’s embrace for the first time. What he did not expect, however, was the development of a valuable relationship with President Ronald Reagan’s appointed Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt. The two met in August 1980 when James Watt came to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa to drop off his son, Eric Watt, at his new dorm room. “Next thing I knew, I was talking to someone who was an attorney at a law firm operating in three states. I wanted to be an attorney some day…I was all ears,” Livingston recalls. “He liked that I was interested, and he liked as well that I was his son’s RA. He wanted his son to get as many benefits as possible.”

Over time, Mr. Watt would periodically visit his son on campus. It was through these appearances that Livingston would speak to Watt about a myriad of conversational topics, running from matters of the law to the nature of life. Watt appeared to be genuinely interested in Livingston and his opinions, and even encouraged him to pursue law school.

Months later, Livingston received big news: President-Elect Ronald Reagan picked Eric Watt’s dad to be Secretary of the Interior.

James G. Watt and His Impact 

In retrospect, Livingston likens James G. Watt to a Ron DeSantis-esque political actor, which is to say that Watt was an agitational figure, calculated in strategy but disruptive and polarizing in public relations. “He had a crazy side and a well-thought out side,” Livingston puts it. Adjacent to Governor DeSantis, Watt was the frequent target of criticism by environmentalists. Time Magazine remarks that environmental groups were hostile towards Watt due to his preference for development over preservation, and his history of “leasing massive tracts of land to coal-mining companies (the amount quintupled during his tenure) and opening up large swaths of the outer continental shelf to offshore oil drillers.”

Watt was, by most accounts, a divisive politician, yet titillating to the general public in his recurring television appearances. Journalist and member of Richard Nixon’s infamous masterlist of political opponents, William Prochnau, wrote in The Washington Post in 1981: “James G. Watt became Secretary of the Interior just five months ago, a brisk, self-certain and acerbic westerner who pronounced almost immediately that his task was to ‘undo 50 years of bad government.’ The words were not unlike the campaign rhetoric that also brought Watt’s leader, Ronald Reagan, to the federal capital. But no member of Reagan’s Cabinet has taken the rhetoric so literally, moved so rapidly and abrasively…and rubbed so many wounds raw in trying to achieve his task.”

Livingston suspects that Reagan kept Watt around for reasons relating to the maintenance of his public image. Watt’s conflict-arousing tendencies created a political and rhetorical culture that made Reagan look level-headed in comparison. “Given that he was an incendiary figure that could say almost anything, he was hanging on by a bit of dental floss,” Livingston says, “Still, though, Reagan liked having him around because he was bringing in so much money. He was giving the left a hard time, so Reagan didn’t want to fire him.”

TIME James Watt on the cover of Time Magazine, August 23, 1982

Unfortunately for President Reagan, during an address to the Chamber of Commerce, Watt made a comment that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and eventually culminated into his resignation.

Adventures in Big Oil

In the summer of 1983, Livingston had lost his job. He called Watt, who immediately used his connections to secure him a job at Sooner Pipe & Supply, an oil-field supply business in Tulsa. “That was around the time in which he made a major mistake,” says Livingston.

Months later, on Sep. 21, 1983, James Watt was delivering a speech to the Chamber of Commerce concerning his energy-development programs. When referring to his advisory group, Watt remarked: “We have every kind of mix you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.”

Watt received an upsurge of criticism straight away. “It’s an embarrassment to the President,” said Larry Speaks, Reagan’s spokesperson, two days after the incident. The Republican Senator for Minnesota at the time, Rudy Boschwtiz, said that the remarks led him to believe that Watt should be replaced.

While Watt was under fire, Livingston reminisced about all of the generosity Watt had shown him. “I was glad that he had called me a month before and encouraged me to go to law school. I was glad that my political science class was able to spend a half-day with the Interior department. He did that just for us when he wasn’t seeing other people at the time because he was so busy,” he said. “So I thought, ‘I gotta do something for him.’”

Livingston decided to talk to Henry Zarrow, the then-owner of Sooner Pipe & Supply, among various other companies. Zarrow was giving Republican candidates and politicians generous amounts of money at the time. Livingston called Zarrow’s office, only to be dismissed by his secretary who told him that Zarrow was busy but will get back to him as soon as he can. Hours later, Livingston got a call: “Mr. Zarrow will now see you.”

After receiving a nod of confirmation from the secretary, Livingston heard a welcoming voice summoning him to the office a couple steps away, which resided proudly on the 20th floor of the One Williams Center Tower, the tallest skyscraper in downtown Tulsa. Livingston detailed his concerns immediately, as to not misspend Zarrow’s valuable time.

“Mr. Henry, Watt has been good to us. He’s been good to oil. We got to do something, we have to help him out,” Livingston pleaded.

“I’ve been helping him!” Zarrow retorted. He reached for the telephone and dialed the number of a very influential senator at the time, Al D’Amato of New York.

“Hey, this is Henry. Let me talk to Al,” Zarrow said, demonstrating a degree of familiarity that would accommodate communication on a first-name basis. D’Amato’s secretary informed him that the senator is on the floor for a vote and will return the call afterwards. “Okay. This is about Watt. I need him to get back to me,” Zarrow said whilst keeping sharp eye-contact with Livingston. The phone call ended. “I’m not done yet,” Zarrow said as he dialed another number.

“Let me talk to Nickles. This is Henry.”

“Oh, hello Mr. Henry. One moment,” replied the secretary who immediately transferred Zarrow to another line.

Republican Senator and former lobbyist Don Nickles of Oklahoma answered the phone. Zarrow plainly stated his concerns.

“Hey, listen. You get the heat off of Watt.”

“I am doing everything I can. We are really trying. It’s not going to be easy.”

“Get the heat off of him. I mean it. He’s done a lot for oil.”

Livingston says that the confrontation between the men did not resemble what it was: two powerful people discussing political and social maneuvers necessary to maintain capital. Rather, their conversation mimicked the temperament of a stern exchange between a father and son. What’s more, he found the tone of acquaintanceship that enveloped the conversation especially pernicious. The subtle changes in intonation from the secretaries upon hearing the words “this is Henry,” how easy it was to get ahold of these politicians, and how uncomplicated the whole ordeal was served as an indication that these backroom exchanges were ordinary occurrences.

“I will never forget that moment,” Livingston said. “It gave me a chance to see that at the highest levels of business and political life the people with money have incredible access to power. They can talk down to these representatives that we have to talk up to. They talk down to them like they’re their children. It’s like they own them. I was shocked.”

Observing the Juxtaposition

Livingston’s intuitions were validated and intensified years later when he moved back to Wash. state. It was during this time that he went through a considerable change in his political ideology. In particular, Livingston reevaluated his support for right-wing social and fiscal policy upon witnessing its material consequences. “I was so hurt. I was so hurt at the loss of programming, at the policing, and all of the drugs, how many people I knew who were incarcerated, at the new gangs that were all over the area,” he recounts. “The community was broken. I could no longer be a conservative.”

In 2010, Livingston joined a grassroots movement, the United Black Christian Clergy (UBCC) of Washington, a Black clergy alliance in greater Seattle. The UBCC lobbied for many humanitarian causes, namely on behalf of issues that disproportionately affect black and brown people in the area. Later, UBCC united statewide with other alliances and formed the Washington Christian Leaders Coalition (WCLD). WCLD specialized in efforts to combat the prison-industrial complex, curbing incarceration rates for marijuana offenses, funding for urban schools, among other socioeconomic issues. These grassroot alliances had less money backing their organizations, but they were substantially populated.

“Politicians didn’t want to see me and our group. There were a lot of people who didn’t want to meet with us and when they did meet with us they looked down on us,” Livingston remarked. It was through the time he spent at this organization that Livingston could comprehensively distinguish the glaring juxtaposition between the lobbying experience of oil companies versus that of a grassroots movement, ample in numbers yet lacking in social and fiscal capital. “The difference between what lobbying was like for us, who came with bigger numbers but no money, and what lobbying was like for Henry Zarrow, who came all by himself but with a lot of money, is night and day.”


Catherine Maund is a staff writer at The Seattle Collegian with an avid interest in American foreign policy, government surveillance, private interest groups with an influence on legislation, and animal welfarism. She hopes to pursue a career in investigative journalism.

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