Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Reevaluating Carter, Reagan, and Clinton on the Environment

Historians' views of presidents change over time, depending on the circumstances of the present. In my view (which I think is becoming increasingly obvious) the key question of the 21st century is the environment, broadly defined. This includes pollution, climate change, energy supplies, urban issues, etc. Rising oil prices may not feel like an environmental issue, but of course it is given the larger importance of oil production, what could replace it, and how cheap oil has allowed us to so drastically alter nature.

How will a new environmental interpretation affect how we view presidents? The one president such a view clearly helps is Jimmy Carter. So often, Carter is seen as a bad president. McCain called him "lousy" recently. I wonder how McCain would compare Bush to Carter? Anyway, while Carter had his weak points, particularly in his handling of the Iran hostage crisis, he was a real visionary on environmental issues. I believe that future historians will see Carter as a man far ahead of his time, telling Americans things they needed to hear. Carter had the vision to change America before it was too late, too get us off a strictly petroleum based energy economy before the problem became unmangable. But this was not the lesson the nation wanted to hear.

And that leads us to presidents whose reputations will be sullied as a result of their environmental policies. No one will suffer as bad as Ronald Reagan. His destruction of the solar energy industry was disgusting. Across the board, Reagan's environmental policies were terrible, but his rejection of everything Carter tried to do will be seen as one of his most important legacies. The perception of Reagan will decline for many reasons I believe, but none more important than his horrible energy policy.

I also believe that Bill Clinton will suffer on this account. Clinton was great at the big environmental acts that garnered him tons of headlines. He was great on national parks for instance. And obviously, he was better than Reagan in all aspects of environmental policy. But Clinton also happily supported American automakers' investment in trucks and SUV's in the 1990s. He took no steps to reduce the nation's dependence on oil, to solve untrammeled growth, or to prepare the nation for living in the 21st century environment.