Nixon, Humphrey and McGovern: Environmental Issues in Politics

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JONATHAN LARSEN
Environmental issues play a part in the presidential campaign.

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
environmentlead 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.