Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

James Watt (1981–1983): Secretary of the Interior

James Gaius Watt was born in 1938 in Lusk, Wyoming, and earned a B.A., with honors, from the College of Commerce and Industry at the University of Wyoming (1960). After a brief stint as an interviewer for the Small Business Administration, Watt entered law school, earning his J.D. from the University of Wyoming’s School of Law in 1962. That same year, he served as a personal assistant to Republican Senate-hopeful Milward Simpson.

When Simpson was elected to the U.S. Congress, Watt served until 1966 as his legislative assistant and chief counsel. Watt then became a secretary to a chamber of commerce committee on natural resources and environmental pollution control policies. By 1969, President Richard Nixon had appointed him deputy assistant secretary of the interior for water power and development, a position Watt held until becoming director of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.

From 1975 to 1977, Watt served as a member of the Federal Power Commission, doing so at President Gerald Ford’s request, before heading the Mountain States Legal Foundation. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan nominated Watt to become his secretary of the interior. Though a controversial appointment, the Senate confirmed Watt in 1981; he would resign two years later.

Following his cabinet stint, Watt worked as a consultant and lobbyist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1996, after pleading guilty to withholding departmental documents from a grand jury investigation, Watt was placed on five years’ probation, was forced to pay a $5,000 fine, and ordered to complete 500 hours of community service.