Old Ned

Arizona Historymakers™

Arizona Historical Society

Bruce Babbitt

1938 -

Honored as Historymaker 2005

Arizona Governor & U.S. Secretary of the Interior

Oral History Transcript:

Video by Pam Stevenson, Agave Productions Inc., for the Historical League

Bruce Babbitt is a grandson of one of the five Babbitt brothers who homesteaded in Flagstaff in the 1880s. He grew up hiking and hunting in northern Arizona, then attended college at Notre Dame, planning a career in science. While pursuing a Master’s degree in geophysics, he was conducting fieldwork one summer in Bolivia when he discovered a passion for helping people in need. After returning to the U.S., Mr. Babbitt became active in the 1960s civil rights movement, marching in Selma, Alabama, and working for VISTA as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

After earning a law degree from Harvard, Bruce Babbitt returned to Arizona to practice law, representing the Navajo Tribe, the Arizona Newspaper Association, and the Arizona Wildlife Federation. In 1974, he was elected Arizona Attorney General, a position in which he focused on issues of public corruption, land fraud, and prosecuting the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. Mr. Babbitt loved the job: “It was a perfect combination of lawyering and public life.”

In early 1978, following the resignation of Governor Raul Castro and the unexpected death of Governor Wesley Bolin, Attorney General Babbitt was suddenly thrust into the governor’s office. “One’s life is surely, inevitably dictated by chance,” he says, “and this was a pretty spectacular example of that.” Governor Babbitt took charge during a challenging time. Arizona was in the midst of a devastating series of floods. Dams were in danger of failure and bridges were washed out. He used his authority as governor to get an emergency commuter train running across the Salt River. “There hadn’t been a tradition of assertive governors,” he noted, but he changed that, “and I found that I liked the job.” Bruce Babbitt went on to be elected to two more terms. During his years as governor, he used his veto to create a much stronger governor’s office. He worked to rewrite Arizona groundwater law; helped craft the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Arizona’s alternative to Medicaid; and by proclamation, established the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for the state.

In 1988, Bruce Babbitt gained a national reputation during a campaign for president of the United States. He is philosophical about the experience: “You may or may not win, but you can add to the process and come out, I think, better for having done it.” In 1992, President Bill Clinton appointed him Secretary of the Interior. Returning to his love of the environment during the eight years he served in that office, Babbitt helped President Clinton protect more land as national monuments than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. “Occasionally I had to stir things up and knock over a few icons,” he has remarked.

Bruce Babbitt has authored two books and numerous articles about environmental issues. He and his wife, Hattie, who served in the Clinton administration as Ambassador to the Organization of American States and as Deputy Administrator of the Agency for International Development, currently reside in Washington, D.C. Looking forward to an eventual return to Arizona, the Babbitts have purchased a site for a home in Oracle.

Historymaker Bruce Babbitt biography published in 2005
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