In my post today on Jerry Voorhis’ critical look at the Nixon Administration, The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon (copyright 1972, 1973), I’ll focus on Voorhis’ discussion of President Richard Nixon’s environmental policies.
My conservative brother has brought up Nixon’s environmental policies when he has had political discussions with myself and my mother (who leans more to the left). One of his arguments is that the Republican Party is not anti-environment because there have been significant environmental accomplishments during Republican Administrations: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, etc. I believe that there is more nuance to how Republicans address environmental issues than many leftists may tell us. I wrote an article for the web-site Helium that talks about the positive things that President George W. Bush did for the environment (see here). Moreover, conservative Barry Goldwater had environmentalist sentiments (see here). At the same time, I would not be surprised if there have been times when Republicans have sought to relax environmental regulations, seeing them as a hindrance to free-enterprise and a clamp on the economy.
Voorhis acknowledges that some of President Nixon’s pro-environment policies have been unprecedented, in terms of their scale and spending. And yet, Voorhis finds fault with Nixon’s approach to the environment. Voorhis contends that Nixon’s spending on his environmental policies is not enough, and that Nixon’s impounds funds rather than spending what Congress has appropriated. While Voorhis praises Nixon’s appointment of Indiana Republican William D. Ruckelshaus to head the EPA, an appointment that garnered praise from environmentalists, Voorhis narrates that Nixon, the Secretary of Commerce, and the head of the Office of Management of Budget have stood in Ruckelshaus’ way and have pressured the EPA to water down its regulations. This, Voorhis states, is for the benefit of Nixon’s industrial campaign contributors.
According to Voorhis, Nixon has supported atomic energy, which is unclean and potentially dangerous; he has pressured Congress to support the environmentally-harmful supersonic air transport plane; he supported a nuclear blast on an Alaskan island that signaled a new weapon for the U.S., when the Council on Environmental Quality advised against it; and he proposed abolishing a 7 percent tax on the automobile, which is a great polluter. Meanwhile, Nixon has failed to provide substantial support for clean energy, such as thermal and hydroelectric power, which are making gains in other countries (Voorhis says that Mexico is taking advantage of thermal power, as France harnesses the tides). Nixon has proposed that federal anti-pollution standards not apply to the states if they come up with their own standards, which (according to Voorhis) “was an open invitation to the states to compete against one another for location of industries by deliberately setting their standards low” (pages 100-101). Voorhis also states that Nixon has used environmental enforcement as a tool against political opponents, which explains the disproportionate prosecution of incidents in Maine, Edmund Muskie’s state.
Voorhis argues that the Democratic Congress has come up with noteworthy environmental legislation. My impression is that this observation may overlap with a claim that Voorhis likes to make (or at least imply) elsewhere in his book: that Nixon is not principled in his stances on issues that are of concern to liberals (i.e., welfare, the environment), for Nixon’s main agenda is to take credit for advancements, all to serve his own political well-being, whether he fully deserves that credit or not.
It’s interesting that some of the issues that Voorhis raises are still issues today, such as alternative energy. Voorhis does not address climate change or the greenhouse effect, however, perhaps because those were not major topics of discussion back then. When Voorhis does say that carbon from automobiles is a problem, the reason that he gives is that CO2 weakens the heart and makes people susceptible to diseases. For some reason, though, Voorhis criticizes air conditioners (page 97), which since the 1990’s have been blamed (at least in part) for the hole in the ozone layer. But why did Voorhis, in his time and context, believe that air conditioners were damaging to the environment?