The tribulations of Mr. Watt

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I am satisfied from reading the text of the letter which James G. Watt wrote to the Israeli ambassador in Washington that Mr. Watt was not consciously threatening to cut off United States aid to Israel as some friends of Israel were quick to conclude.

But I am equally satisfied that when the Secretary of the Interior of the US writes to a foreign ambassador urging that foreign ambassador to influence the voting behavior of American citizens - he has done something politically foolish. It is so foolish that the letter writer's suitability for public office , high or low, is in question.

Mr. Watt had not previously been disavowed by the White House even though he had offended conservationists repeatedly and sometimes gratuitously. But when he got himself into the position of seeming in some eyes to be threatening Israel unless all American Jews got behind his own energy program (offshore oil leases and the like) he had to be disavowed, as he was.

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In one sense the affair is trivial. But it also is symptomatic of a problem which is plaguing the Reagan administration just as it once did the Carter administration. The plain fact is that people who pride themselves on being ''outsiders'' and who intend to go to Washington and change everything - have a lot to learn.

Ponder for a moment how different things might have been for the Carter administration had Mr. Carter himself consulted a real Washington professional politician from the outset of his administration. He never turned for advice to the old hands of the party until it was too late. He did finally go to Clark Clifford and Clark Clifford advised him to hire Lloyd Cutler, and he did bring Mr. Cutler into the White House for, roughly, the last half of the administration. And Mr. Cutler performed yeoman service as a ''trouble shooter.'' He managed to smooth over several affairs which could have caused more damage than they did.

But by the time Mr. Cutler was brought in the Carter administration had already cast itself as being a bunch of novices who did not know their way around Washington or around American problems. They never quite seemed to belong in Washington. The voters got an idea that they were being governed by a group of incompetent amatures.

Did you happen to notice that when George Shultz went to Capitol Hill the other day for his confirmation hearings as the new Secretary of State, he took along as his principal adviser the same Mr. Cutler who had been recommended to Mr. Carter by Clark Clifford?

Mr. Cutler is what is known in Washington as an ''insider.'' His name is not widely known to the public at large. He has never held elective office. But he knows his way through the labyrinths of Washington politics and Washington bureaucracy. He is a political pupil of Clark Clifford who himself got his start in applied politics in the days of Harry Truman.

Mr. Cutler is precisely the sort of person who can help a novice in Washington find his way around. He is the kind of person Mr. Carter thought he could get along without - for too long for Mr. Carter's own good. He is what the Washington-wary George Shultz knew he needed at his side. Mr. Shultz had been in Washington before - successfully - under both Presidents Nixon and Ford. But he had been away during the Carter years. A man can get out of touch with Washington in even four years.

On Mr. Shultz's part it was simply a matter of prudence, almost an extra insurance policy, to have Mr. Cutler along as an adviser. Few candidates for high office are as capable as is Mr. Shultz to take care of themselves on the witness stand. But it is a measure of reassurance to all good citizens to know that the man who will be in charge of US foreign policy for the rest of this presidential term is so sensible and practical that he wanted that extra bit of wisdom by his side.

Poor Mr. Watt. He thinks he can take care of himself. He doesn't need the help of an experienced Washington hand. So he writes to his friend, the Israeli ambassador, instructing him to put pressure on ''liberal Jews'' to back his own reactionary programs for American energy and the environment. He is proud of having put his thoughts into his own words. He is in a peck of trouble.

Mr. Shultz will not be in that kind of trouble. Anyone who watched his performance before the Senate Committee knows that American foreign policies are now in the hands not only of a wise and experienced person, but also one who knows enough to want the best help available in managing his behavior in Washington.

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