WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary James Watt drew laughs when he told a business group Wednesday he has an advisory group loaded with minorities -- 'a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple' -- but he later apologized for the remark.
Describing his litany as 'unfortunate,' Watt said he had apologized to Richard Gordon, a member of a special commission on coal leasing practices who has a paralyzed right arm.
Gordon, a professor at Penn State, said he was 'disturbed' by Watt's remarks and wanted 'to run this down until I know what's going on.' He said Watt told him the comment was a 'jocular characterization.'
Julia Walsh, the woman on the five-member study panel, said, 'I resent it being implied that I am the token woman.'
One congressman lumped Watt with Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's agriculture secretary who resigned after telling a racist, off-color joke.
Watt's comments came during a half-hour, off-the-cuff address attacking Congress, the press and 'liberal Democrats,' sparked by a Senate vote Tuesday putting a moratorium of federal coal leasing pending a review of the program.
The controversial secretary's breakfast audience, trade association executives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, laughed when he told them the review panel has 'three Democrats, two Republicans -- every kind of mix you can have.
'I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent,' Watt said.
One member of the audience asked the interior secretary after his talk whether the remark was ill-advised, considering President Reagan's problems attracting minority support.
Watt said the question 'shows that you don't have the ability to laugh at yourself.'
'If you can't joke about things, you shouldn't be in Washington,' he said.
But Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., wrote a letter to Reagan urging him to rebuke Watt, saying his remark 'only reinforces the widely-held belief that your administration is insensitive toward minority groups, women and others.'
Watt, who has called himself the administration's 'lightning rod,' frequently has been the focus of controversy for strongly expressing his political and religious beliefs.
One brouhaha came when he suggested the Beach Boys drew the 'wrong element' to Fourth of July festivities on the Washington Mall. He also has been challenged for citing biblical authority for his environmental policies, which critics label as exploitative.'
Watt issued a statement at midafternoon Wednesday saying his 'choice of words about the coal leasing commission today was unfortunate.'
'I have apologized to the one member of the commission who is handicapped. I remain very proud of the commmission, which is made up of highly talented people, reflecting a broad cross-section of our population.'
Harmon Kallman, a Watt spokesman, said the secretary 'was trying to express that it was a broadly based commission.'
Reached at his office at State College, Pa., Gordon said, 'I've spoken to Mr. Watt and he informed me that one of the remarks that might have been interpreted as an unfortunate characterization of me was a jocular characterization.'
'He (Watt) assured me that he wasn't aware there was someone (on the commission) with a disability,' said Gordon, who is Jewish.
Kallman, however, said Watt knew one member of the commission had a handicap, but did not know who it was.
'I'm very disturbed,' Gordon said. 'I'm going to run this down until I know what's going on.'
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who heads a House Interior subcommittee, said Watt has 'insulted all Americans' and declared, 'As Earl Butz has shown, there are something you cannot joke about and expect to stay in Washington.'
'I know he (Watt) has a sense of humor,' said commission chairman David Linowes, a professor economy at the University of Illinois-Champaign.
'If the remarks were made by a bigot I would have been offended,' said Linowes, who is Jewish. '(But) his track record shows a wholesome record in dealing with other people.'
Coal commission member Andrew Brimmer, a black and a former member of the Federal Reserve Board, said he was not offended by Watt's remarks, but called them 'unfortunate and unwise.'
Ms. Walsh, a Washington investment counselor, said she was 'hurt' by Watt's remarks.
'I'm resent it being implied that I am the token woman, because I have a 30-year background in investment and finance,' she said.
Commission member Donald Alexander, former head of the Internal Revenue Service, was present during Watt's speech. He called the comment 'very unfortunate.'
'It was a jest that was quite insensitive,' Alexander said.