Earl L. Butz, who orchestrated a major change in federal farm policy as secretary of agriculture in 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 Kensington, Md. Butz, who lived in West Lafayette, Ind., was 98.
Butz's son Bill, whom he had been visiting, said his father died in his sleep.
Serving under President Richard M. Nixon and his successor, Gerald R. Ford, Butz was a forceful, sharp-tongued figure who promoted 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.
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.
Butz was an important source of political support in the Midwestern 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.
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 that "you can't get more by paying less."
Seth S. King wrote in The New York Times in 1973 that 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."
Ford had been counting on Butz to help win the Midwestern farm vote when he ran for a full term against Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Butz campaigned strenuously in that race. But his career in Washington suddenly ended a month before the election.
On a plane trip after the Republican National Convention that August, accompanied by, among others, John W. Dean III, the former White House counsel, Butz made a crude remark about blacks. Prominent figures from both parties called on Butz to quit. Butz resigned within days.