“The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general–and President Bush in particular–are most vulnerable.” So asserted Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster, last year in a confidential memo that surfaced in the New York Times. One wonders whether White House political guru Karl Rove agrees with Luntz’s assessment, given the Bush Administration’s relentless assault on clear skies and healthy forests on behalf of its corporate backers. But as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s recent truth-telling reminds us, there are also honorable Republicans out there who are appalled by the arrogant, dishonest extremism of the Bush crowd, which they see as a betrayal of real conservatism. On the environment, it’s worth remembering that it was Republicans who led the federal government into the modern environmental era, when Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, signed into law the Clean Air and Clean Water acts (and much other fundamental legislation) and generally launched the nation on a course of environmental protection that, despite recent backsliding, remains the envy of much of the world. Now, this oft-forgotten history has been described by a former Republican insider, Russell Train, in a book that offers implicit lessons to anyone hoping to exploit Bush’s vulnerabilities on the environment in 2004.
Ignore the book’s bland title–Politics, Pollution, and Pandas–and focus on the pedigree of the author. Train was one of Nixon’s two point men on the environment. He served as the first chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality from 1970 until 1973, when he replaced William Ruckelshaus (Nixon’s other eco point man) as administrator of the EPA, which he headed until Democrat Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. Although Train’s book is primarily a memoir of his years in government, he is clearly pained by the current President’s environmental policies, which he regards as willfully obtuse, not to mention an invitation to global catastrophe.
Train’s genteel but plain-spoken criticisms of Bush sting not only because of the author’s career history and political affiliation but his personal background. A New England blueblood whose father was President Herbert Hoover’s naval attaché and whose wife was a bridesmaid to Jackie Kennedy, Train is no wild-eyed tree hugger but an unimpeachable member of the governing class. On visits to New York City, he would spend the night in Laurance Rockefeller’s apartment; the Trains traveled in China with the senior Bushes and were guests at the White House on the night after the first Gulf War began in 1991.
To read Train’s memoirs is to be reminded that Republicans once championed environmental progress rather than destruction. Before Nixon came to power in 1969, there were virtually no federal laws against pollution; factory smokestacks, auto tailpipes and chemical outflows spewed all manner of poisons into the air, soil and water. Train’s account of how he and his Administration colleagues, working with Democrats in Congress, established the laws, regulations and institutions that now control such antisocial activities (however imperfectly) is a powerful testament to the ideal of activist government and the good it can accomplish. Nixon was certainly probusiness, but unlike today’s Republicans he was not antigovernment. He knew the market wasn’t always right and that government oversight was needed to keep business honest.
Thanks to Train’s insider status, the book also contains tidbits certain to delight anyone still interested in the Nixon presidency. In one scene, Nixon is left speechless after his valet politely but pointedly corrects an ignorant presidential remark about tropical ecology. And who would have guessed that John Ehrlichman, the adviser best known for his villainous role in the Watergate scandal, was a closet green who time and again made sure the environmental agenda didn’t get lost in White House power struggles or bureaucratic inertia?
Most relevant in this election year, however, is the book’s theory about why Nixon pursued such pro-environmental policies. According to Train, Nixon believed he had no choice. From the time he took office in 1969 Nixon was thinking ahead to running for re-election in 1972, and the public’s evident concern about the environment–as expressed in opinion polls, the first Earth Day celebration in 1970 and abundant news media coverage–led him to assume that he had to establish a strong record on the issue. Nixon never expressed a personal interest in environmental issues, recalls Train; rather, he reacted as “a highly political animal…[whose] instincts told him that he and the Republican Party could not afford to be seen as anti-environment.”
Bush, on the other hand, seems to have concluded he can get away with a rape-and-pillage approach and still win a second term, and he may be right. Media coverage of his environmental record has been critical but low-key, activist criticisms have rarely gained traction and polls indicate that Americans, while they don’t like what Bush is doing, don’t rank the environment very high when it comes to deciding which way to vote.
So the Bush assault continues. Just since Thanksgiving, his Administration has, among other actions, proposed allowing electric utilities to delay fifteen more years before decreasing their emissions of mercury, a substance especially harmful to children and pregnant women; proposed opening Alaska’s North Slope to oil drilling; driven three more senior EPA enforcement officials into early retirement with its antiregulatory attitude (enforcement is down 58 percent since the Clinton years); taken Greenpeace to court for mounting nonviolent protests against illegal logging; and, perhaps worst, continued to stall on the overriding threat of climate change, even as new studies warn of massive species extinctions and hundreds of thousands of human deaths by 2050.
Bush is apparently betting that the environmental movement is too weak, and the American electorate too ignorant or apathetic, to make him pay a price for these outrages come November. His opponents have ten months to prove him wrong. They might start by giving copies of Russell Train’s book to every thoughtful Republican they know.