For James Watt, resignation was the proper action. His usefulness as secretary of the interior had been greatly impaired by a long string of ill-considered remarks. The best help he could give the President was to resign.
For President Reagan, the resignation provides an opportunity. By appointing as Watt's successor a person who expresses more environmental and conservation concern for the nation's vast landholdings, he could move toward securing the support of women, and of the Republican moderates so influential within his party in the Midwest and Northeast - groups needed for a more centrist administration position. Conservatives who, like Watt, favor economic development over environmental concerns will have no realistic alternative in 1984; they are virtually certain to be in the President's camp. It should be noted that conservatives helped decide Watt's fate.
In recent days the Reagan administration has moved somewhat in the direction of greater environmental concern with a shift in emphasis on energy. The change was contained in its National Energy Policy Plan, sent to Congress earlier this month. In it the administration spoke of the long-term energy importance to the United States of conservation and renewable energy; previously it had concentrated on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
In March Mr. Reagan seized an opportunity similar to today's when he appointed the already-respected William Ruckelshaus to head the troubled Environmental Protection Agency. The President pledged his administration's support toward cleaning up pollution.
Ultimately, of course, both Mr. Reagan and his appointees will be judged by what they do about environment and pollution rather than by what they say. Already some environmentalists are concerned that the administration has not yet come forth with a program for reducing acid rain in the Northeastern US and Canada; Mr. Ruckelshaus reportedly is having difficulty gaining support within the administration for such action.
But for the Interior Department it is first things first: who will the new secretary be, and how initially will he be perceived?