Richard M. Nixon: Politician, President, Administrator

By Leon Friedman; William F. Levantrosser | Go to book overview
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Discussant: John C. Whitaker

Thanks very much. Dr. Ginsberg, in his gracious introduction to my work in the Nixon White House, forgot to mention that I have a Ph.D. in geology. Those of you in this room old enough to remember that period will agree, I think, on reflection that having rocks in your head was an indispensable qualification to have volunteered to work in the Nixon White House. Please don't misconstrue that remark. I am very proud to have served under a president who compiled such an impressive environmental record.

Let me start with a little vignette. One day President Nixon had the leaders of the nation's environmental groups in for a chat around the cabinet table. The Wilderness Society was there, the National Audubon, the Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, etc. I've noticed how most people act just before they meet the president of the United States. They tell you all the straight-from-the-shoulder tough advice they are going to give the president. But the truth is, once ushered into the presence of the "great man," they tend to act like jello or crumbled cookies--too overawed in the presence of a real live president of the United States to really say what is on their minds. As Nixon went around the table seeking their views, none of the environmental leaders had anything critical to say until the fellow from the Sierra Club came to bat. He was very blunt. "Look, Mr. President," he said, "You don't need the Alaska pipeline. We don't need to open up the North Slope to oil development. We don't need all that oil and gas for cars. The fundamental problem is we have too many children. It's a population problem." Then came the Sierra Club's solution. "Mr. President, you should propose federal legislation that would limit Americans to two children per family." Well, I glanced at the thirty-seventh president of the United States, his black eyes clicking like a pinball machine as he quickly added up the political damage this off-the-wall proposal would do to him with 48 million Catholics in the United States. I don't recall his answer, but he politely deflected the Sierra Club fellow's suggestion, and the meeting ended. I thought nothing more about it.

But the next morning I ran into Henry Kissinger in the corridors of the White House, and Henry said, "I just came from briefing the president on the latest overnight traffic from Saigon and the President seemed very distracted. He interrupts me and says, 'You know, Henry, John Whitaker is not doing a bad job on the environment issue, but why does he send those kooks in to see me?' By the way, John, what is this Sierra Club?" Obviously, Henry, quite a student of foreign policy, still had a lot to learn about the environment issue.

However, Nixon's remark to Kissinger clearly did show his impatience with the simplistic solutions that were being offered at the time to address this hot issue that had almost overnight become a political hurricane.

Let me take you back to the political climate of those early days in the Nixon White House. Perhaps the younger people in this room have forgotten.


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