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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Whitman Looks Back

Air Date: Week of February 11, 2005

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Former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman drew fire from all directions during her tenure as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Now she's taking some shots of her own in her new book "It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America." She talks with guest host Bruce Gellerman about how the far right is co-opting the Bush administration's environmental agenda.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth.

I'm Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The GOP is the party of President Teddy Roosevelt, who gave us national parks and forests - and Richard Nixon who gave us the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. From the Ford administration, we got the Safe Drinking Water Act.

George W. Bush, our current president, is also a Republican and for a behind the scenes view of his environmental record, we turn to someone who had a place at the cabinet table. From 2001 to mid 2003, Christie Todd Whitman was the administrator of the EPA.

The two-term governor of New Jersey has written a book about her tenure at the EPA and about the political party she loves. It's called, "It's My Party Too - the Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America." Governor Whitman joins me. Thank you very much.

WHITMAN: It's a pleasure. Good to talk to you.

GELLERMAN: You know, in reading your book, it sounds miserable being the head of the EPA.

WHITMAN: [LAUGHS]. I think it is under any administration. It's a tough job. I mean, it's a great agency with good people but when you're a regulatory agency, nobody much wants to see you because you're telling people they either have to change their behavior or spend a lot of money for benefits they may never see. So, it's always a bit problematic.

GELLERMAN: Well, characterize the Bush administration's policies and behaviors during your tenure, in terms of the environment.

Christine Todd Whitman
(Photo: © Brian Velenchenko)

WHITMAN: Well, it's a lot better, actually, than people believe but because of the focus that had been so specific since the very beginning on the four million evangelicals who had not voted in 2000, the political shop headed by Karl Rove who, by the way, has done a brilliant job in doing what he had to do and that's what his job was--to deliver for the president, focused on those four million. So, everything that we did and the way we delivered the message of what was happening was delivered with that base in mind. So, the good things that the administration did, like cleaning up the Hudson River, watershed-based management approach to cleaning up our waters, the regulation on diesel engines, non-road diesel engines, which are the back-hoes and the tractors that even the NRDC, at one point, said it was probably the most significant thing for human health since we took lead out of gasoline, those things weren't talked about because the base doesn't like regulation because that means government is coming in and telling them what to do and they don't like government overseeing your life in certain ways. They seem to like it in other ways but not when it comes to the environment. And so, the good things weren't talked about and the things that were a bit more problematic were given a lot of play.

GELLERMAN: Do you have a specific example of how the right might have influenced the environmental policies of the nation?

WHITMAN: There was the way we delivered the Kyoto decision. It was very much that, a lot of the good programs that aren't talked about. There are obviously pressures and I wouldn't say it was necessarily from the right, but from utility industries and areas like New Source Review but again, unfortunately, one of the frustrations in the environmental area is that science isn't exact. And it would be really nice if you could get a hard number out of the scientists so you wouldn't have all this back and forth. So, you don't have the kinds of battles that you have now over 'is climate change a real thing caused by humans or is it just part of a natural progression of the earth that we have seen before with the ice age?' Well, you know, common sense will tell you sure, we had an ice age, the dinosaurs all were killed and humans weren't around to impact that. But, on the other, hand you'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind I think, to think, what we have done in our treatment of the Earth and our emissions into the atmosphere to think that those haven't had an impact. And, we are making it more difficult for it may be hastening climate change and hasn't made it more difficult for nature to recover.

GELLERMAN: President Bush ran in 2000. He wanted to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and you were very enthused about that and, soon enough, you found out that that wasn't going to be.

WHITMAN: Well, the big issue there was that it centered around the Kyoto Protocol and, again, that's a perfect example to me of how we have hurt ourselves by having this, sort of, just razor-like focus, laser-like focus on the base because the Kyoto Protocol was never going to pass. When Al Gore had taken it up to the Senate it was voted down 95 to nothing. The Congress then had passed resolutions every year saying, no part of the federal government shall spend any money implementing anything that looks like Kyoto. It wasn't going to pass. And the president had come out against it. I wasn't not for the protocol as a governor because I didn't think it would solve the problem particularly without India and China being part of the mix. And so, when the president said we weren't going to support, be part of the Kyoto treaty, that's what the protocol essentially is, the treaty, that was just saying the emperor has no clothes.

The problem was he did it in a way to appeal to the base that kind of said, 'we're out of this discussion entirely' and there was no differentiation made between the protocol, which is the treaty, and the process which was something the rest of the world, including the United States, had been engaged in for some ten years with people who think climate change is a very serious issue. And the message was to the base—'we're not going to get pushed around by a bunch of people from outside the country that really want to just hurt our economy and don't, on an issue that may not even be a real one.' And yet, this administration is spending more than any administration and more than the rest of the developed world combined on climate change research and technology development. It was 4.3 billion when I left EPA; it's I think over five billion now.

We have multi-lateral and bilateral agreements with most of the rest of the developed world on technology development, coal bed methane, hydrogen fuel cell. And the president has called for a greenhouse gas intensity reduction of 18 percent over ten years. He is engaged but you wouldn't know it because we don't talk about it because that's not what the base likes.

GELLERMAN: Well, you wouldn't know it because in 2002, when you were the administator of the EPA, you came up with a report, you sent it to the United Nations and it said that man-made greenhouse gases were, you know, going to increase by 43 per cent over the next 20 years. The Bush administration, the president dismissed the report.

WHITMAN: And there are a lot of people who still do. I mean, Michael Crichton has written a very successful book just recently released that purports to debunk the climate change issues. It's a very volatile issue, but the agency went forward and said what they thought what the science was telling them.

GELLERMAN: We spoke earlier today with Jim DiPeso. I guess he's the policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protections. Do you know him?

WHITMAN: Um, I may have met him. But I don't know him.

GELLERMAN: Well, he has an issue with your book and how you were there at the EPA. He says you never seem to hold the president accountable. I want you to listen to this.

DIPESO: I don't why she soft-pedals her criticism of the president. Maybe it's out of respect for his office; maybe it's because she's thinking of her own future within the Republican Party. From our position, though, we feel that the policies of the administration are the responsibility of the president. She says he has had a lot of bad advice and that's true. He has had a lot of bad advice from the vice president on down. But, ultimately, the responsibility for making the decisions lands right there on the president's desk.

GELLERMAN: Governor? I mean, the president is the head of his party.

WHITMAN: Oh, absolutely. The president is the head and I disagree with many of the decisions that have been made, but I also know of the good decisions that have been made. So, you know, it's easy to find criticism and you do and the president is ultimately responsible and I will tell you that every time I went in and met with the president to talk about these issues, we were in the same place. The frustration I had was when I'd leave the room, you'd find others coming in and others in the White House, not even going into the president, but others in the White House who kind of thought it was their responsibility to take over and you just get a lot of push back and I, that's happened in every administration. I haven't been part of another so I can't speak to how this is different from another administration, but it is a huge frustration.

GELLERMAN: Can you give me an example of that?

WHITMAN: Well, the wetlands is a perfect one. I met with the president on several occasions where he said, 'I don't want to just say there's no net loss of wetlands,' which had been the policy up to that point. 'I want to be able to say, we've added to our wetlands.' That to me was a presidential directive. There was no question, and yet I'd find myself arguing with the Army Corps of Engineers on it. I'd find there were people in the Council of Environmental Quality, which is an office located in the White House, saying, 'well, we really ought to look at the reinterpretation of that' and I kept sitting there saying, 'but I had this conversation with the president.'

I think, maybe, there was a level of distrust about how I interpreted the president's words and reluctance to actually go in and bother him about something like wetlands. But I never hesitated to bring up the issues and he always said to me if I had an issue and there was a problem with how it was being handled within the administration to just push through the palace guard and get to him. Talk to him.

GELLERMAN: Governor, we spoke with Eric Schaeffer who was your chief of enforcement at the EPA who resigned in protest when you were there and I want you to listen to something he said.

SCHAEFFER: When she was at EPA, I think it seriously damaged the Environmental Protection Agency. I think it had earned a reputation for integrity and for independence and for, basically, being able to, at least, tell the White House what it thought should be done about environmental problems. And we're hearing now that Ms. Whitman, Governor Whitman, wasn't able to do that and I think that presented her with a clear choice. And, that choice was either to continue to serve the administration and give them political cover or to resign and I think it would have made a big difference if she had stepped down.

GELLERMAN: Governor Whitman?

WHITMAN: Well, with all due respect to Eric Schaeffer, he didn't resign in protest. He'd had his job lined up for months before he left. I think he has an agenda. And, you know, he says there that I didn't protest or didn't take to the White House what the EPA's position was. I did and I'm not going to tell anyone, Eric Schaeffer, what those particular battles were necessarily because the ultimate decision rested with the president, but I never signed a regulation that I couldn't live with in good conscience and that I thought undermined the integrity of the agency. And, when it came to a point where I thought there was a regulation coming down that I couldn't in good conscience sign, I did resign. I left. I didn't leave under protest because that may give you the momentary feeling of excitement and you get all sorts of attention, but it doesn't change anything. Paul O'Neil's book came out and it got a lot of attention for a brief flash. It didn't change the outcome of the election; it didn't change anything.

I am interested not in so much a critique of this administration which is why I didn't even put the book out, I made sure the book didn't come out until after the election. I'm talking about the future. I used the illustration of what my experiences, both as governor and within the administration, to point out the concerns I have about the focus that we have now on the base and the ever-narrowing litmus test of what it takes to be a good Republican. And I'm talking about 2008 and the future and that's where my focus is.

GELLERMAN: So, what's ahead for Republicans if they continue on the path of playing to the anti-regulation element of the base, as you say in the book?

WHITMAN: Well, it's more than just the anti-regulation element in the base. It's all of the issues that are part of that litmus test and I believe the Republicans will not be a majority party come 2008.

GELLERMAN: Seems to be working pretty well for them now.

WHITMAN: Yes, they have control. Absolutely, and people say that to me all the time, but you know, Paul Wyreck, who was a very conservative grassroots organizer, said to the leadership just two weeks ago that Republicans better be careful. They've been winning since '94, yes, but by very small pluralities and the loss of any one part of their coalition could have serious repercussions and could mean that they would lose control. Well, you know what? That includes the moderates because without the moderates, you wouldn't have control in the Senate and the House. Without the moderates, the president would not have won reelection.

GELLERMAN: Governor Whitman, thank you. It's been a real pleasure.

WHITMAN: Okay, good to talk to you.

GELLERMAN: Christine Todd Whitman is the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Her new book is called, "It's My Party Too."

[MUSIC: Matt Haimovitz "Prelude" Anthem (Oxingale) 2003]

 

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"It's My Party Too"

 

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