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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Environmental Presidency - "What if...?"

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with New York Times columnist Tom Wicker about the powers that a Presidential bully pulpit could bring to an environmental agenda. Wicker's article on the subject appears in the current issue of Audubon Magazine.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

So far in the 1992 presidential campaign, we've heard little about the environment, even though four years ago, George Bush promised to be "the environmental president," and Al Gore, one of the Senate's leading environmentalists, is on the Democratic ticket.

Still, polls show that environmental concerns are high in voters' minds, and many observers are asking, "What if the next president did put the environment at center stage?" Among them is veteran New York Times political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker. Wicker has recently written about this for Audubon magazine, and he joins us now from his home in Vermont. Mr. Wicker, what if the winner of this race put the environment at the top of his agenda?

WICKER: Well, first and foremost, in today's situation, I think a President should take a very strong and active position on global warming. I mean, I realize that there's some scientific forces who say that threat is overrated, that it will never materialize, and so forth. But I don't see why we should take chances. I make the point in my article that for year, we spent billions upon billions of dollars against the really rather far-fetched possibility that the Soviets would invade Western Europe. And we did that long after that became not just a far-fetched but a really ridiculous possibility. So it seems to me to say, well, we don't know for sure that there is global warming going on, therefore we don't need to do anything, I think that's very short-sighted. We need to be guarding against that possibility. I think probably above all, a President should simply be preaching environmental concerns to try to make those people who are not yet aware, those businesses and corporations aware that this is as serious a problem facing us in the next quarter century and beyond that as was the Cold War in the last quarter-century.

CURWOOD: Well, I'm wondering -- your article takes the perspective that, gee, we ought to have an environmental President, somebody looking at this; but it doesn't seem very likely that we're going to get one. Why do you suppose that is?

WICKER: Well, I think because the environment has been very far down the list of political concerns, and I don't think that even as yet it's a major political matter. And by that I mean, I'm talking now in terms of elective politics and government. It's become, the polltakers tell me and I don't see any reason to doubt it, it's become a major issue in peoples' personal lives. And as they have become interested in it,it's become more of a political issue, and sooner or later, in my judgment sooner rather than later, it's going to become a major political issue -- may even turn out to be this year, who knows? I suspect a lot of people will vote against President Bush because he has utterly failed in his promise to be the "environmental president."

CURWOOD: Well, I was going to ask you about --

WICKER: They may not articulate the fact that that's why they're voting against him, it may not be the only reason, but it is a reason among the complex of reasons that people have for voting as they do.

CURWOOD: Well, I was going to ask you: your article for Audubon magazine doesn't really evaluate the two candidates as to what they might do once they got in the White House.

WICKER: Well, I think we have a pretty good perspective on what President Bush would do, because we've been watching him for four years, and we know that he's not been very active environmentally despite his pledges. He's dragged his feet on global warming, for example; he has, he likes to take credit for the Clean Air Act , but in most ways that was a congressional initiative, it seems to me. So Governor Clinton, for that reason, might be your choice if you were going into the polling booth just to choose a president on environmental grounds. Another reason would be the presence of Senator Gore on his ticket. Senator Gore is, as I think you've said, the leading environmentalist in the Senate, certainly one of the leading ones, and I think he would be a strong and articulate voice in that Administration for environmental questions.

CURWOOD: Why are you writing this piece now? Is there something about this moment in the history of our nation, the world, or in politics that makes things right for this?

WICKER: I think the fact that the Cold War is ended, or to a great extent is ended at least, is not really sunk into our consciousness as yet, and I think we don't quite know as yet or realize as yet the things that are now open to us that did not seem to be open to us before. The fact that billions upon billions of dollars do not have to be spent on defense any more; that a sense of worldwide cooperation is much more likely now -- I think that this is a rather special moment. I don't say that the moment is passing and we've got to seize it right now, but certainly it's an important moment and one that I think the American people would do well to grasp.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. Tom Wicker, columnist -- political columnist and maybe a little bit of an environmental columnist now, for the New York Times.

WICKER: Thank you.



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