Published in Environmental Health News, Jan. 9, 2013.
Richard Nixon would be 100 years old today, and on the anniversary of his birth, it’s tempting to portray the 37th U.S. president as a major environmental advocate.
That would be a mistake, for it would let modern-day politics trump an important history lesson.
Nixon did say and did things about the environment that seem courageous from today’s perspective: “Clean air is not free, and neither is clean water,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address. “Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”
Such rhetoric has made Nixon’s environmental legacy a source of ongoing debate among environmentalists, scholars and reporters. Not long ago, Michael Lemonick of the news site Climate Central said Nixon was “a champion of protecting the environment, like no president before him since Teddy Roosevelt and like no president since.”
But Lemonick and others holding that view displace history with politics. One of history’s first lessons is the need to understand people and events in the context of their times…