Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: William K. Reilly

The scheduling of this session on the environment and energy at 8:30 on Saturday, and this overwhelming response from the attendees at the conference, all twenty of them—it’s a measure, I think, of our problem, which I’m going to address in the next few minutes, or try to. Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is to appear here with my former colleagues and fellow warhorses, and also to see in the audience one of the most distinguished contributors to the environmental successes of our administration, Roger Porter. I’m going to give a somewhat different take on this from Michael Deland and Boyden Gray. When I heard that the plan was to record these and publish them, I decided I would write my statement and not wait for the organizers to send me a printed version of my talk only to discover what a mess I had made talking off the cuff about these issues.

So I want to comment on the fact that some independent and well-informed authorities on the environment, such as the writer Gregg Easterbrook, consider that the Bush administration was one of the most creative and successful in environmental policy in modern American history. That is decidedly not the view held by most casually informed observers, by the public at large, environmental activists, or the general press. How this can be so, how we could have done so much and ended up looking so bad on the environment, is the subject of my comments today. You might consider my comments a reply to the question, “What went wrong?”

In the 1988 presidential election campaign, George Bush promised that, if elected, he would be the “environmental president.” He made specific promises to propose a new Clean Air Act that would deal with acid rain, air toxics, and ground-level ozone, or smog. With respect to acid rain, which the Reagan administration had studied to exhaustion, candidate Bush said, “The time for study alone is over now. Now is the time for action.” Candidate Bush made other environmental commitments. He promised there would be no net loss of wetlands on his watch, and he committed to bring the White House effect to bear on the greenhouse effect. He said he would insist that polluters pay to clean up Superfund sites.

These were unexpected, newsworthy commitments coming from the vice president in an administration widely regarded as antienvironment. Personally, they reflected a man who loved the outdoors, was at home in natural settings—fishing, running, hunting. Politically, these pledges marked Bush as his own man, abandoned Reagan’s reflexive antiregulatory posture on the environment, and, along with Bush’s foray onto Boston Harbor (advised quietly by Michael Deland), where he attacked Dukakis’s record in his own city, created excitement and surprise in his campaign and among the press.

They also served another purpose. They appealed to a coalition that was decidedly suburban and female, a constituency that was vital to the electoral strategy. Some months after we took office, I had lunch with Lee Atwater. He said, “This

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