I met Interior Secretary Gale Norton in the public restroom at Denver International Airport. She was coming out of the handicapped stall with a black roller bag. She is a tall, handsome woman.
We ended up washing our hands at neighboring
Should I, or shouldn’t I?
"Secretary Norton — "
"Yes?" she said,
I introduced myself and extended my hand.
Her smile disappeared as she declined to shake it.
A few months earlier, I had written an opinion piece for
The New York Times critical of the Bush
administration’s energy policy. If that policy is being
conducted quietly behind closed doors in Washington, D.C., it is a
ground-thumping reality in Utah’s redrock outback.
Withdrawing my wet hand, I said, "I realize this is an awkward
situation, but surely there must be some way to find a common point
of conversation between us as 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.
In all honesty, I
don’t recall our exact exchange of words. I was nervous. What
I can tell you is that our words were few. 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 I was infringing on her
privacy, but given the lack of access to anyone in this
administration, I took my chances.
What I do remember
Secretary Norton saying to me was something along the lines of, "If
you knew what we knew, you would think differently."
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.
After a rather
spirited exchange over why she and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt
withdrew protection from wilderness study areas, we tried to
straighten our skirts and establish some semblance of conviviality.
Both of us promised to send each other reading materials. In the
secretary’s case, she promised to send me a new publication
coming out of the Department of the Interior, illuminating her
"Four C’s" — communication, consultation and
cooperation, all in the service of conservation — which I
later received, along with her card.
Norton has turned in her resignation. Her last day on the job will
be March 31, 2006. She told President Bush in her letter that she
looks forward to returning to the private sector and eventually
coming home to Colorado.
In the end, we did shake hands
and look one another in the eyes before going our separate ways.
I remember boarding my plane almost late, sitting down,
still trembling from our encounter.
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 pumps, designed by the oil and gas
companies who paved her way into American history.