Nixon and the Environment

Nixon and the Environment

Nixon and the Environment

Nixon and the Environment

Synopsis

No one remembers Richard M. Nixon as an environmental president, but a year into his presidency, he committed his administration to regulate and protect the environment. The public outrage over the Santa Barbara oil spill in early 1969, culminating in the first Earth Day in 1970, convinced Nixon that American environmentalism now enjoyed extraordinary political currency. No nature lover at heart, Nixon opportunistically tapped the burgeoning Environmental Movement and signed the Endangered Species Act in 1969 and the National Environmental Protection Act in 1970 to challenge political rivals such as Senators Edmund Muskie and Henry Jackson. As Nixon jockeyed for advantage on regulatory legislation, he signed laws designed to curb air, water, and pesticide pollution, regulate ocean dumping, protect coastal zones and marine mammals, and combat other problems. His administration compiled an unprecedented environmental record, but anti-Vietnam War protests, outraged industrialists, a sluggish economy, the growing energy crisis, and the Watergate upheaval drove Nixon to turn his back on the very programs he signed into law. Only late in life did he re-embrace the substantial environmental legacy of his tumultuous presidency.

Excerpt

Political expediency was nothing new to Richard Nixon. If anything, his rapid political ascent reflected a keen ability to recognize public opinion and capitalize on it. Baptized into the world of politics at the outset of the Cold War, first elected to the House in 1946 and the Senate four years later, Nixon emerged a fierce anticommunist. Smart enough to avoid the demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy, he recognized at the same time the political power of the vein tapped by the Wisconsin senator. Parlaying both his fame on the House Un-American Activities Committee and his well-known partisanship into the vice presidency under Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon cultivated his reputation as a shrewd politician and an expert on foreign affairs. It was an age of backyard bomb shelters, blood-curdling rhetoric, and an arms race that for the first time threatened total Armageddon. Nixon, as the chief inquisitor of suspected spy Alger Hiss and a vice president with more international experience than any other, promised the staunch defense America demanded while accusing his opponents of the opposite. He appeared, not coincidentally, a man for his time.

The time, of course, reflected little of the environmental concerns that later captivated America on the first Earth Day. a man of his generation, Nixon did not recognize the growing threat that ironically paralleled his own political growth; he had no reason in the early postwar years to champion the natural world in Washington. Unlike many of the environmentalists he later faced, Nixon had no personal experience with the problems of urbanization or industrialization. the place of his youth, an agricultural community outside Los Angeles, was "idyllic," Nixon later recalled. the beautiful San Bernardino Mountains rising to the north and the spectacular Pacific Coast lying only a few miles to the west, the area might have instilled in the boy a love of nature if not an awareness of the threat it faced. An ambitious youngster, however . . .

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