Richard Nixon was a terrible president, one of the worst ever, if not The Worst. Or was he? There’s no doubt that Tricky Dick was a deeply flawed character and will remain infamous for paranoid pettiness run amok and keeping America in a tragically-unwinnable war for too long, but the truth is that America owes much to the Nixon administration for stemming an environmental crisis (that Trump seems determined to renew).
|"I am not a crook!" stated not long before the world realized that, indeed, he was a crook.|
In 1969 the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland literally caught fire (actually, for the 12th time) due to the industrial pollution that was in it. The outcry over this spawned some actions by the Nixon administration that have been major contributions to environmental and human health over the last 50 years (and the Cuyahoga river itself was named this year as the “River Of The Year” by American Rivers for 50 years of environmental resurgence).
Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which mandated that the federal government had to take into the account the environmental impacts of its actions, and established the position of President’s Council of Environmental Quality that coordinated environmental policies at the executive level. The fundamentals of NEPA are the Environmental Assessments (sort of a first level) and Environmental Impact Statements (deeper level), and they have created a baseline for federal and state construction projects for the last 50 years so that they don’t destroy the flora and fauna that freeways, buildings, roads, etc may affect. Today over 100 other countries have enacted laws based on NEPA.
In the summer of 1970 Nixon proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish and enforce pollution controls and after an executive order it was opened in December with its first administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus in a cabinet-level position. Ruckelshaus was, according to NPR, “a conservationist, an Indiana Republican conservative who believed in conserving balanced budgets, limited government powers, constitutional checks and balances, and clean air and water. He was ultimately brought back in to head the agency in 1983 to clean up the mess that Anne Gorsuch (mother of Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch) had created under Reagan where she slashed the budget and pushed the agency to cozy up to the industries that it was to be regulating (coincidentally, BillRuckelshaus died Wednesday, and he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post comparing Nixon and Trump a year ago that is still quite relevant, and And here’s an interesting Washington Post op-ed by another guy who’s far smarter’n me comparing Nixon and Trump).
Now, of course, the EPA is pretty much a shitshow at the highest levels (though with plenty of good people – like Mike – who are dedicated professionals doing their best to execute on the agency’s ideals), with Trump’s first pick Scott Pruitt – who did not have any relevant experience and spent his career prior acting against all sorts of environmental policies - getting forced out due to a variety of shenanigans. His successor, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist (for Murray Energy, which just announced it’s filing for bankruptcy), and his chief of staff Ryan Jackson is a former longtime staffer for James Imhofe (of the infamous snowball incident showing definitively showing that global warming is a myth, and the author of “The Greatest Hoax”) and they seem committed to destroying the very environment that their no-doubt dedicated staffers have been trying to indeed, “protect”. But don’t get me started….
A coupla smokestacks; then:
Among other things, the Nixon administration also created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which clearly has become a critical agency for everyone from farmers to hurricane zone-livers to skiers, and the Nixon administration also created the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) which has undoubtedly saved many lives and limbs in workplaces. And last but not least, the Nixon administration was the one to push automakers to include catalytic converters on ALL cars sold in the US, which had a profound effect on overall auto emissions (though I believe my dad was furious about that because he thought it inhibited car performance!).
And if all of these weren’t enough, the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 during the Nixon reign. The ESA endeavored to identify and protect species that were endangered as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation." It is administered by the US Fish and Wildife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which was founded….in 1970, during the Nixon administration.
There is no doubt that these agencies are considered by some to be the archetypes of government bureaucracy, but there is also no doubt that the pollution and related environmental and human health effects that faced the US in the early 70’s would have created an apocalyptic environment now if it had been allowed to continue unchecked for the last 50 years. Additionally, though they didn’t know it then, the cumulative effect of these efforts at least postponed the carbon emissions that we know now has created global warming. Therefore, good on Republican Nixon for being encouraging of this impressive series of bold initiatives to protect our environment. Given the perspective of Republican leadership of today, it’s hard to believe that they were the party of environmental leadership (though to be fair, the Dems controlled both houses of Congress for Nixon’s entire reign, though to be fair to the Dems, Nixon won reelection in a historic landslide in 1972).
Last but not least, Nixon provided some of the boldest leadership of any modern president by taking the initiative of visiting China in 1972. China was effectively “closed” for 25 years, with no formal communication with (at least) the US, and without any democratic countries able to pay attention, the Chinese “Great Leap Forward” of the late ’50’s actually was a disaster and resulted in between 20 and 40 million deaths, which is 3-7 times that of the Holocaust and up to half of the entire casualty count of World War II. Then the “Cultural Revolution” of the 60’s resulted more chaos and isolation. Nixon’s visit effectively was the beginning of the end of that era and set the tone for the “opening” of China, which set the country up to become the world’s manufacturing center for the next 3 decades and enabled Chinese people to come off the farms and start the long road towards catching up with - and surpassing - the rest of the world economically.
There is no doubt that China is still not a great place and in fact is a bad place, as the recent protests in previously-free Hong Kong make very clear, in addition to their near-annihilation of Tibet and the similar “cultural genocide” happening to the Western China Muslim Uighurs. However, the Chinese experiment in a weird capitalist/communist experiment has kept our shoes, TV’s, tables, books, and toys affordable for a long time, whether we like that fact or not. And Nixon’s boldness in making that weeklong meeting in 1972 was so monumental that, as Wikipedia puts it: a "Nixon to China" moment has since become a metaphor for an unexpected, uncharacteristic or overly impactful action by a politician and perhaps fulfilled his own modest declaration that it was “the week that changed the world.”
No one would be so bold as to call Nixon a hero by any means and it’s unlikely that he had many/any green bones in his body, but in an era of our Republican leaders opposing any and all concepts of environmental protection legislation, Trump’s nationalism crushing our global integrity, and tariffs jeopardizing our economy, I am thankful this Thanksgiving season that a Republican president who was indeed a crook and resigned in disgrace did some unusually good things.
|As seen in SLC last week.|