Remembering (Not So Fondly) James Watt

[ Posted Thursday, June 8th, 2023 – 15:07 UTC ]

There were two notable deaths in the world of politics today, both of which inspire such strong negative feelings within me that I have to step outside the norm of: "De mortuis nihil nisi bonum." Both of these men were odious creatures in their own right, with one of them far more odious than the other. But the more odious one -- Pat Robertson -- is being adequately vilified elsewhere today, and I had a column all ready to go for the other one anyway, so this (repeat) column is dedicated to the memory of President Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Interior, James Watt. This column was published eight years ago, and thankfully the nation has made great progress since then. It was written to celebrate only the third state (Alaska, after Colorado and Washington) and Washington D.C. legalizing the recreational usage of marijuana. Today, that tally stands at 23 states plus D.C.

But D.C. joining the ranks of fully-legalized states was memorable for me for a different reason, because it made me want to salute those who had fought -- right at the top -- for legalization, all the way back when newspapers actually (and non-ironically) would use the phrase: "[The protesters] used dope." Because a brave few souls would celebrate Independence Day each year by truckin' on down to the White House and firing up some weed within full view of the leader of the country -- at a time when doing so (on federal property, no less) could lead to serious jail time.

These "smoke-ins" (as they were called) were, for the most part, peaceful political protests. Also for the most part, they were mostly ignored by society at large, back when there were only three national television networks, and the print media was almost as constricted. But one year, all of a sudden the pot smokers indirectly caused a huge political screw-up. And the man responsible for that (self-inflicted) screw-up was James Watt. So in memoriam we decided to re-run the article we wrote about all of it eight years ago.


Originally published February 27, 2015

The 1960s gave birth to the concept of the "sit-in," as well as other related protest events such as "teach-ins" or even "die-ins." But today we're going to focus on one particular event which isn't all that well known outside of the Washington Beltway: the "smoke-in." Specifically, the annual D.C. Smoke-In held every year on July Fourth.

Nowadays, with three states and D.C. having legalized recreational marijuana (just this week, Alaska and D.C. joined Colorado and Washington state), the concept of a public smoke-in seems almost retro and quaint. But those who participated over the last four decades were risking arrest and drastic punishment for what they bravely did -- breaking the law in protest of the unjust nature of the marijuana laws. So while many District residents celebrated in various ways this week (while some others cluelessly went in search of the "pot parties"), we instead would like to salute those who put their own freedom on the line each year in a dramatic display of civil disobedience.

This has included fights over who got to use the prime location for the rally, and (most memorably) James Watt shooting himself in the foot by attempting to ban the Beach Boys from the Independence Day celebrations. Every participant in the decades-long history of the Smoke-In has their own stories to tell, of course. What follows is just a few of them, in honor of all who stood up for what they believed in. They all helped usher in the new freedom D.C. residents now enjoy, which is why we're dedicating today's column to the history of the event. Sit back and enjoy.


An Incomplete History Of Washington's July Fourth Smoke-In

What could be a better way to pass a summer's afternoon than to sit across the street from the White House and smoke lots of pot?

This very simple idea birthed an annual tradition that continues to the present day. Now that Washington has legalized recreational use of marijuana, one can only imagine how festive this year's gathering will be. The organizers even have a Facebook page, if you're interested.

The dawn of the D.C. Smoke-In is, to coin a phrase, a bit hazy. It may have taken place in 1967. That Facebook page, however, seems to indicate that this year will be the 45th gathering, so either a few years were skipped or somebody is counting wrong.

I have to confess that I used only limited resources to research this article -- searching a database (behind a paywall, sorry for the lack of links) for Washington Post articles from the past. Now, this is somewhat limiting, because counterculture happenings weren't reported in the mainstream media much at the time. It wasn't until the late 1970s that regular reports started appearing. So the first decade or so of the Smoke-In remains obscured by clouds.

There are stories of those brave first gatherings -- one of which was that the cops had tried to make mass arrests, but when they transported people back to the local station, the protest just followed along. Mobs of people were openly smoking pot in the cops' lobby, and marijuana plants were brought in and set up on the counters. This may be mythology, but it was the story circulating at the time.

The Smoke-In concept in a nutshell: safety in numbers. If there are thousands of people smoking pot in front of the White House, then there are simply too many to arrest. The cops realized this early on, and pretty much gave up (although they would occasionally pick off people leaving the park).

The first Smoke-In news report I could find was from 1977, the year after the big bicentennial bash. The last bicentennial ceremony took place in '77, as a time capsule was buried to be opened in 2076, at the nation's tricentennial. President Carter announced he was awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Jonas Salk. The write-up of the Independence Day festivities in the Washington Post ended with:

The marijuana smoke-in at Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House was sponsored by a coalition supporting legalization of marijuana including the Youth International Party, known as the Yippies, and the national Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called NORML. Though marijuana smoke at times filled the air and a few minor incidents occurred, police reported they had made no arrests.

"With the numbers they have, (estimated at upward of 3,000) the policy is to control the crowd," said Deputy U.S. Park Police Chief Parker T. Hill, "We're not concerned with minor infractions." Arrests, he added might have led to further incidents.

The marijuana demonstrators listened to rock music, bathed in fountains, tossed Frisbees, occasionally taunted the police, displayed protest signs and climbed atop a park statue. Some also smoked marijuana.

You've got to love that rather staid "some also smoked marijuana" line at the end, there. The Yippies, for those unfamiliar with the group, were the brainchild of Abbie Hoffman and others in the 1960s, who were most famous for nominating a pig named "Pigasus" in the 1968 presidential election. But their greatest contribution to D.C. counterculture was, unquestionably, the Lafayette Park Smoke-In.

Due to differing permits and whatnot, the prime location of Lafayette Park (literally across the street from the White House) was not always used. In 1978 came the following report:

While CBs crackled and radiators boiled over on I-95, nearly 500 marijuana smokers gathered together at a smoke-in on the lawn between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool. The smoke-in was sponsored by the Youth International Party (Yippie) in an effort to repeal marijuana prohibition laws.

"We like to party and have political protests at the same time," said Ben Masel, an organizer of the smoke-in as he looked at a nearby crowd of 50 pot smokers. The smokers shared a dozen joints beneath a giant oak and clapped their hands in beat with the bluegrass music of two guitarists.

"This our 11th District smoke-in" said Masel, whose long black hair was tied behind his back, "and we seem to have different issues to consider every year. This year we want to abolish the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"The political issues aren't as clear as before."

Yes, it was the age of the CB radio, good buddy. You'll note that the claim is made that 1978 was the 11th gathering, which would put the first one in 1967.

By 1979, the event had gained enough stature that the Post included it in their pre-Independence Day tourist information, complete with handy phone number to call for info:

Those so inclined can participate in a Fourth of July smoke-in, a gathering of marijuana smokers sponsored by the 4th of July Coalition to protest the nation's marijuana laws. The U.S. Park Police expect as many as 15,000 pot smokers at the event, which will be Tuesday and Wednesday at Franklin and Lafayette Parks. Smoke-in information is available at [old phone number redacted].

That year, however, things didn't go quite as smoothly. The day afterward, this report was filed:

About 400 marijuana smoke-in demonstrators charged across Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday toward the White House grounds before D.C. and U.S. Park Police drove them back with motor scooters and billy clubs.

A small but angry faction of the nearly 5,000 participants hurled beer bottles, sticks and firecrackers at helmeted police, who formed a single line along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. One demonstrator was treated for cuts at George Washington University Hospital. Police made three arrests.

Shortly after the incident and after police reinforcements arrived, the group's permit to rally at Lafayette Square across from the White House was revoked. Police surrounding the crowd on three sides, pushing them down 17th Street to the Mall and along the Reflecting Pool.

Smoking marijuana openly and drinking beer, thousands milled around the Mall, hungry for the excitement and, as one said, "the party" that never came.

A footnote to the ugliness, for those who enjoy "stupid stoner" stories, happened out in suburban Maryland:

William David Wilkinson says he and his friends just wanted to make sure they would have enough gas to get back and forth from Prince George's Country to the Yippie Fourth of July smoke-in in Washington and the other Independence Day activities in the city yesterday. And at 3 a.m., their tank was already below the quarter mark. So when they saw a police cruiser parked on Donnell Drive in Forestville -- with the cap off -- it "caught our eye," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson and his friends also caught the eye of off-duty Police Officer Luther Watkins, who charged them for gas theft.

It wasn't just the time of CB radios, the nation was also experiencing gasoline shortages, for historical context.

The year 1980 was a turning point for Independence Day on the National Mall. The crowd was treated to not only a great fireworks display, but also to a free concert by the Beach Boys. What's not to love? Also, some marijuana was smoked:

In a larger gathering of dissenting voices, an estimated 2,000 people converged on Lafayette Square in front of the White House for the 13th-annual marijuana smoke-in and protest sponsored by the Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition.

In a free-swinging event led by Yippies and other dissidents, the whiff of protest in the air was as strong as the odor of marijuana.

Many came with flags -- both to wave and to wear. A number of T-shirts in the crowd bore unflattering slogans directed at Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

In one of the day's few unruly incidents, a brief melee broke out when about 100 pot smokers attempted to push out of the park several members of the Revolutionary Communist Party who were selling red flags and copies of the party newspaper.

One group chased out four in the Communist group, then set fire to a stack of their newspapers and a flag.

Most marijuana celebrants, however, chose simply to indulge themselves in the public disregard of the city's drug laws. Police have traditionally winked at their defiance. Only one arrest was reported during the day -- a man charged with urinating in public.

Yes, anti-Ayatollah T-shirts were a real thing. And even the hippies were anti-communist, it appears. Ah, the dawn of the 1980s! The cops had mellowed out appreciably, as one commented: "Other years I've been in helmets. Today, I'm wearing this," pointing to his short blue cap.

In 1981, the Beach Boys returned. This year would set off a chain of events that many have since forgotten. Instead of a rally in a park, the 1981 Smoke-In was organized as a July 4th march. This march ended up in front of the Interior Department, complete with "a three-foot golden bong" and banners reading: "Free the heads, jail the Feds," "Pot's an herb, Reagan's a dope," and "Free the weed." The news also referenced the new Secretary of the Interior, James Watt:

They chanted, "We smoke pot and we like it a lot" as they marched in front of the White House before turning south on 17th Street and then west on New York Avenue to the Interior Department, "the home of Watt, as in Watt's up, doc?" someone in the crowd volunteered.

Marijuana was smoked openly and sometimes seemingly to taunt the D.C. police, who made no arrests. Beer, wine and homemade concoctions also were pulled from ice chests as rally organizer Dana Beal said, "Marijuana is about as dangerous as caffeine."

Two years later, Watt struck back. However, he aimed at the wrong target, and famously shot himself in the foot.

It seems that Watt and his family enjoyed their own July 4th celebration on the top floor of the Interior building. Where they, doubtlessly, saw the end of the 1981 Yippie march. Watt then somehow mistakenly conflated the Smoke-In with the Beach Boys concert, and announced in April of 1983 that the Beach Boys and other "hard rock" bands would be banished from the July 4th celebration. In a Washington Post article titled "Ignorance," Judy Mann snarkily called Watt a "celebrated music critic," and helpfully explained what had happened:

Secretary Watt and his wife, it is significant to note, did not go down to the Monument grounds [where the Beach Boys played]. They entertained on the top floor of the Interior Department building and were spared the carryings-on of the hoi polloi. But somehow, Watt discovered that fireworks aren't the only things that got blasted on the Fourth of July at the Mall. His wife, we are told, discovered this by talking to a friend who was on the grounds and Watt discovered it by reading the newspaper. He discovered that some people drank, used dope, and assaulted each other, and he concluded that it was all because of the rock music which attracted what he described as "the wrong element."

Watt, typically, called it hard rock, which is presumably his musical analogue to ultraliberals and radical feminists and all the other bugaboos that stalk his life. In fact, as he later discovered to his chagrin, the rock groups he blamed for bringing in the "wrong element" are the kind of rock groups that parents listen to these days, not the kind that kids listen to.

This caused an immediate uproar. It turned out that Vice President Bush and Nancy Reagan were fans of the Beach Boys. Watt's proposal to have Wayne Newton play instead was roundly criticized by all. The White House deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, said of Watt's decision: "I think for a lot of people the Beach Boys are an American institution. Anyone who thinks they are hard rock would think Mantovani plays jazz." Bob Dole got in a dig or two: "I'll admit I am not a pop critic, but I know from the unsolicited comments of my staff that the Beach Boys are not hazardous to your health." California Democrat George Miller stood up in the House of Representatives and gave an amusing shout-out: "Mr. Watt, do you remember those good vibrations from the Fourth of July when all we did was dance, dance, dance all summer long to the Beach Boys in the spirit of America... these California girls, they get around and they are not going to back down because they are true to their school and they are going to shut you down like a 409 on graduation day." Yes, all of Washington joined in a little "fun, fun, fun," right up to when Ronald Reagan took Watt's T-Bird away.

Within one day, Reagan did what was called "taking Watt out to the woodshed" (yes, this was an actual political term used back then). From the followup story:

The White House yesterday countermanded Interior Secretary James Watt's ban on rock music at Fourth of July festivities on the Mall, and President Reagan awarded Watt a plaster foot with a hole in it for what Watt called "shootin' yourself in the foot."

Watt appeared on the White House lawn carrying the foot and said, "I've learned about the Beach Boys in the last 12 hours. And we'll look forward to having them in Washington to entertain us again."

. . .

Yesterday on the White House lawn, Watt said, "The president is a fan of the Beach Boys... and I'm sure when I get to meet them I'll like them... We need to express patriotism in America and the Beach Boys can -- will -- help bring us patriotism, I'm sure."

The president summoned Watt to the Oval Office for the foot "award" yesterday morning after the first lady telephoned the Interior secretary to say her children grew up with the music of the Beach Boys and that "they are fine, outstanding people and that there should be no intention to indicate that they cause problems."

The connection between the Smoke-In and Watt's Beach Boys ban was mostly overlooked in all the news coverage, but it was a well-known fact at the time in Washington. One of the articles written about Watt's blunder even quoted "Bruce Anderson of Citizens Against Marijuana Laws, which has held marijuana 'smoke-ins' across from the White House on past Fourths of July," who threatened to sue Watt.

Within days, Watt was a national joke. His name began popping up even in sports metaphors. A story covering the Capitals quipped: "Maybe Bryan Murray ought to rush the Beach Boys in for tonight's fourth game. Run 'em out there every time some smarty Islander draws a penalty and see if they can knock Denis Potvin as flat as they did James Watt." Watt would later resign in disgrace after mocking affirmative action in a comment about a panel his department set up: "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

But while the Watt controversy played out, something sneakier was afoot. These were the prime years of Nancy Reagan's expansion of the Drug War (call it the "Just Say No" era), after all. The Washington Post ran a lament about what had happened:

Shed no tears, please, but a Fourth of July tradition in Lafayette Park has been snuffed out -- at least officially -- by the powers that be. Without reading too much into this turn of events, we note that for the first time in more than a decade, the park is not officially scheduled to be the scene of a marijuana smoke-in. The smoke-in, for those who somehow have missed it in the past (or passed it in the mist), was the main, and usually only, organized celebration sponsored by the Youth International Party, commonly called the Yippies. Its highlights have included the burning not only of marijuana, but also of hundreds of blank Selective Service registration cards.

The Yippies assure us that they themselves are not burned out, though -- they just got burned this year, by a coalition of civic, church, family, school and anti-drug groups. These organizations beat the Yippies to the punch in getting a permit to reserve the park. Their celebration promises to be quite different, too: a "National Family Day" is being planned, sponsored by the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, the local chapters of Toughlove and Straight, Inc., and dozens of other organizations.

D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy spoke out at the new gathering, channeling his inner Harold Hill ("Trouble with a capital T which rhymes with P..."):

"Down with Pot, Pornography and Promiscuity," Fauntroy shouted into a microphone. "Those are the three P's destroying the American family today."

"Organizers of the smoke-ins have sent fliers into our schools urging children to join in their use of marijuana," Fauntroy maintained in an interview later. "So we decided to apply for use of this park this year to make a statement against drug use."

The Smoke-Ins did eventually return to Lafayette Park. By 1989, the culture wars had moved on to the threat of rampant American flag burning (that never seemed to materialize). From an article on that year's Smoke-In:

Loey Glover, office manager for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, wore a tricorn hat and held a sign, "Burn Pot, Not Flags."

By the 1990s, the Post was again listing the Smoke-In along with all the other Independence Day activities for tourists to enjoy:

The NORML smoke-in/rally in Lafayette Park has such a long tradition now -- 24 years -- that it's almost an institution, which is a pretty scary thought.

This was in 1993, which would put the first Smoke-In at 1969, if true.

But whenever the first Smoke-In actually happened, and however many of them have happened, now that recreational use of marijuana is legal in Washington D.C., we felt it was time to honor those brave protesters who stood up for what they believed in for the past four or five decades (give or take a few years).

They were brave, even if they were basically just getting high. There was a very real possibility of paying an awfully steep price for smoking pot so blatantly, from the 1960s through the Just Say No 1980s, continuing to various degrees all the way through to last year. Smoking marijuana -- openly, and across the street from the White House -- was standing up for the civil right to be left alone. No, it wasn't the same as the Civil Rights marches of an earlier era (I certainly wouldn't compare the two on any sort of moral scale), but the brave Lafayette Park pot smokers were indeed standing up for their own civil rights. Whether it began 45 years ago, 46 years ago, or even 48 years ago, the tradition of civil disobedience continued -- sometimes flirting with violence, but for the most part, merely making a political point. Smoking pot in full view of the president of the United States was one way of supporting the concept that the laws were wrong and needed to be changed.

It took a long time, but this week pot smokers finally reached the Promised Land in D.C. Oh, sure, it's just a beginning -- the Smoke-Ins themselves are still illegal in at least two major ways. Public consumption is still illegal, which would seem to cover standing in front of the White House smoking a joint. And Lafayette Park is one of many plots of land within the District which are federal property (where pot smoking is still illegal, by federal law). So if this year's event does happen across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, it'll still be a protest for further change.

But mostly it'll be a celebration of victory. If you believe in an issue strongly enough to blatantly break the law in full view of the leader of the country, eventually at times you can convince enough of you fellow citizens to support your cause. So in the midst of all the other celebrations of D.C.'s new legalization law, I thought it'd be particularly appropriate to fully remember those who let their freak flag fly on our nation's birthday. Right across the street from the White House, no less. Everyone who fires up a legal joint in Washington this week should thank those brave souls who protested without much hope of ever winning the political argument.

To the Yippies of Lafayette Park, and to all others who have publicly smoked pot in years past: Thank you for standing up, on the right side of history.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “Remembering (Not So Fondly) James Watt”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:

    "De mortuis nihil nisi bonum."

    Of the dead, say nothing but good. Well, okay then.

    James Watt and Pat Robertson are dead. Good.

  2. [2] 
    andygaus wrote:

    By the way, something else just happened.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    what happened?

  4. [4] 
    Kick wrote:
  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I think there's a case to be made for president Biden pardoning trump for his federal crimes. That wouldn't affect the new York charges or the civil ruling though.

  6. [6] 
    Alin wrote:

    nypoet [5]
    Wait - why would he do that? If he did, trump would spin it as "total exoneration" and just go right ahead doing it all again.

  7. [7] 
    Kick wrote:


    I think there's a case to be made for president Biden pardoning trump for his federal crimes.

    I would definitely like to hear you make that case since I believe there is zero chance of that happening.

    At its very core, this is an issue of national security involving defense of the United States and not simply an issue of some accidentally misplaced documents. The mere promise of possible access to these type documents could be bartered in exchange for favors. How so?

    Say there was a government employee/former government employee with highly classified war scenarios regarding a foreign nation or negative personal information about a world leader wherein the mere promise of access to those documents might gain him/her favor (and them leverage) with/against their adversaries (or maybe even their "so-called" allies).

    Now say you are the current President of the United States with nigh on half a century of experience regarding the type of damage that can be done to America's national security by an employee/former employee with those documents and deep ties to a nation such as (for instance) Saudi Arabia? Why would you pardon that person?

    That wouldn't affect the new York charges or the civil ruling though.

    Fortunately. :)

  8. [8] 
    Kick wrote:

    Reportedly 7 charges, but I cannot wait (of course, I can) to find out how many counts will be included in the likely Section 18 USC 793 charge? How many jelly beans (documents) in that jar!?

    Unseal the indictment... now. :)

  9. [9] 
    Kick wrote:
  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    I didn't say it was remotely likely to happen, just that it might make sense. As a condition for receiving a pardon, it would be stipulated that Donald admit to the crimes he committed, and express remorse for their consequences. Sure it isn't likely, but if possible it would do a great deal to heal the insanity that currently grips our country's politics.

  11. [11] 
    Kick wrote:


    I didn't say it was remotely likely to happen, ...

    Of course you didn't; that was me saying it and then explaining why.

    ... just that it might make sense.

    I definitely wanted to hear you make your case for why it would make sense for Biden to pardon Trump. After I posted my response to your [5], I then saw Alin's post at [6] also wanting to know. Inquiring minds want to know.

    As a condition for receiving a pardon, it would be stipulated that Donald admit to the crimes he committed, and express remorse for their consequences.

    I object. ;)

    Biden is required to take no action before America is given its trial by jury because We the People deserve to see it, and Trump is constitutionally entitled to it and is "not guilty" (not the same as innocent) until proven "guilty." After Trump is convicted (if he gets a speedy trial, but you know his MO is "delay"), only then can Biden take action, but there is no pardon for him because then he'd do something similar to what Alin posted... so that's a big "no."

    Trump 20-24 is then the sentence handed down (see what I did there?), and then (and only then) can Biden allow Trump to live out his remaining days wearing an ankle monitor because (I may have mentioned before) he's Benedict Donald and the biggest threat to America (and always has been).

    Sure it isn't likely, but if possible it would do a great deal to heal the insanity that currently grips our country's politics.

    Well, none of us made Benedict Donald steal Top Secret government documents and then show them to others and refuse to return them to and also to implore his (now former) lawyer to "86" them. Blaming the FBI for planting the documents won't work either because some of the 31 documents stolen (more where that came from, obviously) were actually returned to NARA before the FBI ever obtained the warrant and (finally) served the warrant at Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the stolen property of the United States after giving Trump over a year to return the stolen property before the DOJ was contacted and the situation escalated.

    That indictment is the loudest "speaking indictment" I've ever seen... complete with pictures of a mountain of evidence, and (lordy) there are tapes... Trump indicts himself.

    Trump needs a good criminal lawyer... versus a lawyer he wants to be his criminal co-conspirator. Obviously, Trump has the right to remain silent; he just doesn't have the ability. :)

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