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

Richard Nixon: Environmental Hero

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports on the largely forgotten environmental legacy of one of our most controversial Presidents, Richard Nixon. The peculiar politics of the man and the moment put Nixon in a position to preside over the creation of the country's most important environmental laws and institutions: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. (This was #15 in our continuing series of profiles of 25 leading figures in environmental change.)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The picture is forever etched in the collective memory of the nation. A president raises his arms, fingers forming a "V", waves good-bye, and boards a military helicopter that lifts him one final time from the White House lawn. Twenty-two years ago this month, Richard Milhouse Nixon resigned as the 37th President of the United States. While his legacy remains the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and breakthroughs with China and the Soviet Union, this Republican president also oversaw the greatest era of environmental legislation in modern times. In fact, many of today's environmental fights involve measures developed by his staff. We asked Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick to explore the environmental legacy of the Nixon years. Here's his report.

(Flowing water with waves, gulls)

FITZPATRICK: The beauty of Puget Sound has stirred the hearts of environmentalists for decades. Curiously, this is where Richard Nixon first learned about the problems confronting America's environment. In 1962, well before his election as president, Nixon went boating here with a Seattle lawyer and Republican activist named John Ehrlichman.

EHRLICHMAN: I had really planned a few days off for him, and thought that it would be very refreshing to go up among the islands, and it was.

FITZPATRICK: Inspired by his surroundings, Ehrlichman had become a local hero for blocking industrial development on a pristine island in Puget Sound. His boating discussions with the future president became Nixon's environmental primer.

EHRLICHMAN: It was really the fundamentals. He didn't really understand what the issues were.

FITZPATRICK: Hardly anyone understood environmental issues back then. But Nixon never forgot his boating trip and tutor John Ehrlichman. Their relationship would lead to an explosion of environmental legislation.

(Campaign music and marching bands)

FITZPATRICK: As Nixon campaigned for the White House in 1968, pollution was beginning to emerge as a national issue. Nixon never spoke about it during the campaign. Instead, he spoke of healing the social wounds created by the Vietnam War.

(Nixon: "That will be the great objective of this administration at the outset: to bring the American people together.")

FITZPATRICK: Protecting the environment became a part of Nixon's attempt
to unify the country. John Ehrlichman, who'd been picked by the President to coordinate domestic issues, persuaded Nixon that fighting pollution was both the right thing to do and politically popular among young voters. Nixon gave Ehrlichman and his staff tremendous freedom to draft environmental policy.

EHRLICHMAN: We would tell him what we were doing. When we got into a political pickle we would come to him for his decision as to what he wanted us to do. But otherwise, we had a pretty free hand.

FITZPATRICK: As the first Earth Day unfolded in 1970, members of Congress were also climbing aboard the environmental bandwagon. They competed with the President's staff in an unprecedented struggle to out-green one another. This competition resulted in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, all passed by Congress and signed by the President in just 3 years. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

(Nixon: "The price of economic growth need not, and will not be, deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings. The destiny of our land, the air we breathe, the water we drink, is not in the mystical hands of an uncontrollable agent. It is in our hands.")

FITZPATRICK: Was Richard Nixon an environmentalist? Reporters covering the administration say not really. Phil Shabecoff covered the White House for the New York Times.

SHABECOFF: Nixon was, whatever anyone else wants to say about him, a very canny politician. He responded to what he saw was an important impulse among the electorate. And that made him the right person at the right time.

FITZPATRICK: But Administration insiders like Ehrlichman give Nixon credit as a risk-taker. Without Nixon's support, the environmental movement could have languished amid the gridlock of Washington.

EHRLICHMAN: I guess I would put it, he was a passive sponsor. He lent his name, he lent his clout, he lent his staff, and he let them do what they thought was right in invoking his name and power and prestige to bring about those results.

FITZPATRICK: The Administration's environmental accomplishments will never outweigh history's judgment about its actions in Vietnam and its disintegration amid the scandal of Watergate. As well, Nixon has a checkered environmental record. He allowed the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He approved the Alaska Oil Pipeline. And he vetoed a massive funding bill for sewage treatment plants. Still, President Richard Nixon and his advisors presided over the most productive period of environmental legislation in history. They set a direction for the country that has lasted more than 25 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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