Lost in Watergate’s Wake: Nixon’s Green Legacy

The date will never resonate like July 4, 1776, or December 7, 1941, or 9/11, but Aug. 8, 1974—exactly 38 years ago today—was a monumentally important day for those of us old enough to remember it. It was on a Thursday evening that Richard Nixon announced he was stepping down as President of the United States — the first president in U.S. history to resign from office, and so far, the only one.

I was about to enter my junior year of college, and for my friends and me, it was a day to celebrate. We pretty much hated Nixon. He had failed to end the Vietnam War with the so-called “secret plan” he’d promised as a candidate back in 1968. In fact, he escalated it by bombing Cambodia, a ploy that led to the tragic Kent State shootings. He kept an enemies list of people he thought were out to get him, and he masterminded and covered up a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, a sleazy bit of thuggery that culminated in his disgrace and ultimate resignation.

I despised Nixon so much back then that even now it’s hard for me to get it into my head that he was a hero in at least one important way: he was a champion of protecting the environment, like no president before him since Teddy Roosevelt, and like no president since. The list of his green accomplishments — things he actually initiated, and laws he approved with his signature — is truly impressive. They include (deep breath, now):

The National Environmental Policy Act (1969), which among other things required that all federal agencies produce environmental impact statements on the possible negative effects of any and all regulations. It also created the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

— The Environmental Protection Agency (1970). Self-explanatory. Amazing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, 1970). Proposed by Nixon “...for better protection of life and property from natural hazards…for a better understanding of the total environment…[and] for exploration and development leading to the intelligent use of our marine resources…” That's what he wanted, and that's what the agency does.

The Clean Air Act (1970). Before the act, America’s skies were filthy. Afterward, they weren’t exactly pristine, but they were dramatically better, and later amendments cleaned the air up even more.

Earth Week (1971). OK, something of a gimmick, but still, Nixon endorsed it to commemorate the first anniversary of Earth Day. He may not have sported Birkenstocks, but in some ways the man was practically a tree-hugger.

The Clean Water Act (1972). If this is beginning to sound like the green legislation hall of fame, it’s not just you.

— The Endangered Species Act (1973):  Even if this was all Nixon had achieved, he would rank among one of our greenest presidents.

His opponents claimed, naturally, that all of these seemingly noble gestures were politically motivated. Nixon didn’t care about he environment: he knew lots of Americans did care, and he wanted to divert attention from the disaster in Vietnam.

There’s probably a grain of truth in it, but so what? Try to imagine a political leader in either party advocating for such a bold pro-environment agenda today, let along getting even a fraction of Nixon-level laws passed.

I certainly can’t. For all his faults, and there were plenty, Richard Nixon did more for the environment than most of the bona fide environmentalists I know. And for that reason, I can’t quite celebrate Nixon Resignation Day the way I would have imagined back in 1974.