|August 19, 2001
Christie Todd Whitman, Called "Wind Dummy" by her Own Administration
Whitman's early tenure in the Bush cabinet has been rocky, to say the least. (Technically the E.P.A. lacks cabinet rank, but Whitman attends cabinet meetings, and Bush has said he favors legislation to make her America's first secretary of the environment.) She has borne embarrassments over the president's greenhouse decisions and the brunt of criticism that the new administration is anti-environment, though her own background on green issues is by and large centrist, even progressive at times. Whitman, it seems, has become the Bush administration's wind dummy. ''That's what Colin Powell has been calling me at cabinet meetings, the wind dummy,'' Whitman explains. ''It's a military term for when you are over the landing zone and you don't know what the winds are. You push the dummy out the door and see what happens to it.''
Whitman knew the job would be rough, because, she says, ''in the E.P.A. it doesn't
matter what the decision is, you are always making some group intensely mad.'' Enviros are
furious if the E.P.A. doesn't impose rules, conservatives are furious if it does. Most
cabinet jobs come with constituencies that have a built-in incentive to love-bomb the
agency boss (with the implied promise of future cushy employment); also there's the joy of
traveling around, handing out those oversize photo-op federal checks to flashing smiles.
At the E.P.A., by contrast, there's just unceasing complaint and rarely a soft landing.
The agency's two previous administrators -- William Reilly, a Republican, and Carol
Browner, a Democrat -- were both highly accomplished, and neither left for plush jobs with
big corporations or the environmental establishment. And instead of handing out checks,
E.P.A. bosses spend their days telling people that they can't do what they want to do, or
that they must correct mistakes at their own expense. Whitman, for instance, just handed
But a role plummeting into the landing zone seems harsh even by the standards of the E.P.A. The Bush administration assumed office not knowing which way the wind was blowing on environmental issues, pooh-poohing global warming and energy conservation despite polls showing that a strong majority of voters, including most Republicans, want more done to protect nature. Now Whitman is scrambling to undo some of the self-inflicted damage. Her Hudson decision, for example, seems intended in part to avoid another brace of ''Bush Cancels . . . '' headlines.
In addition to clashing with interest groups, Whitman must deal with administration figures who don't cotton to environmental niceties. As part of his energy strategy, Vice President Dick Cheney asked Whitman to review whether the E.P.A. should require emission reductions from old (mainly Midwestern) power plants and petroleum refineries that, owing to an exception in the Clean Air Act, are allowed to pollute more than new facilities. For the last several weeks, Whitman has been working through her decision on the issue, confusingly called ''new source review'' even though the subject is old facilities. (The decision was due to be announced Aug 17.) If Whitman decides to stand by new source review (as her office has intimated she will), Cheney and important lobbies like the Edison Electric Institute may blow a fuse. But if she does not, she'll face another kind of explosion; any action that could be seen as Whitman's easing off on pollution control to please energy industries could be devastating to her -- and the White House -- politically.
Why did Whitman want this post? ''I didn't say I wanted the job; I said I took it,'' she replies pointedly. Whitman says she had hoped for United Nations ambassador, special trade representative or even secretary of state. Instead Bush offered her the E.P.A., maybe because he thought Whitman was the best woman for the job, maybe because a few years of making everyone ''intensely mad'' would diminish her as a future rival.
Not long ago, Christie Todd Whitman was perhaps the brightest female star within the Republican Party. She rose to prominence in her home state, New Jersey, with her near-upset of the seemingly invincible Senator Bill Bradley in 1990, then won the statehouse in 1993 and 1997. Her Republican credentials are impeccable: the Todds being her father, Webster, a wealthy developer and adviser to Dwight Eisenhower, and her mother, Eleanor, a Republican national committeewoman; the Whitman being her husband, John, grandson to Charles Whitman Sr., Republican governor of New York. Whip smart, conservative on economics and liberal on social issues (including abortion), she seemed a dream come true for a Republican Party short on female talent.
Arriving at Trenton after her 1993 victory, Whitman declared New Jersey ''open for business,'' grumbled about environmental prosecution of developers and cut the enforcement staff of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. New Jersey was then recovering from the early-1990's mini-recession, making jobs a priority for voters, while the mostly conservative intellectual circles in which Whitman traveled were aggressively anti-environmental, viewing tree huggers as enemies of prosperity. John Weingart, then an official of the D.E.P. and now at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, says that early in her governorship Whitman ''gave the benefit of the doubt to anyone who had disputes with environmental rules.'' The protection-is-bad view would be so conclusively disproved by the combination of declining pollution and economic boom in the 1990's that today Whitman sounds almost indistinguishable from Al Gore when she says, ''Ecological protection and economic development can go hand in hand.''
As the 1990's progressed, the economy strengthened and polls increasingly showed that voters wanted environmental programs, Whitman began to realign herself. She backed plans to speed cleanup of toxic-waste sites, reduce water pollution, safeguard shorelines, even to ban dog-walking on Cape May beaches to protect the piping plover. She endorsed federal action against high-polluting Midwest power plants -- the very issue she must now tackle at E.P.A. Most impressive, she put together a $1.4 billion state bond issue to place one million acres of New Jersey land into preservation status.
Whitman then became interested in the reform of environmental law, which she views as ''effective but cumbersome and too obsessed with process instead of performance.'' In 1996 she gave the keynote speech at Yale for the Next Generation Project, a loose coalition of academics and environmental regulators who want to replace the unwieldy web of dozens of overlapping ecological strictures with a few simple rules that give companies broad authority to make their own decisions, as long as pollution declines. Whitman has stayed close to the Yale project, which represents the environmental center: it wants improved protection but says there are too many rules and not enough cost-benefit analysis.
On Earth Day 1996, Whitman took some students canoeing on Rancocas Creek in New Jersey for a conservation photo-op. Reporters shouted questions about a Yale-inspired reform she had just proposed, to simplify state water discharge permits. Whitman shouted back that, yes, in some cases it would allow companies to pollute, but overall, water pollution would decline. It was a bad public-relations move: several editorials depicted Whitman as canoeing a scenic river after signing paperwork favored by industry. ''This showed she was practicing green-scam, talking environmentalism and doing the opposite,'' says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Ultimately, however, nearly everything about the New Jersey environment got better under Whitman. Toxic emissions declined by half; days of dangerous smog levels declined by two-thirds. Thousands of toxic-waste sites and landfills were cleaned up. The Delaware River's health improved spectacularly. Recycling hit 60 percent, the best in the nation. But then, most environmental trends in most states were positive during the 1990's. Acid rain, a big issue of the first Bush presidency, has vanished from the political radar because acid-rain emissions went down so rapidly in the past decade. Whitman and Bush would come to Washington after a period in which all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases declined -- and yet polls show large pluralities believe pollution to be increasing. It's a recipe for unsettled politics.
As the 2000 elections approached, many expected Whitman -- barred by state law from seeking a third term as governor in 2001 -- to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Frank Lautenberg. Having nearly knocked off the popular Bill Bradley when she was still a virtual unknown, she might have seemed a shoo-in to defeat the Democratic political novice Jon Corzine. Whitman began preparing for a run, then stopped. She attributes her withdrawal to money, which Corzine rolled in. ''When I started raising money for the Senate I went to 50 fund-raisers in just one month.'' she says. ''How was I supposed to do the governor's job?''
But there was also the real chance that if Whitman ran for the Senate she would have lost, possibly badly. Both her statehouse victories came by one-point margins over weak opponents. And throughout the 1990's, New Jersey grew increasingly Democratic; Gore would take the state in a walkover, and Corzine won despite minimal qualifications. Whitman had yet another incentive to get out of New Jersey politics -- to stay one step ahead of the posse. She had enacted state tax cuts, and the fiscal bill was about to come due. Remaining in the statehouse for the final year of her term would have forced Whitman to deal with a budget mess -- to say nothing of a racial-profiling mess, a lying-judge mess and the latest New Jersey auto-insurance mess. Perhaps that Metroliner ride to Washington would be appealing, even for a hot-seat post.
Whitman came to Washington determined to make the best of the office she merely ''took.'' She steeped herself in environmental arcana, phrases like ''combined sewer overflow'' and ''mercury deposition'' tripping off her lips. She vowed to work with enthusiasm, almost like a candidate -- she has already traveled to all of the E.P.A.'s 10 regions and met with dozens of green and brown (corporate) groups, from the League of American Bicyclists to the National Pork Producers Council.
But Whitman had scarcely been confirmed when she had her first wind-dummy experience. She flew to Trieste on Feb. 28 to meet the G8 environmental ministers and there declared that the Bush administration supported mandatory reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions, a commitment of the Kyoto global-warming treaty negotiated by the Clinton administration. Whitman did not clear her comments with the White House but did know that a Bush position paper said he favored carbon dioxide controls. Whitman flew home from Italy, and a week later Bush announced that he was abandoning such controls and called Kyoto ''fatally flawed.'' International commentary called Whitman humiliated, cuckolded; every pundit in America spun out a column on how bad she looked. Greg Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council said Whitman ''suffered the most immediate and visible loss of clout ever for a cabinet officer.'' Some editorial pages called on her to resign.
Whitman appealed to Bush to change his mind on Kyoto; she is the highest-ranking office holder ever to lead the E.P.A., and, as a fellow former governor, someone who can look the president in the eye. She wrote a passionate memo that someone leaked, to embarrass her. She has since talked to Bush many times about global warming at cabinet meetings but has never met with him alone on the subject. So far, she has won only his commitment that ''America needs to have something that we are for.'' The idea that something must be done about greenhouse gases -- either through Kyoto or through an American domestic initiative -- has won prominent supporters close to Bush, including Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the deputy chief of staff, Josh Bolten, and the White House policy advisers Gary Edson and John Bridgeland, two moderates. The internal White House working group on climate change has been more or less taken over by Rice, to whom Whitman now speaks at least once a week, Rice having become her main contact within the administration's inner circle. That the right has begun to censure members of the global-warming team is a sure sign it is making progress with Bush; the columnist Robert Novak recently blasted the group for ''pressing the president to look more and more like Al Gore.'' Whitman or Powell or both may attend a Kyoto conference in Morocco this fall, and they won't go unless they have something to announce.
While commentary focused on the Greenhouse flip-flop, from Whitman's perspective the question was where it left her leadership. Whitman says that when Bush offered her the job at E.P.A., he told her the administration's ecology policy-making role would be hers alone. ''I asked him what the role for the Council on Environmental Quality would be,'' Whitman says, referring to the White House advisory organization, ''and he said: 'I don't even know what that is. I want you to be the environmental person.' ''
Defeated for the moment on global warming, Whitman decided to take the president at his word and make environmental decisions on her own. Her next big move: postponing a regulation limiting arsenic in the water supply.
Coming just a week after the Kyoto flip-flop, Whitman's arsenic decision seemed to confirm the worst suspicions about the new administration. News accounts featured adjectives like ''stunned'' and ''outraged.'' In a typical comment, Bill Press of CNN declared that the administration had ''declared war on the environment.'' News reports all pointed out that the National Academy of Sciences had conclusively shown a need to reduce arsenic levels. And though she had not actually canceled arsenic protection, but rather held for review a rule that wouldn't have taken effect until 2006, she concedes that it was ''a dumb decision on my part politically, really dumb.'' Whitman adds that the dumbness was hers alone. Per her portfolio, she did not consult anyone in the White House; they learned of the decision in the newspaper, like everyone else. ''Politically, I should have just let it go and allowed the courts to decide,'' Whitman says. Had she not held the arsenic rule, municipal water agencies would have sued to block it. Years hence a judge would have imposed a settlement, and the judiciary would have taken the blame for any faults in the outcome.
Following the one-two punch of kyoto and arsenic, conventional wisdom assumed that Whitman really had, as Bill Press put it, ''declared war on the environment.'' Yet the majority of her official acts so far have been to uphold Clinton-Browner positions. Whitman imposed the maximum Hudson River cleanup. She has put into effect powerful new rules on wetlands protection and pesticide reduction. She endorsed Clinton's extremely strict standard for ground-water protection at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site. She upheld a rule requiring power plants upwind of national parks to reduce emissions until the parks are clear. She signed a treaty banning dangerous ''persistent organic'' chemicals found in pesticides. Cheney notwithstanding, she has issued orders that Midwestern power plants reduce emissions.
Most important, Whitman mandated that refineries alter diesel fuel to remove pollutants. A principal reason smog is declining is that gasoline has been reformulated to remove pollutants; Whitman's order extends the standard to diesel fuel. This is significant because public-health studies have shown diesel pollutants to be leading factors in both asthma and premature deaths from respiratory diseases. But hardly anyone knows Whitman took this action, imposed over the protests of the oil industry, Bush's core constituency. The way in which it was announced reflects how tone-deaf the administration is regarding the environment. The diesel rule received no political rollout, perhaps because it was started under Clinton, and the White House has shown great difficulty in saying anything that boils down to ''Clinton was right about this.''
Another missed political chance came a few weeks ago, when Whitman offhandedly told a Senate hearing that she was working on a Yale-style proposal to simplify the rules involving reduction of emissions from power plants. Multiple, overlapping sets of rules would be replaced by a single standard that simply required overall pollution from power production to decline, but left it up to plant managers to figure out the details and authorized them to trade emissions rights in search of the cheapest solutions. This is the approach that has worked so well at cutting acid rain. But the plan was given a feeble name, the ''multipollutant approach,'' which makes it seem as if the E.P.A. favors a greater variety of pollutants. With gazes fixed on wedge issues and the 2002 vote, Democrats have already begun calling Whitman's idea another ''rollback.''
Will Whitman become isolated as the moderate, abortion-rights representative in a mainly conservative administration? She bristles at this question, pointing out that fellow cabinet officers like Gale Norton, secretary of the interior, and Ann Veneman, secretary of agriculture -- Whitman has lunch with them monthly -- are also in favor of abortion rights, ''and you never hear anything about that.'' She has learned from her experience with Kyoto, however, to listen more closely to the White House's script. After initially playing down the idea of conservation, the administration, especially the vice president, has recently been emphasizing it. So Whitman has adjusted her schedule to spend more time talking about E.P.A.'s Energy Star program, which endorses products that reduce energy use. She has not campaigned for greenhouse rules in public, a la John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, so as not to open a split with the president. Some part of her may sense inevitable confrontation, however. Asked how long she expects to stay at E.P.A., Whitman says that the president has her resignation letter in his desk. Reminded that it is tradition for cabinet officers to file an undated resignation letter, she explains, ''What I mean is, I've told him that if I have to go he shouldn't think I would make it awkward.''
For some reason deeply seated in the party's psyche -- maybe that it simply cannot bring itself to admit that regulations are sometimes good for us -- Republicans keep failing to come to terms with environmental sentiment. Environmentalism is to Republicans what defense is to Democrats: the issue they just don't know how to deal with and really, really wish would go away. Bush is only the latest Republican leader to stumble on the environment, and Christie Whitman is trying to change that. But she may well end up tossed out of the plane just to see where she lands.
Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at The New Republic and at Beliefnet and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.