the Earth — dump Bush
In a slashing interview,
environmental leader Bobby Kennedy Jr. denounces the administration’s “crimes
against nature” and discusses the Democratic presidential pack, the dawn of
Arnold’s California reign — and his own political future.
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Nov. 19, 2003
| When Bobby Kennedy Jr. talks about
the corporate polluters he has been fighting for nearly 20 years as an
environmental lawyer — and their accomplices in the Bush administration — he
gets the same steely look in his blue eyes that his father did when he was
confronting the moguls of organized crime. “I am angry,” he says, with a
Kennedyesque hand chop of the air. “Three of my sons have asthma and I watch
them struggle to breathe on bad air days. And it’s just scandalous to me that
these polluters can give millions to Bush and suddenly all these environmental
regulations are thrown out the window. These guys in Washington are selling huge
chunks of America’s natural resources, they have our government up for sale to
the highest bidder, and they’re getting away with it scot-free.”
This week Kennedy declares war on this new “enemy within” — the term his
father applied to the Mafia lords who were subverting American politics,
business and labor — with a passionate, sweeping indictment of the
Bush-sanctioned rape of our environment in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.
Kennedy lays out in legal-brief detail how, under Bush, the federal agencies
supposed to be guarding our air, water and natural resources have been
systematically turned over to the industry foxes that are ravaging them. But the
tone of his lengthy essay, titled “Crimes Against Nature,” is far from lawyerly.
Kennedy’s original subtitle was “Corporate Fascism and the End of Nature.”
Kennedy, who has built a reputation over the past two decades as the leading
defender of the huge Hudson Valley watershed that stretches from the Adirondacks
to New York City, is senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council
and also chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, an organization
of fishermen on behalf of whom he’s battled G.E., Enron and dozens of other
corporate and governmental polluters of the legendary river. No other
environmental champion has a higher public profile than Kennedy, a factor not
just of his family name and impressive legal accomplishments, but of his
tireless speaking schedule, which takes him all over the country, from an energy
industry association one week to a conservative women’s club the next (two
recent engagements, he proudly notes, where he received standing ovations).
Kennedy, who is an avid fisherman and falconer, says he has been an
environmentalist all his life: “My mother said that when I was in the crib, I
was always picking up beetles.” As a boy, he wanted to be a veterinarian, but
after his father’s assassination in 1968, when Bobby Jr. was 14, he decided to
follow his father’s path through Harvard and the University of Virginia law
school. He was working for the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1983 when
the drug problems he had long been wrestling with caught up with him; while
flying to South Dakota for drug treatment, the 29-year-old Kennedy overdosed on
heroin and was arrested for possession after his plane landed. The following
year, as part of his rehabilitation Kennedy volunteered to work for the Natural
Resources Defense Council. Kennedy will not talk about what he took from this
experience — “That’s not something I want to talk about with the press. I have
other places where I talk about that,” he once told the New York Times — but it
doesn’t seem overly dramatic to suggest that by committing himself to a life of
environmental action, he was saving his life. As the Times noted, 1984 was the
year Kennedy (in his words) “reevaluated” his life: “I was going to do what I
wanted to do.”
Kennedy’s main base of operations is a modest, two-story building on the Pace
University campus in White Plains, N.Y., where he teaches law and runs an
environmental litigation clinic. Outside, a weathered-looking fishing boat
stands vigil. The building lobby is awash in aquatic life, with mounted fish on
the walls and a big, brimming aquarium in the center. Kennedy’s cramped office
is adorned on one side with a wall of fame, including photos picturing him at
various events with a mixed bag of celebrities — Cameron Diaz, Keith Richards,
Bonnie Raitt, Nancy Reagan, Dan Quayle, Gloria Estefan. (Kennedy has called his
family name a “blessing” that gives him access to a range of public figures who
can help his causes.) Another wall is dominated by a haunting black-and-white
poster of his father, walking down a lonely open road in Oregon, with snow peaks
in the distance, during his 1968 presidential run.
Kennedy, who is 49 years old and lives in nearby Bedford with his wife, Mary,
and six children, sat down in the legal clinic’s no-frills boardroom to talk
with Salon over a Chinese take-out lunch and cups of Keeper Springs water, his
bottled water that is sold in the Mid-Atlantic states (all profits go to the
national organization of river keepers). Kennedy, who was wearing a navy blue
work shirt and rumpled white Dockers, has an unassuming personality. Before
digging into his “Triple Delight with Scallions” and fried rice, Kennedy, who is
a devout Catholic, said a silent prayer and crossed himself. The conversation
ranged from Bush’s environmental record to the 2004 Democratic challengers to
the fate of American democracy and his own political future. Kennedy also had a
surprisingly warm assessment of the Republican in his extended family,
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he is convinced is a strong
You charge in your Rolling Stone article that Bush is the worst
environmental president in American history.
Yes, that’s true. And he’s far worse than No. 2, who’s Warren Harding. Based
upon the fact that we have 30 major environmental laws that are now being
eviscerated. All of the investment we have made in our environmental
infrastructure since Earth Day 1970 is now being undermined in a three-year
period of astonishing activity.
The NRDC Web site lists over
200 environmental rollbacks by the White House in the last two years. If even a
fraction of those are actually implemented, we will effectively have no
significant federal environmental law left in our country by this time next
year. That’s not exaggeration, it’s not hyperbole, it is a fact.
As I say in the Rolling Stone article, many of our laws will remain on the
books in one form or another. But we’ll be Mexico, which has these wonderful,
even poetic, environmental laws, but nobody knows about them and nobody complies
with them because they can’t be enforced.
You also point out that the Bush administration has been very careful in
how they’ve gone about rolling back environmental progress. You write that,
unlike the Reagan administration’s more confrontational approach, they operate
in a stealth manner. Exactly how does this work?
Well, unlike Reagan, they control both houses of Congress, so they can attach
stealthy, anti-environmental riders to must-pass budget bills. In that way they
can alter statutes without debate or public scrutiny. Furthermore, a lot of the
environmental regulations are arcane and highly technical and require strict
enforcement by the various agencies. The Bush administration is suspending
enforcement or changing agency policies without altering the regulations. A lot
of the changes are illegal, and groups like the NRDC will sue them and we will
win the lawsuits — but that litigation process takes 10 or 12 years, and by
that time the damage will be done.
So how are they getting away with it?
Because they’ve taken control of the agencies that are supposed to be
protecting us. And Congress doesn’t scrutinize them because, as I said, the
Republicans control Capitol Hill. The people running Congress these days,
particularly Tom DeLay, are among the strongest advocates for dismantling our
environmental infrastructure. There are no hearings on Capitol Hill, no public
Why isn’t the media being more of a watchdog on this?
The consolidation of American media over the past decade or so has
dramatically diminished the inquisitiveness of our national press. There are now
only 11 companies that control virtually every radio outlet, every TV outlet and
every newspaper in our country. And because of that media consolidation, the
news bureaus are no longer run by newspeople. They are now corporate profit
centers. Most of these companies have liquidated their foreign bureaus, because
they’re expensive to run. That’s why you can’t get foreign news in this country;
you have to go to the BBC. And they’ve liquidated their investigative journalism
units, because that kind of reporting is also expensive. So news has become the
lowest common denominator, which is why you see sensational crime coverage, you
see Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant all the time, you see celebrity gossip, which
is really just a form of pornography. And you see murders, which is really just
another form of pornography. You just see notorious crimes, and you don’t really
see much substantive news anymore.
The Tyndall Report,
which is the service that analyzes what’s on TV, recently surveyed the
environmental content on TV news and of the 15,000 minutes of network news that
aired last year only 4 percent of them were devoted to the environment. And this
is at a time when we have a president who is dismantling 30 years of
environmental law, and when we are going through a global environmental crisis,
including mass extinctions comparable to the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
Global fisheries have dropped to 10 percent of their 1950s levels, the ice caps
and glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and one out of every four black
children in New York has asthma.
Your own children have asthma too, don’t they?
Yes, three of my six children, three of my boys, have asthma. We don’t know
why there’s this epidemic of asthma, but we do know that asthma attacks are
triggered by bad air days, especially by high levels of particulates and ozone.
And just a couple weeks ago, the Bush administration abandoned the new source
performance standards (that regulate industrial pollution), which means that the
amount of junk in our air is actually going to increase. The energy industry
contributed $48 million to Bush and the Republicans in the 2000 campaign. And
this is one of their big payoffs — it will mean billions of dollars in extra
profits for the industry. But the public is going to be paying that debt for
generations — with children, American children, who are gasping for breath and
people literally dying. The National Academy of Sciences predicts that 30,000
Americans a year will die because of the Bush decision. And that’s just one of
Another is that airborne mercury contamination has made it dangerous to eat
any freshwater fish in 28 states and the fish in most of our coastal waters. And
that mercury is coming from those same power plants. Fifty percent of the lakes
in the Adirondacks are now sterilized from acid rain that’s coming from those
same power plants. The forest cover all the way up the Appalachians from Georgia
to Canada is now deteriorating, again because of acid rain from those same power
plants. And in order to provide the fuel for those power plants, we’re cutting
down the Appalachian mountains. It’s illegal what they’re doing, for coal
companies to blast off the mountaintops and dump them into the adjoining rivers
and streams. But the Bush administration has announced that it will no longer
enforce those laws. And that’s what’s happening at the White House these days.
If we’re looking at an environmental wasteland under Bush, why aren’t
there people in the streets the way they were on Earth Day 1970, which launched
the modern environmental movement?
Well, it’s not because people aren’t interested. The primary reason is it’s
not being covered in the news. I asked [Fox News chief] Roger Ailes about this
recently, and he said, “We just don’t cover it because it’s not fast-breaking.
If you release toxics into the air, people don’t get sick for 20 years. We need
something that is happening this afternoon. The polar ice caps melting — that’s
just too slow for us to cover.”
And of course the tampering with the regulations you’re seeing in Washington
is happening in back corridors, and the networks can’t be bothered to
investigate, much less explain to the public the connection between these
regulatory rollbacks, even though the outcomes will be dramatic and will affect
America for generations.
But I’ll say this — every poll shows that both Republicans and Democrats
want strong environmental laws, up around 75 percent of the public, and there’s
almost no difference between the parties. Those polls are confirmed by my own
anecdotal evidence. I speak all around the country on environmental issues.
Three weeks ago I spoke at a petroleum and gas industry conference, and I got a
standing ovation from the audience when I told them about Bush’s environmental
record. And I’ll give you another example: I was recently in Richmond, Va.,
speaking to the Women’s Club, which is solidly Republican — I was told that
none of its members had voted for a Democrat since Jefferson Davis. And I got a
standing ovation there, too. It’s because most Republicans are actually
Democrats; they just don’t know it. If they knew what was happening in the White
House, they would be angry, they would be furious. And when they are told what
is happening, they get angry. And that’s the reaction I get all around the
country. If we get the message out, we win.
You don’t think people who belong to an energy trade association
understand what’s happening on the environment in Washington?
Well, the people who actually work in the petroleum industry, many of them
are hunters and fishermen and they care about the outdoors and the environment.
And no, I don’t think they realize in many cases what their trade association is
doing, what their lobbying groups are doing in Washington. These groups always
take the most radical, ultraright-wing positions on every issue. But that
doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of their membership. And most Americans
care about this country and the outdoors, and they understand that we have to
practice some self-restraint. And over the long term what is good economic
policy is identical to what is good environmental policy.
So why isn’t the environmental movement giving Roger Ailes the visuals he
needs by getting out in the streets and practicing the kind of civil
disobedience and spectacular protest that would make the media take notice? Let
me put it another way: Has the environmental movement lost its political fire
and become too legalistic?
It’s true that in its early years, the environmental movement was driven by
former labor organizers who knew how to do grass-roots organizing. And they were
able to bring 20 million people out on the streets of America on Earth Day 1970.
But since then it has become less activist. Between then and 1995, because of
the success of the movement, a lot of the leadership was focused on
inside-the-Beltway concerns, about how to push through maximum contaminant
levels for drinking water and water-quality standards, and issues that were
arcane and technical that lost touch with the parables that gave the
environmental movement its original power. The Cuyahoga River burning, Lake Erie
being declared dead, Love Canal, and Three Mile Island. These were the dramatic
stories — where people suffered obvious environmental injury — that once
animated the movement.
At the same time, you had an extremely sophisticated industry effort to
discredit the environmental movement, to dismiss them as tree huggers, as
unrealistic, as anti-job, as elitist. And they have been very successful at it.
They’ve put huge amounts of money into it. The Heritage Foundation is a creation
of this industry movement, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute — all of
those type of think tanks in Washington are funded by industry to promote its
views. That there is no such thing as global warming, that DDT is good for you,
that caribou love the Alaska pipeline. And they stock these phony think tanks
with marginalized scientists, who we call “biostitutes,” whose whole job is to
do the industry’s bidding and to persuade the public that environmental injury
doesn’t exist, that it’s an illusion, that it’s henny-penny-ism.
In most Americans’ hearts, the investment in our environmental infrastructure
is well worth making. They want our children to have clean air and clean water
to drink, and they want to preserve the wild places that make America special,
the places that are sacred to Americans.
But there is a marriage between the pollution interests and these right-wing
paranoid movements led by people like Rush Limbaugh, Paul Weyrich, Pat Robertson
and Jerry Falwell. They got a huge infusion of money in the 1980s from big
industrial polluters like Joseph Coors, and it suddenly gave them an enormous
voice. This wing has come to dominate the Republican Party. And the central
platform of all these groups is their anti-environmentalism. They’re against any
regulations that interfere with corporate profit-taking.
What about the Democratic Party? Isn’t it part of the problem too?
Democratic politicians receive money from many of these same corporate
polluters. And Al Gore certainly failed to make the environment a major issue in
the last presidential race, even though he was supposedly Mr. Environment.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s because most of the candidates do not know
how to explain these issues in a way that makes them relevant to the average
voter. And in fact they have extraordinary relevance to average people. We’re
not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we’re
doing it because it enriches us. It’s the basis of our economy, and we ignore
that at our peril. The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of our environment.
It also enriches us aesthetically and recreationally and culturally and
historically — and spiritually. Human beings have other appetites besides
money, and if we don’t feed them, we’re not going to become the beings that our
Creator intended us to become.
When we destroy the environment, we are diminishing ourselves and we’re
impoverishing our children. And our obligation as a generation — as Americans,
as a civilization — is to create communities that give our children the same
opportunities for dignity and enrichment as the communities that our parents
gave us. And we cannot do that if we don’t protect our environmental
infrastructure. And that’s really what this is all about.
So why didn’t Al Gore go near this issue in the 2000 race?
That was a great disappointment to me. I urged him to do it. And I believe he
would be president if he had.
Have you talked with him about it since the race?
No, not since the race. But I talked to him and to [key Gore advisor] Bob
Shrum during the race.
And what was their explanation at the time — that it wouldn’t get him
Their rationale was, No. 1, that they were talking about the
environment, but that it wasn’t getting traction with the press, and No. 2, that
everyone knew that Gore was an environmentalist and he needed to establish his
credentials in other areas.
But it was my feeling that Americans don’t vote for a politician because he’s
mastered the issues — they vote for a politician who they believe shares values
with them. And is passionate about those values, and will fight for those
values. And I think Gore’s challenge was to explain the environment in ways that
made Americans understand it was intertwined with all the other issues they
cared about, and all their basic values.
Gore’s failure was he didn’t embrace the thing he genuinely cared about — he
didn’t have the confidence to do that. Instead, he felt he had to prove his
competence in all these other areas, to master the minutiae of every other
issue. And Americans don’t care about that.
I mean, look at George W. Bush — he knows nothing about any issue. He
doesn’t seem to have a single complex thought in his head or shred of curiosity.
I mean, he claims he doesn’t even watch the news or read newspapers. But people
find something kind of charming and trustworthy about his manner — and that’s
all they need.
Ironically, the environment — because he did care so strongly about it —
might have been the one issue that humanized Gore as a candidate.
Exactly. And make people trust him. Make them feel he’s not just a guy who’s
following the polls and consumed by ambition. That he’s running because he has a
core value that he considers worth fighting for. That’s the challenge that every
politician has. Instead, people just saw him as a phony, that he didn’t really
believe in anything, aside from getting elected. And that his campaign wasn’t
about a vision for America and for the world — it was just about ambition.
You’ve endorsed John Kerry in the 2004 race. Do you think he’ll champion
the environment more boldly than Gore in his campaign?
I think he already is; he’s already framed this as his issue. I like all of
the Democratic candidates and they’re all relatively good on the environment.
Actually, I don’t know anything about Wes Clark on this issue, I haven’t talked
to him. But I have good friends who have and they say he’s expressed strong
feelings on the environment. So I think all the Democratic candidates are in the
But Kerry has the best record of any senator; he has a 96 percent lifetime
rating with the League of Conservation Voters. This has been a passion for him
since he got into public life. He was the Massachusetts organizer for Earth Day
in 1970, and he has fought hard for fuel efficiency standards, which is now the
holy grail of the environmental movement. He’s been the one consistent champion
on that issue.
I’ve known Kerry almost all my life and he’s an outdoorsman, he loves being
on the water, he loves fishing. I’ve spent a lot of time on Nantucket Sound with
him. Last summer he called my brother Max and asked him to come to Wood’s Hole
to go windsurfing with him, and they ended up windsurfing all the way from
Wood’s Hole to Nantucket, which is 45 miles, over open ocean. And that’s pretty
good for a 56-year-old guy. And he wasn’t calling a press conference or
anything. He just did it because they got into the water. It’s genuine.
Have you campaigned for Kerry?
Yeah. But I also have relationships with all the other candidates. Whoever
the Democrat is, I’m going to be supporting him. I want someone to beat Bush,
that’s all I care about. And I think Kerry is more likely to do that than any of
the other candidates.
In a one-to-one debate, Kerry’s unbeatable. He’s a genuine war hero, unlike
the draft dodgers who are now devising our foreign policy, Bush, Cheney,
Wolfowitz, Perle, DeLay. Of course there are lots of people who evaded the draft
during Vietnam due to moral qualms about the war. But these characters were
pro-war hawks. They just wanted someone else to die for our country. Kerry’s
record of bravery, on the other hand, will appeal to voters in swing states like
South Carolina where there are plenty of veterans who understand the
significance of the sacrifice that he was willing to make.
talk a lot about the environment in spiritual terms. Are you a practicing
And yet, as you point out in your Rolling Stone article, some of the most
passionate ground troops for the anti-environment backlash have come from the
Christian right. How do you make sense of that — that these people are also
inspired by religious conviction?
I would say what the fundamentalists call “dominion theology” is a Christian
heresy. These are people who read the Bible in a certain way, to justify
corporate domination of the planet, the same way people used to read the Bible
to justify slavery.
Dominion Christians believe that the Apocalypse is coming soon, the planet
was put here for us to exploit, to liquidate for cash, and we have a duty to do
that — even if we destroy nature in the process. Reagan’s EPA chief James Watt
was a radical dominion fundamentalist — he believed it was sinful for us to
protect the earth for future generations.
The industrialist who first recognized the potential for organzing these
right-wing fanatics into a political movement was Joseph Coors, who was
Colorado’s biggest polluter. Coors engineered a pact between polluting
industries and this marginalized, paranoid element that has existed throughout
America’s political history. This was in the 1980s, around the same time that
world communism was falling apart, and so the right wing needed a new bugaboo.
If you read Pat Roberts’ book “New World Order,” the evolution is clearly
outlined; he says the new communists are the environmentalists. He calls them
“watermelons” — green on the outside, but red on the inside. And he makes the
same association that the John Birch Society did — that because Earth Day
happened to fall on Lenin’s birthday, this was evidence that environmentalists
were the new secret spies of the new world order, as communism disappeared.
Robertson interprets American politics through the lens of his apocalyptic
theology. He calls environmentalists “the minions of Satan,” who are trying to
turn America — which is the New Jerusalem — over to the philistines of the
earth who seek to dominate us through internationalism and the U.N.
Does this radical fringe actually have influence within the Bush
Absolutely. Many of Bush’s key appointments come out of this far-right fringe
and the industries that fund them. [Interior Secretary] Gale Norton was Watts’
successor at Mountain States Legal Foundation. Steven Griles, an energy industry
lobbyist who is now Norton’s deputy, also came right out of Watts’ shop, and now
he’s busy doing all these terrible things — giving away our parks, punishing
scientists who tell the truth. The administration is full of these people, like
Andrew Card, Condoleezza Rice, Spencer Abraham — they come out of the auto or
oil industries, the militantly anti-environmental wing of industry.
Why do you think Christie Todd Whitman resigned as EPA chief?
It was clearly a no-win situation for her. Now Whitman had an absolutely
miserable environmental record when she was governor of New Jersey; she was one
of the worst governors in the country — the first thing she did when she took
office in New Jersey was fire every lawyer in the state environmental department
who knew how to do enforcement. We would have fought her EPA appointment, but
despite her disastrous record, she actually looked good in comparison to some of
the other characters Bush was recruiting as Cabinet secretaries.
After she took over the EPA, she tried to rein in the Bush administration on
Kyoto [the global warming accords] and made a couple of anemic efforts to
mitigate the industry looting. But each time, she was humiliated by the White
House and ended up looking like a feeble scold at a frat house orgy. So if you
look at it from her point of view, she was not making friends with the
environmental movement and she was not making friends within the Republican
Party. So what’s the point of being there? It was just an untenable, no-win
situation for her.
So for someone like Christie Whitman to find herself in an untenable
Shows the radicalism of this crowd. That they made her look moderate!
In Rolling Stone, you use the term “corporate fascism” to describe what’s
happening under Bush. Do you think that’s excessive rhetoric?
No, I don’t. When I was growing up, I was taught that communism leads to
dictatorship and capitalism leads inevitably to democracy. And I think that’s
the assumption of most Americans. Certainly if you listen to people like Sean
Hannity or any other voices of the right, there’s an assumption that capitalism
in any form is beneficial for democracy. But that’s not always true. Free market
capitalism certainly democratizes a nation and a people. But corporate
capitalism has the opposite effect. The control of the capitalist system by
large corporations leads to the elimination of markets and ultimately to the
elimination of democracy. And we desperately need to understand that point in
our country — that the domination of our country by large corporations is
absolutely catastrophic for our democratic process.
Corporations don’t want free markets, they want profits. And the best way to
guarantee profits is to eliminate the competition; in other words, eliminate the
marketplace, through the control of government. And that’s what we’re seeing
today in our country. There is no free market left in agriculture. The free
market has almost been eliminated in the energy sector. These are two of our
most critical sectors, and the marketplace has disappeared. We’re seeing the
same process underway in the media industry now. So there’s very little consumer
choice and Americans aren’t getting the benefits and efficiencies that the free
market promises us.
Under Bush we’re seeing the complete corporate domination of the various
departments of government. The Agriculture Department, which was created to
benefit small farmers, is now a wholly owned subsidiary of big agribusiness and
the principal instrument of their destruction. The Forest Service is being run
by a timber industry lobbyist, Public Lands by a mining industry lobbyist.
Virtually all Bush’s Cabinet secretaries, department deputies and agency heads
come from the very industries that those agencies are supposed to be regulating.
The same thing happened in Germany, Italy and Spain during the fascist
takeover in the 1920s and ’30s — you had industrialists flooding the ministries
and running the ministries, and running them in many ways for their own profit.
If you read the American Heritage Dictionary definition of fascism, it says “the
domination of a government by corporations of the political right, combined with
bellicose nationalism.” Well, we’re seeing that today.
Of course the first people who start talking about this connection are going
to be derided for it. Even though Rush Limbaugh calls feminists “Nazis.” The
right wing for years has tried to discredit anyone who believes in the idea of
community as a “communist” or a “pinko.” But it’s time that people started
telling the truth about what’s going on in this country. And start realizing
that democracy is fragile, that corporate cronyism is as antithetical to
democracy in America as it is in Nigeria.
The other day I got something in the mail from a farmer — small farmers in
this country understand better than anyone how markets are being stolen and
democracy is being eroded. He sent me a quote from Mussolini that said fascism
should really be called “corporatism” — because it’s the control of government
by large corporations.
Another farmer sent me my favorite quote. This one was by Lincoln, in 1863,
during the height of the Civil War, when he says, “I have the South in front of
me and the bankers behind me — and for my country, I fear the bankers most.”
Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Eisenhower and all of our great
leaders have warned our nation that the greatest threat to our democracy is from
large corporate interests.
Many conservatives would say it’s easy for wealthy liberals like the
Kennedys to talk about saving the environment because they’ve amassed their
wealth already. Your grandfather Joe Kennedy was the buccaneer capitalist who
made the family fortune, and all his descendants are living off his wealth. But
what about the rest of us, who are still clawing our way toward our piece of the
American dream and are being hobbled by government regulations? These are people
who equate environmentalism with elite liberalism, and the Kennedy name to them
symbolizes all of that.
Well, let me say this: Good environmental policy is identical to good
economic policy, if we want to measure our economy — and this is how we should
be measuring it — based on how it produces jobs, and the dignity of those jobs,
and how it creates opportunity, and how it preserves the value of our nation’s
assets. If, on the other hand, you want to treat the planet the way the current
Washington regime does, like it’s a business in liquidation, to convert our
natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, to have a few years of
pollution-based prosperity, well then you can create the short-term illusion of
a prosperous economy, but our children are going to pay for our joy ride. And
they’re going to pay for it with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge
cleanup costs that they’re never going to be able to pay. Environmental injury
is deficit spending. It’s a way of loading the costs of our prosperity onto the
backs of our children.
So your environmentalism is not the luxury hobby of a rich kid?
There is no stronger advocate of free-market capitalism than myself. As a
small businessman who is founder and operator of a bottled water company, I
believe in and understand the free market a lot better than Sean Hannity ever
will. But in a true free-market economy, you can’t make yourself rich without
making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community. What polluters
do is make themselves rich by making everyone else poor. They raise standards of
living for themselves by lowering quality of life for everyone else. And they do
that by escaping the discipline of the free market. Show me a polluter and I’ll
show you a subsidy, I’ll show you a fat cat who’s using political clout to
escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his costs
You look at all the Western resource issues, like grazing and lumber and
mining and agriculture, and it’s all about subsidies — for some of the richest
people in America, these welfare cowboys in the Western states who are getting
$35 billion a year in federal subsidies that are destroying our ecosystems out
there. And these are the same people who financed this right-wing revolution on
Capitol Hill and helped put Bush in the White House, and now they have their
indentured servants in Washington all demanding that we have capitalism for the
poor and socialism for the rich.
I’ll give you another example of how pollution is a form of corporate
subsidy. When General Electric dumped PCBs into the Hudson River, it was
avoiding the costs of bringing its product to market, which was the cost of
properly disposing of a dangerous processed chemical. But when it avoided the
cost, the cost didn’t just disappear — it went into the fish, it made people
sick, it put people who depend on the river for their livelihood out of work. I
now have 1,000 commercial fishermen, my clients, who are now permanently out of
work. It dried up the river’s barge traffic because the shipping channels are
now too toxic to dredge. It forced local towns along the Hudson to invest in
expensive water filtration systems. Every woman between Oswego and New York has
elevated levels of PCB in her breast milk. And everybody in the Hudson Valley
has PCBs in our flesh and our organs. All those impacts impose costs on the rest
of us that should, in a true free-market economy, be reflected in the prices of
G.E. products when they make it to the market. But what G.E. did — which is
what all polluters do — is use political clout to escape the discipline of the
free market and force the public to pay the costs of its production.
G.E. was finally forced to pay some of the costs of the cleanup, wasn’t
Well, they’re going to do an initial cleanup, but that doesn’t start until
2006. They’ll never have to account for the true costs that they imposed on the
Hudson River community. I don’t even consider myself an environmentalist
anymore; I consider myself a free marketeer. We go out into the marketplace and
we catch the cheaters. And we say to them, “We’re going to force you to
internalize your costs, the same way you internalize your profits.” Because when
someone cheats the free market, it distorts the whole marketplace.
The Kennedy family and the Bush family are the two modern American
political dynasties. How would you characterize the differences between the two
families and what they stand for?
What I see is this. I think there’s always been a tension in American history
between two separate philosophies. One is the philosophy that was first
articulated by Jonathan Winthrop when he made the most important speech in
American history, in 1630, as he approached the New World with a convoy of
Puritans. He was the Moses of the great Puritan migration. And he stood up on
the deck of the sloop Arbella, and he gave his famous speech, which was called
“A Model of Christian Charity.” And he said this land is being given to us by
God so that we can create cities on a hill, not so that we can increase our
carnal opportunities or expand our self-interest or disappear into the lure of
real estate, but so that we can build cities on a hill — models to all the rest
of the nations of what human beings can accomplish if they work together and
maintain their focus on a spiritual mission. And even though he was a Puritan
and an Englishman, what he said that day was integrated into the fabric of what
Now that philosophy distinguished the European settlement of North America
from the European conquest of Asia, Africa and Latin America — where the
Europeans came as conquistadors to subjugate the peoples, extract the metals,
and enrich themselves and then keep moving. Here, in America, they came to build
communities that were models to the rest of the world.
There is, of course, also a conquistador aspect to our American character,
which really didn’t take a strong hold in our nation until the Gold Rush of
1849, when people said, “Oh, this is a place where you can go and get rich quick
and take care of yourself, and it’s all about making my pile higher and whoever
dies with the most stuff wins.”
I think those two polarized philosophies provide the tension that has driven
every major political conflict in American history. One vision is about building
communities, and emphasizing that we can’t advance as a nation by leaving our
poor brothers and sisters behind, or by abandoning our obligation to the next
generation. And the other philosophy is “just take care of myself,” and that
will somehow drive the economy and make us great.
So you think those clashing philosophies are what define the Kennedy
family vs. the Bush family?
Well, I don’t want to make generalizations about the whole Bush family, but I
think it definitely defines the current president. He’s got the conquistador
mentality, that you take care of your friends, you enrich yourself, and that’s
the point of government.
I know you’ve been asked this question many times, but I’m going to ask it
again. The legendary environmental activist Dave Foreman has said that what the
movement needs is a leader with charismatic appeal to make these issues come
alive for the American people. I can’t think of any other environmentalist with
as high a profile as you have — and it’s based not just on your name but years
of hard work as an environmental activist. I think you did the right thing by
keeping a low profile for many years and just letting your work speak for
itself. And that’s certainly a commendable thing. But at this stage, clearly
what America lacks is a solid bench of talented, progressive leaders. The
country is crying out for it now. I know there must be a number of personal
reasons that have made you hold back from going into politics to espouse these
ideas. But certainly if there were any time for a leader to articulate the
environmental agenda — which is a progressive social agenda, as you point out
— it would be now. So why haven’t you run for public office — is it something
that you’ve ruled out forever?
No. But I would prefer not to run for political office, because of the costs
it imposes on the rest of your life. I have six children. And my primary
obligation is to them. Otherwise, I almost certainly would have run, if I did
not have children.
What are their ages?
My oldest is 19, and my youngest is 2. But my aspiration is to try to be
effective without imposing the costs of a political race on my kids. At this
point I can travel a lot and bring my family with me, and I see them every night
at dinnertime and I’m able to spend weekends with them, while at the same time
I’m doing my best [in the public arena].
But in the last six months, I’ve made a shift — I’m going to be doing more
public stuff, because I believe that we win this debate if the public
understands it. And it seems so overwhelming a battle a lot of the time, because
industry has so much money to get their arguments out there, and we have so
little. But as Winston Churchill said, you just have to keep talking about it,
you have to keep telling the story again and again and again. And ultimately the
public will realize the truth. And I see that as my role. I’m going to do
everything I can to tell this story to as many people as possible, with the hope
that at some point the public will recognize the truth, and when they do,
they’ll share the same kind of anger and indignation that I feel.
I believe that George W. Bush is stealing my country, that he is absolutely
stealing the environment from our children, stealing the breath from my
children’s lungs and stealing the Bill of Rights, selling off the sacred places,
and trashing all the things I value about America. Our reputation across the
globe, the love and admiration that other peoples and nations once had for
America, the safety of our nation, the security of our children, the economy,
the ability of our children to educate themselves for the future — it’s all
being liquidated by this president for his wealthy friends and contributors. And
I am so furious at this man for stealing the thing I love most, which is
America, my country.
As a young man, your father was among the first public officials to
recognize the dangers of organized crime, how it was infiltrating and corrupting
business, labor and politics and undermining the nation. This threat clearly
brought out the passionate crusader in your father. And I’m wondering if there
is a parallel between his crusade against the underworld bosses and your own
campaign against corporate polluters?
I’m very comfortable with my father’s philosophies, and I feel very strongly
that my life in many ways is an extension of the battles that he was trying to
fight. His book on organized crime was titled “The Enemy Within” — and I think
the enemy within is still the greatest threat to our country, but it’s no longer
the Mafia, it’s corporate control of our country and our communities, it’s the
erosion of democracy. I’m not scared of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. They
can never hurt America in any fundamental way. As Teddy Roosevelt said, American
democracy will never be destroyed by outside enemies — but it can be destroyed
by the malefactors of great wealth who subtly rob and undermine it from within.
And I see that process happening today. And just as there were a lot of people
who denied that the Mafia existed at that time, today there’s a huge lobby that
is denying the fact that our democracy is really threatened by corporate
Before I let you go, I have to ask you about the latest elected official
in the extended Kennedy clan, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you think Schwarzenegger,
knowing him as you do, will prove to be the governor who cozied up with Ken Lay
of Enron or, as he claims he will, the governor of the people?
I think Arnold will be good for California. I think that having a Republican
in office is always a bad thing, because you’re bringing in the people who got
you elected — the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Farm Bureau, the
American Petroleum Institute, and all of these kind of bad characters, the
pirates of the American economy. But I think Arnold will be good. He said to me
last summer, during an August weekend on Cape Cod, that he wanted to make the
environment one of his key issues, that he was going to be the greatest
environmental governor in the history of California. And he asked me then to
help him put together a team. I didn’t endorse him because I had a close
relationship with Governor Gray Davis and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante,
who had done decent things on the environment. But I helped Arnold put together
an environmental policy, which Arnold read and then adopted. And it’s probably
stronger than Gore’s policy. It’s certainly stronger than anybody else who was
running for California governor, with the exception of the Green Party
I’ll be able to answer this question better in a little while, when Arnold
will announce the new chief of California’s Environmental Protection Agency. I
encouraged Arnold to name a very strong conservationist, Terry Tamminen, who is
the Santa Monica Baykeeper, to the post. And it looks like he’s going to do it.
And there’s never been anyone with those kind of environmental credentials in
that position. [Last week Schwarzenegger did indeed name Tamminen as his new
I know he was urged by very strong Republicans not to appoint Terry. I have a
friend who was in the room with him when Arnold received a call from a
Republican whom he’s very fond of and who’s in his inner circle [he was later
identified in press reports as Schwarzenegger’s powerful transition chief,
California Rep. David Dreier], and he said to Arnold, “You cannot appoint Terry
Tammimen.” And Arnold said to him, “I deeply appreciate the work you did on my
campaign and I value your advice, but I’m the governor and I’m going to appoint
who I want.” That made me extremely encouraged and proud.
Arnold still has one environmental flaw, his love of Hummers — have you
talked to him about that?
(Laughs) Yeah, extensively. He understands the issue and he’s converting his
Hummers to hydrogen. And he also understands that he needs to exert his
influence on Detroit. And he supports the California fuel efficiency bill, which
will make it the most progressive state in the country.
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|About the writer
David Talbot is Salon’s founder and editor
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