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Journal of Policy History 15.3 (2003) 345-348

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Environmental Politics in the Nixon Era

Sara Dant Ewert

J. Brooks Flippen. Nixon and the Environment. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. ix, 308 pages. $24.95)

Matthew J. Lindstrom and Zachary A. Smith. The National Environmental Policy Act: Judicial Misconstruction, Legislative Indifference, and Executive Neglect. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001. xiii, 188 pages. $34.95)

In the swirl of Watergate, OPEC, Vietnam, and Woodstock, it is easy to overlook or dismiss the significance of the emerging environmental movement in America. Yet the tumultuous era surrounding Richard M. Nixon's tenure in the White House was also one of rapidly advancing environmental policy. Earth Day, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, and the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation all had their genesis during this time of political upheaval and social unrest.

The almost ironic title of J. Brooks Flippen's Nixon and the Environment perfectly captures the conflicted nature of this elusive president's attitudes toward conservation. Even though an environmental agenda provided a potentially unifying force in an era fraught with conflict, it also failed to pay the political dividends Nixon so desperately sought. In the end, "Nixon was no environmentalist" (197), Flippen concludes, but his actions "helped build the momentum for environmental protection that he later found so troublesome" (227). [End Page 345]

Flippen's well-written, equitable, and meticulously researched book runs the environmental policy gamut from air pollution to zero population growth, and his crisp narrative incorporates a complicated chronology into the compelling story of a president in search of a constituency. Deftly maneuvering between commissions, task forces, and congressional committees, the author provides valuable insights into the policy machinations and political calculations of the nascent Nixon administration. "Nixon was not philosophically against conservation," Flippen maintains, "It was simply politics" (18). And in the late 1960s, the environment polled well. Whether the proposed Alaska pipeline, supersonic transport (SST), the Florida Everglades, timber versus wilderness, or pesticide use, the White House found itself bombarded in early months by hot-button issues that required careful consideration and demanded immediate action. Even worse, key Democrats such as Edmund Muskie (Me.) and Henry Jackson (Wash.) had seized the environmental initiative and used it to "run over" (47) the administration. But Nixon, ever the shrewd and calculating politician, took to the offensive, appointing respected environmental advisers like Russell Train and John Whitaker, signing the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 and the landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and unveiling a comprehensive environmental program. Nixon's expedient environmental strategy to attack pollution and create parks may have been "carefully crafted and cunningly planned" (62), but as Flippen demonstrates, it failed to blunt mounting criticism of the government's actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Kent State. "Angry and bewildered" (78), Nixon began to question whether public interest in the environment "is deep, though it may be wide in some areas" (133).

By 1971, Flippen notes, Nixon's approval ratings had dropped below 50 percent, reelection loomed on the political horizon, and his stellar to-date environmental record had produced a vexing Catch-22: "you can't win with the environment, but they can beat you up with it" (134). The solution was vintage Nixon. Denouncing environmental critics as part of the "wacko fringe" (136), the president ostracized his Council on Environmental Quality, actively courted industry, embraced "cutthroat, dirty politics" (135), and fundamentally shifted the administration's policy to cater to more conservative constituencies. The "silent majority" responded favorably. Nixon's foreign-policy overtures to China and the Soviet Union, combined with tax cuts and price freezes, sent his approval ratings [End Page 346] soaring. The environment, as Flippen observes, had become "a virtual non-issue" (157) for Nixon. In the coming year, the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) instigated a relentless whisper campaign that destroyed "Ecology Ed" Muskie's candidacy and ensured reelection. With "his last election behind him," Flippen contends, "nothing intimidated Nixon" (187), and he bluntly...