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  • Presidents and the American Environment by Otis L. Graham Jr.
  • Sara Dant
Presidents and the American Environment. By Otis L. Graham Jr. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. [xii], 411. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7006-2098-2.)

The title of historian Otis L. Graham Jr.’s book, Presidents and the American Environment, succinctly conveys his purpose. Beginning with Benjamin Harrison and concluding with Barack Obama, the author elides twenty-two administrations into ten chronological chapters—only the Roosevelts merit individual attention—that range in length from fourteen to nearly seventy pages and provide basic information about the rise of each man to the nation’s highest office and the major legislative issues that arose during his term. Graham’s focus on “presidents and federal policy, where there has been a rich environmental engagement,” seeks to augment social and intellectual accounts of the greening of the nation, ultimately revealing that most Oval Office occupants have had little direct influence on the nation’s environmental evolution (p. 2).

Graham begins with a rapidly moving chapter dismissing the first century of national public land stewardship. For Graham, “The first president engaged in this new government commitment to nature protection” was not Thomas Jefferson, with his dedication to adding public lands and understanding them from a scientific (even proto-ecological) perspective, but Benjamin Harrison (p. 1). Although Harrison signed the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, which became the foundation for the national forests and Progressive-era conservation, Graham concludes that other than signing a few acts, Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley did not accomplish anything significant regarding the environment.

Graham suggests that “we should assess presidents on their achievements in their particular circumstances” (p. 28). To this end, the chapter on [End Page 722] Theodore Roosevelt recounts conservation touchstone events such as the founding of the Boone and Crockett Club, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the creation of Hetch Hetchy Lake, but complicating Graham’s task of delineating this and other presidents’ unique conservation contributions is the role that influential appointees like Gifford Pinchot played in policy making. As in other chapters, Graham ultimately defers to historians such as Douglas Brinkley, Samuel P. Hays, and Stephen Fox to assess Theodore Roosevelt’s significance and environmental engagement. Chapter 4—covering William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover—blurs through what Graham calls the “brown” presidents (p. 60).

The fifth chapter, on Franklin D. Roosevelt, charts much the same organizational path as the earlier Theodore Roosevelt chapter. The Tennessee Valley Authority, soil conservation, and the Dust Bowl receive coverage, and Graham notes, “Most historians assess FDR’s conservation leadership as the equal of TR’s, and a few place it one notch higher” (p. 146). In chapter 6—covering Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy—Graham once again confronts a trio of presidents whose personal conservation leadership he deems negligible. Instead, as in many administrations, the secretaries of the interior—in these years Douglas “Give-Away” McKay and Stewart Lee Udall—were the real administrative movers and shakers.

Graham’s chapter on Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter brings surprisingly sharp criticism for Johnson, the president with perhaps the clearest initiative for environmental stewardship and change, before concluding that “[p]residential leadership” during the 1970s was “not the place to find sufficient explanation” for increased national environmental protection (p. 271). The shift from “conservation” to “environmental,” along with the breakdown of the old Theodore Roosevelt sportsmen-for-nature coalition, is notably absent. Chapter 8—covering Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton—concedes that the legacies of these “brown and pale green” presidents were shaped less by their leadership and more by the appointments they made (p. 276). The penultimate chapter on George W. Bush and Barack Obama moves quickly through “bleak” Dick Cheney–led years and the stumbling, distracted terms of Obama, citing only climate change awareness as the current commander in chief’s clear environmental contribution (p. 336). The final chapter, “Trying Again for Greener Presidents,” summarizes the whole 125-year span and longs for...


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