Between the Lines: In Trump Era, Author Ponders What TR Would Do
A look back at the environmental legacy of past presidents reveals a great deal about the current White House, suggests author Douglas Brinkley. The historian and CNN commentator has written exhaustive environmental biographies on Theodore Roosevelt and, more recently, on his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and is now at work on an upcoming book involving John F. Kennedy called “Silent Spring Revolution.” Brinkley spoke with SEJournal editor Adam Glenn shortly after appearing at the SEJ’s annual gathering in Pittsburgh last October. He discussed TR’s and FDR’s conservation ethic, the environmental movement, the direction of the Trump administration and the role of journalists. Read an edited version of that conversation below. Plus, listen to his remarks from the SEJ conference.
SEJournal: How do you see Teddy Roosevelt as having shaped, or been shaped, by the conservation movement?
Douglas Brinkley: 2017 was the bicentennial birthday of Henry David Thoreau, and when you write environmental history all roads lead to “Walden Pond.” That book of Thoreau’s, along with his others, started allowing generations of Americans in the last half of the nineteenth century to imagine that the wilderness wasn’t somewhere that pagans lived but was a place of spiritual enlightenment, and what was limited forest and grasslands and shoreline could end up being marred by the maw of hyper-industrialization.
|Author Douglas Brinkley addressing the SEJ's annual conference in Pittsburgh on Oct. 7, 2018. Photo: Tom Henry
One of the great learners of Thoreau’s was John Burroughs, who grew up in the Catskills. He was the last great student of Walt Whitman, and Whitman taught Burroughs a great deal about the natural world. So by the time you get to the birth of Theodore Roosevelt in 1858 and the years after the Civil War, there started becoming a notion of conservation: the idea of saving the land, of being good stewards, that you judge a farmer by how well [he] takes care of his land, and criticize a company if it doesn't use scientific forestry methods in the timber/lumber industries.
So young TR was enamored by that transcendentalist energy of Thoreau and Burroughs. And he also was a man of science. George Perkins Marsh wrote a book called “Man and Nature” that was telling a whole generation in the late nineteenth century if you want to see poverty in the world look at people who are reckless land stewards. So, in the imagination of TR, who majored in what we might call wildlife biology today, he started understanding that the globe was one pulsing bio-organism. He had learned from Darwin and Huxley about evolution. He studied guidebooks on flora and fauna of the world and recognized that we didn’t have great guidebooks in the United States, that there weren’t guidebooks about the cactus of Arizona, or the harbor seals of California. And that it was a wide open field in biological studies, particularly in the western half of the United States.
TR is really our only true science/biology president. We’ve had Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, who were engineers. But only TR’s speciality really was grappling with the natural world phenomenon. Because he was a romantic at heart and he liked the idea of scientific explorers like Meriwether Lewis and Charles Darwin, he made conservation a mainstay in his life. He once said conservation is the single most important thing the president has to do, to look after the natural resources of your country.
From 1901 to 1909 he was able to create new national parks, national monuments [and] our first federal bird reservations, all in the name of conservation. And so there’s a great lineage from Thoreau to Burroughs to Marsh to TR. And by time he left the White House in 1909 to go to Africa for a year collecting flora and fauna for the Smithsonian Institution, he had made conservation a household world. Either you were a conservationist or you weren’t. It wasn’t a party, a Democrat or Republican thing. It was a group of Americans who defined themselves as conservationists.
SEJournal: How did Franklin Delano Roosevelt translate TR’s vision? Did he see it the same way? Or did he go beyond TR?
Brinkley: Young FDR fell under that spell as did many other Americans. [But] like with anything in history, there’s always change. There were new scientific techniques for the understanding of forestry in the 1920s, when FDR became one of the leaders of the state park movement.
I get asked to rank presidents as green presidents.
It’s TR first and FDR second.
They are the two big game changers
in American life in the conservation realm.
TR thought in terms of species, of animals: He loved mammals a lot. FDR was more of a forestry maven. TR liked what we call monumentalism; big heirlooms like the Grand Canyon, the giant redwood trees, the Devil’s Tower rock formation. FDR came out of the city beautiful movement — the need for public urban parks, state parks near population centers. But FDR was both; he was also a big national park maven. But there started to become a feeling that urbanization was here to stay, meaning that fewer and fewer Americans were living on farms. When TR was president, we were a rural society. [Under FDR] we were becoming an urban one.
We were really polluting the rivers and lakes of America by the time FDR became president in 1933. We hadn’t yet perfected modern sewage treatment plants around America. And we had a landscape that had been scorched. The great plough-up in the Midwest had drained wetlands and destroyed forests. We had a dustbowl going on through the entire Great Plains and the Southwest. Drought was everywhere. And in the East, with the cities growing, they were making people sick. So FDR became a regulator.
How does one really hyper-regulate industry? Even though the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t created until 1970, the roots of it were right there in the New Deal. Because FDR was now trying to make it that everywhere in America people have a right to clean air and clean water. And they are trying to use even more scientific experts in organizations like U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which FDR created. TR created 51 wildlife refuges; today we have over 550 of them, and hundreds came in during FDR’s administration.
I get asked to rank presidents as green presidents. It’s TR first and FDR second. They are the two big game changers in American life in the conservation realm.
SEJournal: How has this conservation ethic translated in the presidencies that followed?
Brinkley: Because of the Roosevelts, presidents now get judged on their conservation or environmental records, who succeeded and who didn’t in that regard. For example, after FDR, Truman didn’t do much on conservation, and Eisenhower in his first six years didn’t do anything. But Eisenhower started thinking about legacy on his way out and, under the guidance of Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the demilitarization of Antarctica. Ike developed a conservation record because he knew he needed one. Kennedy immediately pushed for the establishment of Cape Cod [National Seashore] in Massachusetts, South Padre Island in Texas, Point Reyes in California, starting to save shorelines. And then LBJ created a whole new American beautification movement working with Lady Bird — no billboards, but also the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, new national parks.
Then I would add Jimmy Carter as being an incredible conservation-minded president. The best secretaries of interior in American history were Harold Ickes under FDR, Stewart Udall under Kennedy/Johnson and then Cecil Andrus under Carter. They were able to save millions of acres of wild Alaska just in the nick of time.
All secretaries of interior have to worship the altar of TR. The question is who understands the historical TR vision of conservation and environmental America and who exploits it and does mouth service. So there’s a club of presidents — and Barack Obama joined that club — who were trying to do serious work on American landscapes.
SEJournal: Where does this ethic go from here in future presidencies?
Brinkley: What’s been lacking in recent years, what we still haven’t had, is a president who champions environmental justice. Because in the 21st century, we have so much waste, toxic waste, chemicals, Superfund sites; we’re burying all of the debris of the industrial state and often it’s being put into barrios and poor wards of city districts or in rural communities that don’t have a lot of money or political clout. If you are poor or lower-income in America, you often live in a toxic environment. And this has recently been showcased in the Flint [Mich.] water crisis. It’s happening in the bacteria found in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Meaning conservation can’t be just about national parks, state parks and saving wildlife species. It’s about public health.
Our recent presidents have
talked about environmental justice,
but they haven’t made it a
hallmark of their presidency.
That movement began with Rachel Carson, who in her book “Silent Spring” did as much as any president to create a sense of environmental awareness around the country. Now, every company, every county, every city has to have environmental impact statements. And that grew out of the work of Rachel Carson. And it’s needed more than ever. Our recent presidents have talked about environmental justice, but they haven’t made it a hallmark of their presidency.
The most important thing readers of this interview need to know is there is such a thing as conservation/environmental movement, and I’m underlining the word “movement.” Just as there’s been a civil rights and a women’s movement, there’s been an environmental movement. And it never goes away. It just has high peaks and low valleys, depending on the moment in time.
At times there’s a president in the White House, or a powerful Supreme Court justice such as William O. Douglas, or a congressman such as Morris Udall, who gets it and promotes it and has the power to make differences. Other times it comes from photographers such as Ansel Adams or writers such as Rachel Carson. Conservation has many outlets, but the people who are joining it are joining a movement. They’re not operating alone. They’re operating with a sense of unity and dignity.
I’ve never met a nicer group of human beings than those invested in environmental stewardship. The people who try to clean up at state parks, or make sure their backyard river is swimmable, or who are trying to make sure pipelines are not going into aquifers in the Great Plains, people who are concerned about overdevelopment in Los Angeles or Houston. They are really salt-of-the-Earth people. They want to make sure we take care of our natural bounty. And so it’s always an honor to know these people — whether it’s a president or a poet, who engaged in environmental issues because their hearts are always in the right place. It’s about making the human experience more holy.
SEJournal: What do you think will be the environmental legacy of President Trump?
Brinkley: Donald Trump is the worst environmental president that one can document. He has zero sensibility to protecting public lands. He’s pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. He’s trying to open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that Dwight Eisenhower created. He’s trying to deregulate so oil, gas, mining outfits can have a free rein. He’s slashing the budget of the EPA by a third. He’s put people in like Scott Pruitt, whose job is to destroy the agency he’s in charge of. So it’s very pathetic that we have an administration that seems not to understand the importance of conservation.
But alas, what do you do? You have other elections in the future. You try to go do what all these nonprofits do and sue the Trump Administration for overreach. Things will get tied up in courts. The movement is still alive and will try to make the Trump administration’s job difficult. They’ll try to trip-wire it. They’ll have some successes and some failures. But the fight goes onward.
We’re dealing in TR with a great intellectual
and in Donald Trump with a
used car salesman of the worst kind.
SEJournal: What would TR do to Trump in a debate?
Brinkley: Theodore Roosevelt spoke five languages, he wrote 37 books, he wrote over 150,000 letters. Donald Trump brags that he never reads. We’re dealing in TR with a great intellectual and in Donald Trump with a used car salesman of the worst kind. Trump speaks in clichés and TR spoke in full paragraphs and loved to debate. A lot of intellectual presidents aren’t good speakers; Thomas Jefferson never delivered a speech when he was president, but he was a great writer. TR happened to be both a writer and an incredible orator.
So in a one-on-one situation, TR would have made mincemeat out of Donald Trump. I say that because he went after all these malefactors of wealth, all these monopolists and trust kingpins of his day. He was able to take on the House of Morgan. He was a fearless warrior when it came to American politics and when it came to conservation. TR said to lose a species was like slashing all of the masterpieces of Rembrandt. Donald Trump doesn’t understand that.
SEJournal: Where are we today in terms of the balance of power between someone like the president and the environmental movement? Does the environmental movement stand a chance?
Brinkley: The problem is industrialization, commercialization and profit motives are always going to dictate policy. [But] we are accomplishing a lot. The rivers are cleaner in America than they were in the 1960s. We do have better air quality in cities. We do have tougher auto emission standards. So the environmental movement is about taking two steps forward, then you [get] knocked back a hard one, then you pick yourself up and go forward.
It’s kind of a race against time right now. And I’m not sure the environmental movement is winning. Particularly the wealthier countries of the world — they’ve been able to do conservation stewardship. But on a large scale, climate change and developing world poverty and environmental injustice is really deep and huge and it's hard to wrap one’s hands about it because it’s so all-encompassing.
[The environment] needs more front-page coverage. ...
Media outlets must prioritize the environment
and not treat it as a secondary issue.
SEJournal: And where do you think journalism fits into all this?
Brinkley: A larger problem is that the media culture of today has to do more to focus on environment and conservation. I think it needs more front-page coverage.
I wrote a biography of Walter Cronkite, and after Neil Armstrong went to the moon in the summer of 1969, by that New Year’s Eve Cronkite walked into a meeting at CBS and said we’re going to make 1970 the year of environment on CBS News. And they started doing environmental coverage every single night. They would do stories about polluted rivers and lakes and dying species, and about companies despoiling our landscapes. It had a big impact. Then CBS covered these youth protest movements, the first Earth Day in April of 1970 and they covered it like a big news story. By end of year, there was so much media about the environment, that Richard Nixon was forced to create the Environmental Protection Agency.
So journalists are key in a time when it’s hard to prioritize. Newspapers and radio and media outlets must prioritize the environment and not treat it as a secondary issue. The very fact that climate change wasn’t raised in the presidential debates tells you that. Reporters and news outlets aren’t prioritizing the way they should.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.