Although it was covered in the New York Times, the passing of Russell Train last Monday (Sep 17, 2012) went without much notice in the media. It’s easy to imagine why: the man has no natural allies in the present political landscape. For Republicans, he was just another nutty environmentalist who believed that regulations and international agreements mattered more than unfettered growth. For Democrats, he was… well… a Republican.
No one today takes ownership of Russell Train, despite his influential role in the Nixon White House when the environmental movement finally hit the big time, reaching the highest levels of national and international policy. It’s a pity.
Train was Nixon’s personal environmental envoy, pioneering some of the major international agreements of the 1970s—to control pollution, to protect wildlife, and to create lasting relationships on environmental matters across national lines. At the creation of the first Council of Environmental Quality, Russell Train headed it up. At creation of the EPA, there was Russell Train again, its second Administrator. At the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, hey look! There was Russell Train. And who was that person who helped found the World Wildlife Fund? Oh… well, you get the idea. Even when Nixon had the strange idea of putting environmental issues on NATO’s agenda, Russell Train was there trying to make it happen.
The bipartisanship on environmental issues during that period is truly remarkable. Here’s Train arguing in favor of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1975 (dry stuff, be warned, but try to imagine a similar speech today):
Although there are plenty of scholars who doubt that Nixon cared much for the environment, one can hardly doubt the integrity and devotion of Russell Train. J. Brooks Flippen once argued that Nixon’s concerns—expressed in his shocked reactions to the Santa Barbara oil spill, and his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—were really just cynical moves designed to win back the votes he’d lost among those who opposed his policies in Vietnam. And yet Flippen’s biography of Train himself, who helped Nixon implement these things, is far more sympathetic. It paints a portrait of a man who was devoted to wildlife protection, was proud of being at the cutting edge of environmental diplomacy, and was a staunch Republican. Ultimately, his own party abandoned him, even disinviting him from the Republican convention in 1980. Too tree-huggy.
That abandonment of Russell Train—and arguably of environmental issues—crossed the point of no return during the Reagan years. Reagan wasn’t against the outdoors. He maintained a well-polished image of the rugged individual, surrounding by Western paraphernalia—horses, hats, saddlebags, tumbleweeds—you name it. He threw his support behind the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s, a reactionary movement that sought to curb federal ownership of land and return it to the states (where it could be sold or leased to developers). But this was not the kind of environmentalism that had motivated Russell Train.
It must have been hard for Train to watch everything he had done unravel during the 1980s. The Council on Environmental Quality was whittled down to a powerless body. The Environmental Protection Agency that Nixon and Train had helped to create was eviscerated—its funds blocked by the White House-controlled Office of Management and Budget, while Reagan party loyalists were put in charge of it. The EPA was soon so riddled with scandals that Reagan brought back a Train-era scientist, William Ruckelshaus, to restore its integrity.
On a range of issues—timber harvesting, acid rain, population control, land management, toxic waste—Reagan was adamantly opposed to environmental regulation.
Still, Russell Train stayed loyal to the party during the Reagan era. He continued to try to influence events through his many friends, including Vice President George Bush (senior). But Reagan’s influence was so pervasive that the “Reagan Republicans” increasingly adopted a view that environmental protection was wrong whenever it hindered economic growth. This attitude has proven incredibly durable in American politics since the 1980s.
Train tried to fight this trend among Republicans, and he did it without breaking ranks. But he failed. Eventually he threw in the towel, and openly sided with Democrat John Kerry in the presidential election of 2004. But the window of opportunity to exercise his considerable influence had passed. Train’s opposition to George W. Bush, the son of his friend, was like the tree falling in the forest without a sound… because no one was there to listen.
R.I.P. to a longtime public servant.
P.S. Here’s a video of Train looking back in 2005, and contrasting events of the 1970s with those of the early 2000s. (also a bit dry, but you can skip ahead to 12 minutes for comments on Bush-style environmental politics, to get the gist of it).