Nixon, Humphrey and McGovern: Environmental Issues in Politics

Nixon vs. the Democratic presidential hopefuls on environmental issues.
By Mike Kiernan
July/August 1972
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Environmental issues play a part in the presidential campaign.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JONATHAN LARSEN


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The greening of America — for a lot of people — began in 1970 with the first Earth Day. A new awareness of environmental issues took root together with a new commitment to preserve America's environment. But two years later one finds a prospective garden of delights filled with political bramblebrush.

Something has happened . . . in the important, necessary process of moving from the streets to the courts and to endless Congressional subcommittee hearings, the environmental movement has sputtered to a slow drum roll.

There are exceptions, of course. In West Virginia, for example, strip mining became the number one issue in the recent Democratic primaries. In one race after another, locally and state-wide, citizens issued a mandate against the coal-producing industry and the United Mine Workers. Among the victors were two important environmental advocates — Congressman Ken Heckler and gubernatorial candidate John D. Rockefeller.

But what happened in West Virginia last May is not likely to happen nationally this fall. While activists in Washington continue valiantly to maintain that preserving the environment can be a potent national issue in November, one senses across the country a long, tiresome yawn.

Such indifference will become apparent in the race for the presidency. Never before has a national debate on the state of the environment appeared so necessary. A whole range of issues demand discussion . . . from automobile pollution to phosphate detergents. The Energy Crisis alone could generate enough topics for weekly debates among the candidates from now until November . . . what are we going to do about that pipeline in Alaska or that experimental atomic breeder reactor down south or oil shale out west or that gigantic hot-air plant at Four Corners, New Mexico?

But on these questions and others one can expect little but lip service from the candidates.

Why? "It's Nixon," one political analyst told MOTHER, "He's made the question of preserving the environment boring for the voters and suicidal for the Democrats. Look at Muskie. He went to Ohio and talked about saving Lake Erie. He went to Florida and talked about saving Big Cypress. And he got nowhere, The people don't seem that interested. The real issue this year is jobs, then truth in government, then welfare, then the war . . , the environment is way back on this list."

I talked to a dozen other political forecasters in and outside the environmental movement who echoed the same opinion, "On the national level Nixon has handled the environmental issue brilliantly," said one. "He has done just enough to convince the average voter that we are now backing away from the brink of ecological disaster . . . and he has done just enough to avoid a serious challenge from either McGovern or Humphrey — neither of whom have the credentials as environmentalists."

Political profiles on McGovern and Humphrey — prepared recently by the highly reputable League of Conservation Voters — help confirm suspicions that neither candidate, if nominated, would make preserving the environment a major campaign issue. 

Reviewing LCV's findings, it appears George McGovern would be the stronger of the two Democratic candidates on environmental issues . . . but perhaps not by much. McGovern is a member of the Senate Interior Committee and the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry---both important ecology committees — but, according to LCV, "he has not used these positions to, work actively on conservation and environmental issues, He can be counted to take the right positions on vir tually every environmental issue, but he often misses committee hearings, and most conservationists feel he could do more than he has."

Since announcing his candidacy for president, McGovern, in fact, has spent little time working on any issues in Washington. One staffer recently admitted that McGovern has not spent a full week in the nation's capitol since last October. To his credit, however, McGovern has been typically candid about his shortcomings in the environmental area. "I want to plead guilty as a candidate for the presidency for not having done enough (on environmental issues.) I'll try to do better in the future."

The Candidate's Mixed Messages on Environmental Issues

Humphrey is strictly a "middle of the roader" on ecological matters. According to LCV, "His long public career is a mixture of early courage and recent ambivalence in, regard to environmental issues." Luring his recent campaigning Humphrey has favored abolishing strip mining in West Virginia and saving the Big Cypress swamp in Florida, "but when short term labor interests conflict, Humphrey's commitment to hard environmental solutions weakens."

Only Edmund Muskie—the Mr. Clean in the Senate—has expressed the interest and established the record to challenge Nixon's environmental policies. Author of all the major air and water pollution amendments over the last decade, Muskie "has had more influence over national pollution control policies than any other man in Congress," reports LCV. But, after his debacle in the early primaries this spring, Muskie is an unlikely choice at the coming Democratic convention.

As for the Republicans, President Nixon has chartered his course carefully on environmental affairs. He has been able to go both ways on just about every issue—appearing tough before the public and accommodating before industry and other monied interests. The duality is reflected in his Cabinet. When one Nixon official urges Congress to get tough, another invariably arises to speak up on the merits of going slow. Each appears to express the sentiments of the President . . . to the extent that no one knows for sure where the President's real sentiments lie. Again with the help of LCV's lengthy report, here s a cursory review of Nixon's mixed record.

First, the good news. Nixon has created the Environmental Protection Agency and given it the funds to do its job. In 1972 EPA received $1.3 billion or almost twice as much as its 1971 budget . . . Nixon has established the highly visible three-man panel, the Council on Environmental Quality, and he has actively sought its advice . . . Nixon has halted the Everglades jetport project and vetoed plans to build the cross—Florida canal . . . and Nixon has sought to divert money from the Highway Trust Fund to support urban mass transit.

Then, there's the bad news . . , including such bobbles as Nixon's active support of the SST, the Alaskan pipeline, the. nuclear test on Amchitka island and phosphate detergents. . . Nixon lobbied hard in Congress against Muskie's tough air and water amendments and recently he has sought to weaker the National Environmental Policy Act oil, drilling off the shores of California and he appears like side with Detroit if a real showdown develops over an extension the 1975 deadline on automobile emission standards . . president has also proposed 2,600 atomic breeder reactors for the year 2020, a policy which LCV calls "the most ill-conceived" the Nixon administration.

So, where does all this Presidential zigzagging on the environment lead us? Probably towards a presidential campaign in which the various complex issues are ignored altogether.

At this writing it appears that only a major environmental upheaval—either in the country or in the administration—could make preserving the environment a major issue. (I'm thinking of an ITT-like scandal in the Environmental Protection Agency that reaches deep into the administration's inner circle or, eve worse a series of temperature inversions in major cities around the country like the inicident in Birmingham last November.)

But such events, terrible to contemplate, are also unlikely.

Environmental Action Picks the Dirty Dozen

Meanwhile, as nearly 8,000 delegates and their alternates prepare to descend upon Miami this month and next to choose the presidential candidates of the two major parties, a handful of environmental activists are ignoring the conventions and engaging in a different kind of nominating process.

The group, Environmental Action, has pored over congressional voting records for the last two months and selected a Dirty Dozen: twelve Congressmen with performances so poor on the environment that they've been marked publicly for defeat this November 1 by the ecology movement.

The purge list includes: Wayne Aspinal (D-Col.), Walter S. Baring (D-Nev.), Earle Cabell (D-Texas), Charles E. Chamberlain (R-Mich), James J. Delaney (D-N.Y.), Sam L. Devine (R-Ohio), Earl Landgrebe (R-Ind.), Sherman Lloyd (R-Utah), Peter Peyser (R-N.Y.), John James Rooney (D-N.Y.), Vernon W. Thomson (R-Wis.) and Roger Zion (R-Ind.).

In 1970 when Environmental Action waged its first Dirty Dozen campaign, the group steered clear of Congressmen whose positions in their home Districts appeared unshakeable. To qualify a Congressman needed more than a filthy record. He ho to be facing an opponent who would be a marked improvement and he had to be running in a race where the publicity against him might make a difference. The strategy worked. Seven of the 12 Congressmen picked failed to return to Congress. No quarreling with success, Environmental Action is following the same plan of action this year.

Relatively unknown outside their own Districts, the Dirty have served a total of 166 years on Congress. Of the 12, however, only two have accumulated enough consecutive yeas in the House to be considered real powers. The Durable Duo Wayne Aspinal—chairman of the interior and insular Affairs 24 years seniority, and John Rooney—chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the that purse strings of the State, Justice and Commerce Departments— with 28 years.


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