Watt a Cock Up

As has now been widely reported, Bill Moyers has apologised to Reagan Cabinet and Assemblies of God member James Watt over a bogus quote. While making a speech at Harvard Medical School, Moyers said:

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 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’.

The Washington Post recently ran a piece making the same allegation. Alas, Watt never said any such thing, although he was, notoriously, the head of the anti-environmentalist Mountain States Legal Foundation before joining Reagan’s staff. And (this was news to me), a real quote from Watt that is often used to show his anti-environmentalism (and, by association, Reagan’s apocalypticism) was taken out of context:

I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.

This bit is famous, and supposedly shows that Watt did not see much need to care about the future. But the next sentence adds:

Whatever it is, we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.

Brian Carnell and Frank E Lockhart have looked into the origins of the bogus quote (links from Christianity Today). Here’s Lockhart’s take:

Pressed by skeptical readers for the source of Watt’s congressional testimony, [freelance Grist writer Glenn] Scherer pointed them to an obscure source – a 1990 book by a defrocked Assemblies of God preacher and former circus ringmaster named Austin Miles.

Miles’ book, “Setting the Captives Free”, attacks the Assemblies of God denomination, the United States government, the Bible (“the greatest fraud the world has ever known”) and Watt – the first member of the Assemblies of God ever to serve in a presidential cabinet.

…The Watt quote appears on page 229 of “Setting the Captives Free,” but the book does not claim that the statement was made before Congress.

In a phone interview last week, Miles said the statement was made on televangelist Jim Bakker’s “PTL Club” program in Charlotte, N.C. at some point in the 1970s or 1980s.

For a man with few identifiable talents, Austin Miles seems to be remarkably effective in getting noticed by peddling falsehoods. In 2002 he wrote an article for ASSIST Ministries which contained a bogus quote attributed to Michael Newdow and an accusation of perjury (The article is gone, but a statement from ASSIST can be read here). As I noted on this blog last year, Miles also railed against Newdow at the now-defunct BushCountry.org and last June Newdow successfully sued for libel.

Miles’s alleged Watt quote comes from a period in his life when he had been defrocked from the Assemblies of God and had become an atheist. He later converted back to Christianity, since when he has (according to Shy David) peddled quack medicines and been in trouble with the law for publishing the home address of a sheriff deputy who was investigating him. More recently, he has jumped on the inflammatory anti-Muslim bandwagon (see this profile from World O’Crap, scroll down to number four).

UPDATE: Watt milks it to death in the Washington Times.