mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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The Once-Green GOP

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.

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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 attache 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.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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