Q&A: Douglas Brinkley Rates Presidents for Their Environmental Records, Calling Nixon a ‘Reluctant Environmentalist’ and Donald Trump ‘a Zero on This Issue’

When the historian Douglas Brinkley wrote “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America” (2009), The New York Times called it a “vast, inspiring and enormously entertaining book” for its depiction of a great conservationist president who saved 234 million acres of America’s wilderness. 

Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University in Houston, followed up that volume seven years later with “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America,” a portrait of the man considered by many to be the country’s greatest environmental president. FDR created 140 national wildlife refuges and 29 national parks. His Civilian Conservation Corps planted over 2 billion trees and created 13,000 miles of trails. 

Now, right on schedule, Brinkley is set to publish a third book on this theme, “Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Great Environmental Awakening,” which connects these leaders with a series of great legislative accomplishments, from the Wilderness Act to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

I recently interviewed Brinkley about the environmental records of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and asked him to grade those who followed, from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump. This transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

You’re preparing the third of three books on presidents and the American environmental and conservation movement. I wonder why you chose this topic in the first place?

When I was young, growing up in Georgia and Ohio, my parents used to take us on trips across the United States. They were teachers, so they had some months off during the summer. So I had the extraordinary opportunity of getting to visit Glacier National Park in Montana or Joshua Tree National Park in California or the Everglades in Florida, and it really got me excited. I decided to connect my love of U.S. presidential history with ecology, wildlife conservation, the National Park movement and what today is known as environmentalism. I thought presidents need to be graded on their environmental stewardship during their time in the White House, and so I’m able to do that with these books. I realized that Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and then John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are really the presidents that made a difference on the environmental front.

These books make us think about the two Roosevelts in different ways. How will we think differently after we read your book about presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon?

While John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, he was articulating what we would call an environmental agenda, which began in the 1950s with people ranging from Aldo Leopold, who wrote “A Sand County Almanac” [1949], to early Rachel Carson writing about the world’s oceans [1951] to Barry Commoner warning about the uses of DDT and other pesticides and even to Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King warning about nuclear testing in Nevada. When Kennedy comes in, the great novelist Wallace Stegner writes his “Wilderness Letter” [1960]almost a foundational document for today because he’s talking about putting vast parts of our national landscape aside for no roads, to have areas that become wilderness areas where nothing should be allowed to be built. You build the road, you’re going to get the trucks, you’re going to get commercialization, industrialization. And Stegner is just one of many.

That group has two crowning achievements, one in 1964 with the Wilderness Act, which Lyndon Johnson signs on Sept. 3, and it’s this major moment where 9.1 million acres of America were declared roadless; that tradition has continued to designate lands that are going to remain as wild as we can keep them. And then, in 1968, Johnson signed a Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. So instead of Democrats promoting the damming of rivers, which had been a tradition: Franklin D. Roosevelt was known for dams—Grand Coulee Dam, Tennessee Valley Authority, I could go on and on—but suddenly, Democrats are saying let’s have rivers kept in pristine condition. 

Richard Nixon, whose image has changed as the years have gone by, is finally being recognized as an environmental president. His image has completely transformed in recent years, hasn’t it? 

Well, it has. I call Nixon a “reluctant environmentalist.” Unlike John F. Kennedy, who loved the oceans—Kennedy had what we call a “blue mind,” as he only relaxed when he was on water—Nixon is always wearing his suit and wingtips. He’s not part of the club. Yet Nixon does so much to help the environment. When he ran for president in 1968, Democrats were terrified that if he won, there goes the environmental momentum. They were sure of it. Well, the opposite happened, partially because when Nixon was president eight days, there was the Santa Barbara oil spill. It created such an outrage in Nixon’s home state of California. The same year, all sorts of rivers are catching on fire. Dr. Seuss writes, “Lake Erie is dying.” From his western White House in San Clemente, Nixon signs the National Environmental Policy Act, and it’s a game changer. And Nixon gives his famous 1970 State of the Union address, where the whole address is practically on the environment. And he sounds like a visionary environmentalist. There’s something: Rachel Carson, who had died in 1964, would have been honored to hear a speech that Nixon. He then gave a quasi-endorsement of the first Earth Day in April 1970. 

He also had the FBI spy domestically on environmentalists, but by the summer of 1970 Nixon creates the groundwork for the [Environmental Protection Agency] of today and the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] for dealing with oceans. Both become law. The key to Nixon is a man named John Ehrlichman, who we know from Watergate shenanigans, but he was the leading water and land lawyer in Puget Sound and Seattle. He took Nixon boating and they loved it, and he showed Nixon all the pretty sites by water of the Seattle area. So a lot of radicals or progressives of the ’60s would call John Ehrlichman a covert green because he loved the stuff. He would push [environmental matters] on Nixon and get stuff signed. And yeah, it’s tragic. 

Who were the presidential heroes of the environment movement? 

The standard then and now is Theodore Roosevelt. Because TR was a wildlife biologist by training, he wrote beautifully about the natural world. Some of his writings, for example, on the battle lands of the Dakotas are still the prettiest, most beautiful nature writing we have read about species. At the time of his death, he was writing articles about the gopher tortoise of Florida, whose habitat just got devastated. He saved 234 million acres of wild America. Everywhere he talked, he’d say, conservation is my No. 1 priority as president. Nobody has put the environment No. 1 since TR.

FDR and Eleanor ran a tree farm that’s up in Dutchess County. Whenever FDR would fill out a form [asking about his] occupation, he’d write “tree farmer.” FDR was an avid bird watcher. So this all came pretty naturally to him. He visited all the national parks that he could, [and] he created many of them that we have today. 

Truman was more interested in industry, factories, development, roads and had almost no interest in the natural environment. Yes, he gave a speech at the Everglades. FDR really created it, but they needed to find some extra money to open it. But I would call him an anti-environmental president. Eisenhower [cared] about it only at the very end of his second term. Only after meeting with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who had traveled up to Arctic Alaska, did Eisenhower do something very important: he stopped the militarization of Antarctica in an international treaty. And he set aside the ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has been such a contentious place because they found oil there in 1968. But Eisenhower had made it our nation’s biggest wildlife refuge. 

Kennedy became an environmental president because William O. Douglas was an ardent environmentalist who was a Kennedy family friend and sitting on the Supreme Court. He used to say, “Jack, the problem with you is you’ve never slept on the ground. You’re not an outdoors person.” And he convinced Kennedy to get into seashore preservation. And Kennedy took to this quite naturally [and] championed Cape Cod National Seashore, Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, Point Reyes in California. He made it his big preservation issue and, impressively, he gets all three of them done. 

Keep Environmental Journalism Alive

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

What Kennedy did is harder than saving the mountains in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Kennedy saved Cape Cod in a highly populated area and Padre Island, in vast swaths of coastal Texas right in the oil and gas zone. And Point Reyes in Marin County, some of the most expensive real estate in the country. He led those fights boldly and he also put Stewart Udall in as his secretary of the Interior, and when we study Interior secretaries, he’s No. 1. There are two epic Interior secretaries in American history: Harold Ickes during FDR, and Stewart Udall under Kennedy and Johnson.

How do the presidents after Nixon rate?

Gerald Ford was terrible, didn’t care. We did get during his brief tenure the Eastern Wilderness Act, which put more Eastern lands under preservation. But [Jimmy] Carter was a very good conservation president. Carter had turned anti-dam, and as governor he stopped a dam being built on the Flint River in Georgia. Carter got exposure as a governor with a major story in Reader’s Digest over wanting rivers to run freely. And as president, he did Superfund, where we’re declaring toxic-waste districts and warning people not to live there. He had to grapple with things like the Love Canal and Three Mile Island, but the reason he’s ranked high is, Carter’s Alaska Lands Act saved as much property as all of California. Carter was a great outdoorsman, a fly fisherman. He put solar panels on the White House, only to have Reagan take them down. 

Reagan was not good because he believed federal lands needed to be opened up for extraction. But he does sign a lot of wilderness bills, which preserved certain bits of federal land where no roads or development could be allowed. George Herbert Walker Bush pushed through [amendments to the Clean Air Act] which was, which is, epic. Bill Clinton is pretty good. With Bruce Babbitt, he created big monuments that were controversial in Utah and Arizona, the Grand Escalante staircase particularly. 

George W. Bush did nothing until the very end, when he saved coral reefs. Obama did a lot with monuments and saved places like the San Juan Islands of Washington. He did a lot of history monuments [like one honoring] César Chávez in California and opened up [monuments] to LGBTQ people with Stonewall in New York, [and to Black people] with Harriet Tubman in Maryland and the Buffalo Soldiers in Ohio. He’s trying to open the history narrative of using the National Park Service for diversity. 

Donald Trump was a zero on this issue. He was at war with the whole idea of public lands and preservation. He wanted to gut the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and get rid of the biologists from EPA, etc. 

“Silent Spring” is kind of like the Epic of Gilgamesh and “Middlemarch,” often referred to but seldom actually read. Yet it had a huge impact. Is Rachel Carson the Harriet Beecher Stowe of the environmental movement?

I think that’s the right way to look at her. When her book “Silent Spring” came out in 1962, John F. Kennedy read the New Yorker excerpts of it and read the book afterwards, and [assigned] his presidential science advisory committee to look into seeing if her research, particularly [about] DDT, held up. And within a year, the report came that Rachel Carson’s science was indeed correct. The influence of Rachel Carson’s book was seismic. Until that book, the public thought of conservation as “I see a beautiful place, I want to save it.” Or “How gorgeous is Devils Tower, Wyoming? Let’s declare it a national monument.” Or “Let’s add some beautiful acreage to the Grand Canyon.” 

Then, boom, “Silent Spring” hits, and it’s telling the public that your child could be sick playing in your backyard, that you’re not safe. Nothing wakes up mothers and fathers more than a warning like that. And so the effort to get DDT banned is intense, and the chemical industry fights back and it is a decade- long battle to ban DDT. And so Rachel Carson has a victory in the end, even though she wasn’t alive to see it. 

David Shribman served as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on American political culture as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe. He now writes a nationally syndicated column, contributes a separate column to The Globe and Mail in Canada and teaches American politics at both McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy and Carnegie Mellon University.

Read more