For the environmental movement in America the allure of the Democratic ticket in 1992 was not Bill Clinton. His record in Arkansas was poor. Tyson, the chicken mogul, had fouled the state’s rivers with an enthusiasm equalled only by his zeal for Clinton’s political well-being. Not fifteen miles from the state capitol in Little Rock was the township of Jacksonville. Here were stored leaky drums of ‘Agent Orange’, residue of a manufactory that had flourished in the Vietnam years. For years Jacksonville’s residents had imparted to Governor Clinton news of the cancers metastasizing in their community as a result of the dioxin waste. The governor wept in sympathy and did nothing, even when the federal government started incinerating these same drums of dioxin, thus disseminating the poison more efficiently. But if Clinton was, from the environmental point of view, a dubious prospect, his running mate seemed a creature of bright promise. Al Gore had even written a book about perils to the environment, notably the supposed greenhouse effect. And the national leadership of the environmental
Babbitt had used a ten-year stint as governor of Arizona between 1977 and 1986 to make his own run for the presidency in 1988. An early drop-out in that campaign, he then joined with Governor Bill Clinton in founding the Democratic Leadership Council, the smithy in which neoliberals would reforge the corporate conscience of their party. Babbitt himself was a mellifluous exponent of what opinion-page pundits reverently termed ‘market-oriented’ environmental procedures. Through the alchemy of self-interest, these would resolve what Babbitt delighted in terming ‘environmental train wrecks’ in which corporate looters—though he didn’t put it this way—were held at bay by environmentalists mostly through courtroom battles.
Any governor of Arizona spends much of his time trying to furnish cheap water to farmers and the real-estate industry and Babbitt was no exception. (He also demonstrated his fealty to capital by bringing in the National Guard to crush a strike by steelworkers against Phelps Dodge in 1978.) Working closely with the Environmental Defense Fund—a passionate exponent of trade-offs and credits in ‘market-oriented’ environmentalism, Babbitt filled editorial pages with columns outlining his views. He also took the obligatory trip to the Amazon to lament the threats to the rainforest (of which approximately 90 per cent is still extant in the Amazon basin, in contrast to America’s ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, of which only 5 per cent remain).
Not more than a few months into the new administration’s life, Babbitt has become a bright star in an admittedly dim firmament. Only Attorney-General Janet Reno feasts on coverage as lavish as that showered on the Secretary of the Interior. A late-summer McNeil–Lehrer profile offered Babbitt as emblematic of all that’s glorious in the American environmental heritage, a maxiblend of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and the late Edward Abbey. Magazine profiles of the former Arizona governor were similarly unctuous, displaying the great man against a series of wondrous natural backdrops and fawning verbal drapery.
Such hype is nothing new at Interior, traditionally ruled by Westerners. Even Reagan’s first appointee to that post, a Colorado lawyer named James Watt to whom nature was the foe, felt it necessary to present himself to photographers kneeling by a purling brook in some bosky glade, attired in rigid Levi, a plaid shirt fresh from Western Wear, and a stetson perched on the crown of his head. Eastern journalists who know little about the West will buy almost any nonsense from publicists at Interior about their Secretary’s credentials and love for America’s forests, rivers, mountains, prairies and the creatures that therein do dwell. At the onset of Kennedy’s New Frontier, when a vigorous preservationist movement was ready to explode after the long ravages of the Eisenhower years, the man placed at Interior
Reagan’s man Watt was very good for the environmental movement. In his menacing shadow the major groups prospered. Babbitt, by contrast, has this same environmental leadership eating out of his hand. When Babbitt’s name was floated as a candidate for the us Supreme Court, officials of the Environmental Defense Fund organized emergency petitions to the White House to keep Babbitt at Interior. Higher-ups in other mainstream environmental groups trolled forth the message that Babbitt was too vital a friend to lose to the court.
At that moment, Babbitt was pushing through a plan for the national forests of the Pacific Northwest likely to nearly halve the old growth that remains. He had already placated the developers of Southern California at the expense of the endangered gnat-catcher. On his desk was a plan reflecting the desires of the sugar industry of South Florida. By family background (big-time ranching in Arizona) and political instinct, Babbitt supports the exploitation of the public domain. He’s a ‘wise use’ man through and through, like the founder of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. And like his Arizona predecessor at Interior, Stewart Udall, he’s no friend of the environmental movement.