Earl L. Butz

U.S. secretary of agriculture


Earl L. Butz, who orchestrated a major change in federal farm policy as secretary of agriculture during the 1970s but came to be remembered more for a vulgar racial comment that brought about his resignation during the 1976 presidential election race, died Saturday in Washington. Mr. Butz, who lived in West Lafayette, Ind., was 98.

His death was announced by Purdue University, where he was dean of the College of Agriculture from 1957 to 1967. Randy Woodson, the current dean, told The Associated Press that had Mr. Butz died in his sleep while visiting his son William.

Serving under President Richard M. Nixon and his successor, Gerald R. Ford, Mr. Butz was a forceful, sharp-tongued figure who engineered legislation sharply reducing federal subsidies for farmers. He was the best known secretary of agriculture since Henry A. Wallace in the Depression days, when the federal government began to pay farmers to keep some of their cropland and livestock out of production in the face of plunging income.

Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices. Farm income did rise during his time in office, in good measure the result of a huge grain shipment to the Soviet Union in 1972, but American consumers paid more for food. Mr. Butz was an important source of political support in the Midwest farm belt for the Nixon and Ford administrations. But he was criticized by Democrats in Congress who viewed him as the voice of "agribusiness," the corporate agricultural interests, at the expense of small farmers and consumers.

Mr. Butz said he reflected rural values learned as an Indiana farm boy and he gave no ground to critics. When environmentalists warned against pesticides and fertilizers, he retorted, "Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve."

Speaking before members of a farm credit association in Champaign, Ill., in 1973, he said that if housewives did not have "such a low level of economic intelligence," they would understand that the price of everything had gone up and "you can't get more by paying less."

Seth S. King wrote in The New York Times in 1973 that Mr. Butz was "a friendly man who often looks forbidding austere, primly dressed, and, when the podium lights shine from below, like a shorter version of Boris Karloff."

He was a man with a penchant for barnyard humor who delighted in showing visitors a wood carving of two elephants having sex that he kept in a cabinet behind his desk, a gift from a friend in Indiana symbolizing Mr. Butz's quest to multiply farm votes for the Republicans.

But his off-color comments brought accusations of bigotry and his eventual departure from Washington. Trouble first arrived in November 1974 during an informal meeting with reporters in Washington when Mr. Butz, using a mock Italian dialect, criticized on Pope Paul VI's opposition to using artificial birth control as a solution to world food problems. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York called on Mr. Butz to resign or apologize. He did offer an apology following a rebuke from President Ford.

Mr. Ford had been counting on Mr. Butz to help win the Midwestern farm vote when he ran for a full term against Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Mr. Butz campaigned strenuously in that race. But his career in Washington suddenly ended a month before the election. On a plane trip following the Republican National Convention in August, accompanied by, among others, John W. Dean 3d, the former White House counsel, Mr. Butz made a remark in which he described blacks as "coloreds" who wanted only three things - satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom - desires that Mr. Butz listed in obscene and scatological terms.

Mr. Dean reported the remark in Rolling Stone magazine, attributing it to a cabinet official he did not identify, but New Times magazine subsequently cited Mr. Butz as the source. Prominent figures from both parties called on Mr. Butz to quit, and Mr. Ford gave him a "severe reprimand" for "highly offensive" remarks. Mr. Butz resigned within days, saying that "the use of a bad racial commentary in no way reflects my real attitude."

Earl Lauer Butz was born on a farm near Albion, Ind., on July 3, 1909, and grew up guiding horse-drawn plows. He graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette in 1932. Five years later, he received Purdue's first doctorate in agricultural economics. He was head of Purdue's agricultural economics department from 1946 to 1954.

During the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, he served for three years as an assistant secretary of agriculture. Returning to Purdue, he became dean of agriculture and he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana in 1968. He spoke frequently to businessmen and bankers and served on the boards of several large agricultural corporations. Mr. Butz's nomination as secretary of agriculture by President Nixon in 1971 was approved in the Senate by a vote of only 51 to 44, an extraordinarily close margin for a cabinet figure, as his ties to agricultural big business coming under criticism. Nevertheless, he asserted himself from the outset in making farm policy.

"Butz's power as secretary of agriculture seemed overwhelming," Joel Solkoff wrote in "The Politics of Food" (Sierra Club Books, 1985). "He made one decision to sell the Russians massive quantities of grain that virtually overnight transformed the basic problem of U.S. agricultural policy from what to do with the surplus to how to make up for the shortage."

After leaving office, Mr. Butz lectured frequently. In May 1981, while serving as dean emeritus of Purdue's school of agriculture, he pleaded guilty to fraudulently understating his 1978 federal taxable income by more than $148,000, representing income from his talks. He served 25 days in jail and received five years' probation. In his mid-90s, he was still going to his office at Purdue.

In addition to his son William, he is survived by another son Thomas, The A.P. said. His wife, Mary, died in 1995.

During his first months in office, Mr. Butz anticipated at least some of the tumult he would bring to the national political scene. "When President Nixon asked me to come to Washington, he told me he wanted a vigorous spokesman for agriculture," he told Julius Duscha for an article in The New York Times Magazine in April 1972. "I told him at the time I was sworn in, 'Mr. President, you may have a more vigorous spokesman than you want.' "

Earl L. Butz
Landon Lecture
May 4, 1972