Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Nixon and the Environment

This is not the first time I've complained about this on the blog, but some things must be repeated.

One of the most frustrating things that you hear as an environmental historian is that Richard Nixon was a good environmental president. He signed a lot of environmental legislation, including the bill that formed the Environmental Protection Agency. All of this is true, making the false claim about Nixon a bit difficult to refute. You see, Nixon simply didn't care either way. He hated environmentalists, as he hated all liberal activists. But he wanted to fight in Vietnam and focus on foreign policy. He didn't want fights over domestic policy to get in the way of his agenda. And of course, Nixon was an amazing politician. He could read the writing on the wall. He knew that the nation in 1970 was very pro-environmental legislation. Nixon then decided that this was not the battlefield he was willing to die on. So he signed this legislation. While I guess he deserves a slight bit of credit for not acting like Bush would have, he still never would have signed such legislation in a different political climate.
Rick Perlstein has a good post on this very issue. Writing the introduction to a new collection of Nixon's writings and speeches, Perlstein writes:

His policy preferences also indicated a conflicted eagerness to please opinion-making elites. They praised his establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency, launched with an inspiring speech: "the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never." But he shared his true opinion of the issue in an Oval Office meeting auto executives: that environmentalists wanted to "go back and live like a bunch of damned animals." Throwing conservationists a bone also suited another political purpose: the issue was popular among the same young people who were enraged at him for continuing the Vietnam War. In the end, the EPA was a sort of confidence game. The new agency represented not a single new penny in federal spending for the environment. It did, however, newly concentrate bureaucracies previously scattered through vast federal bureaucracy under a single administrator loyal to the White House—the better to control them.

Yep. And think about how Republicans have manipulated that new bureaucracy to undermine the very institutions it was designed to implement. Nixon put into the place the framework for future presidents to destroy environmental legislation. I am hardly arguing that the EPA has been a bad thing, but it does allow a president to have a great deal of control over the implementation of environmental legislation. This can be a good thing if a liberal president is in the White House. But in reality, for most of the period since its creation, the EPA has been in the hands of the enemies of the environment, though never to such destructive ends as during this administration.