March 22nd, 2006

Gale Norton Ideologically Punk’d in Airport Bathroom

by Philip Baruth

Traveling the last few days in Colorado, and currently blogging from the public library in Telluride, where they take information technology pretty damned seriously.

Three-dimensional newspapers can be tough to come by, on the other hand. At least the Denver papers. And so if you sit down in a cafe without doing your homework beforehand, you can easily wind up with nothing to read but a local daily-shopper like the Telluride Watch.

Which happened to me this morning: Six a.m., breakfast burrito, sun smirking over the mountains that circle Telluride like God’s own castle wall — and nothing but the Telluride Daily Planet to pore over.

Nightmare scenario.

But even a daily-shopper runs something semi-precious every once in a while. There on page two was an op-ed called “Seeing Gale Norton’s Legacy,” by Terry Tempest Williams. And it was a beautiful piece of work: Tempest tells the story of running into Gale Norton, Bush’s soon to be former Interior Secretary, in the bathroom at the Denver International Airport. A bit awkward, as Williams had written a savage critique of Bush energy policy a few months earlier.

Really awkard, in fact: Norton wouldn’t even shake William’s hand at the sink.

“Withdrawing my wet hand, I said, ‘I realize this is an awkward sitution, but surely there must be some way to find a common point of conversation between us two women from the American West.’

“She wrung her hands and walked over to the wall behind us to dry them. I did the same.

“There was nothing in Secretary Norton’s demeanor that said she was under any obligation or courtesy to engage with a citizen, particularly this one. Granted it could be strongly argued that I was infringing on her privacy, but given the lack of access with anyone in this administration, I took my chances.

“What I do remember is Secretary Norton saying to me something along the lines, ‘If you knew what we knew, you would think differently.’

“This was a familiar response to me, growing up in a religious background where authority was respected, not questioned. If your testimony of God was not as strong as that of the true believers, it was because you were on the other side of goodness.”

To me, Williams captures the nub of the problem: whether in questions of government policy, or in questions of faith, the Bush administration pushes submission. Fortunately, of course, Williams wasn’t having any of it, and she continued to press Norton through the hand-drying and skirt-straightening phases of their bathroom encounter.

I’ve always disliked Gale Norton because she seems to me a classic Bush enabler: a smart, get-ahead type who realized early that backing the program (anti-environmental policies pushed as “reform”) was all that was required of her.

Williams doesn’t seem to like her much either, but she clearly detests what the last five years have done to environmental policy in the West. The close of her piece is genuinely poignant:

“Flying over southwestern Colorado, all I could see out my window was a spider web of roads, crisscrossing the desert, each one leading to Gale Norton’s legacy of black well pumps, designed by the oil and gas companies who paved her way into American history.”