From the beginning, Al Gore was fully in synch with the Clinton two-step on the environment. The first environmental promise Al Gore made in the 1992 campaign, he soon broke. It involved the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, built on a floodplain near the Ohio River. The plant, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was scheduled to burn 70,000 tons of hazardous waste a year in a spot only 350 feet from the nearest house. A few hundred yards away is East Elementary School, which sits on a ridge nearly eye-level with the top of the smokestack.
On July 19, 1992, Gore gave one of his first campaign speeches on the environment—across the river from the incinerator site, in Weirton, West Virginia. He hammered the Bush Administration for its plans to give the toxic waste burner a federal air permit. “The very idea is just unbelievable to me,” Gore said. “I’ll tell you this, a Clinton-Gore Administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We’ll be on your side for a change.” Clinton made similar pronouncements on his swing through the Buckeye State.
Shortly after the election, Gore assured neighbors of the incinerator that he hadn’t forgotten about them. “Serious questions concerning the safety of the East Liverpool, Ohio hazardous waste incinerator must be answered before the plant may begin operation,” Gore wrote. “The new Clinton/Gore administration will not issue the plant a test burn permit until all questions concerning compliance with the plant have been answered.”
But that never happened. Instead, the EPA quietly granted the WTI facility its test burn permit. The tests failed twice. In one, the incinerator eradicated only 7 percent of the mercury found in the waste when it was supposed to burn away 99.9 percent. A few weeks later, the EPA granted WTI a commercial permit anyway. They didn’t tell the public about the failed tests until afterward.
Gore claimed his hands were tied by the Bush Administration, who had promised WTI the permit only a few weeks before the Clinton team took office. But by one account, William Reilly, Bush’s EPA director, met with Gore’s top environmental aide, Katie McGinty, in January 1993 and asked her if he should begin the process of approving the permit. He says McGinty told him to proceed. McGinty said later that she had no recollection of the meeting.
Gore persisted in maintaining that there was nothing he could do about it once the permit was granted. A 1994 report on the matter from the General Accounting Office flatly contradicted him, saying the plant could be shut down on numerous grounds, including repeated violations of its permit.
“This was Clinton and Gore’s first environmental promise, and it was their first promise-breaker,” says Terri Swearington, a registered nurse from Chester, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River from the incinerator. Swearington, who won the Goldman Prize in 1997 for her work organizing opposition to WTI, has hounded Gore ever since, and during the 2000 campaign she was banned by Gore staffers from appearing at events featuring the vice president.
The decision to go soft on WTI may have had something to do with its powerful financial backer. The construction of the incinerator was partially financed by Jackson Stephens, the Arkansas investment king who helped bankroll the Clinton-Gore campaign. According to EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, during the period when the WTI financing package was being put together, Stephens Inc. was represented by Webb Hubble (who later came into Clinton’s justice department and was indicted during the Whitewater investigation) and the Rose law firm (to which Hillary Clinton belonged). Over the ensuing seven years, the WTI plant has burned nearly a half-million tons of toxic waste—5,000 truckloads of toxic material every year—spewing chemicals such as mercury, lead, and dioxin out of its stacks and onto the surrounding neighborhoods. The inevitable illnesses have followed.
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On other crucial matters, Clinton cynically deployed Gore to split environmentalists and thus advance pro-business policies, as in the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The environmental defects of NAFTA were manifold and had helped to energize broad opposition to the agreement. When it looked like the pact might go down, Gore pledged to Clinton that he could wrest an endorsement of the trade deal from top environmental groups.
Gore turned first to his long-time friend Jay Hair, who proved the perfect person to marshal support for NAFTA. He was, after all, the self-proclaimed leader of the Gang of Ten, executives of the ten largest environmental outfits, including his own National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, World Wildlife Fund, League of Conservation Voters, Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth. The Gang met six times a year in such pleasing settings as Kodiak, Alaska; Telluride, Colorado; Jackson, Wyoming; and the beaches of Belize.
Hair knew he could sell the other eco-executives on the meager environmental provisions in NAFTA, so he outlined the political calculus at work. Hair said the greens’ endorsement would buy the administration’s backing for high priority environmental reforms, such as protections of ancient forests, reform of mining law and strengthening of the Endangered Species Act.
The more conservative and policy-oriented groups speedily aligned themselves behind Hair, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlilfe Fund, Nature Conservancy, Conservation Foundation and the National Audubon Society.
When the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth refused to endorse NAFTA and instead joined the opposition, Hair dashed off threatening letters to the executives of both organizations, accusing them of treachery.
In the end, the resistance of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth didn’t matter. The groups assembled by Hair were more than enough for the purposes of Clinton and Gore. Days after the trade deal squeaked through Congress, John Adams, head of NRDC, claimed credit, boasting about “breaking the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA.”
A few months later the famous environmental “side accords” to NAFTA were formally declared to be worthless.
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What we now recognize as “the Gore style” was fashioned in the earliest days of his political career. The young congressman picked out safe issues on which to cut a posture. He’d fully digested the lessons of his own masters’ thesis, that television had shifted the balance of power from the Congress to the Executive branch. He became a zealous promoter of TV cameras in Congress and contrived to be the first to speak to those cameras from the House floor. Characteristically, his premier message concerned the therapeutic value of filming House proceedings on a day-to-day basis: “It is a solution for the lack of confidence in government.” Anyone who has watched C-Span for the past twenty years would surely come to precisely the opposite conclusion.
Gore would seize on an issue that could be easily exported to the Sunday talk shows, such as children’s nightwear treated with Tris, a flame retardant that turned out to be carcinogenic. Those particular hearings in May of 1977 were the first to bring young Rep. Gore onto the network news shows, and he made full use of the opportunity. “Did it trouble you,” he howled theatrically at one industry executive, “that the children of this country might have tumors, carcinogenic or otherwise, produced by the chemical that would be used in all this sleepwear?”
From perilous nightwear he turned his attention to infant formula, another sure-fire TV grabber, where he and the shapely Tipper discoursed on the virtues of breastfeeding. On the heels of fiery sermons against Nestlé for its infant formula, came Gore’s efforts to enact a national organ transplant database. This talent for converting minor issues into major TV opportunities was no doubt what prompted Gore’s enthusiasm for Clinton’s pollster Dick Morris when the latter arrived to bail out the Clinton White House in l995 and l996.
“Around Washington he’s what we call ‘a glory boy,’” a Democratic Party insider told Gore Vidal. “He gets to the House and starts running for the Senate. He gets to the Senate and starts running for the White House. There’s no time left to do any of the real work the rest of us have to do.”
The legislative venue for Gore’s grandstanding was the House Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigation. Gore had lobbied strongly to be appointed to this subcommittee, correctly assaying its screen-time potential. In short order he developed an inquisitorial style, matched off the floor by his mercilessly abusive treatment of his staff. His sponsor was the powerful Michigan Democrat John Dingell, the auto industry’s greatest friend on Capitol Hill and, later, the most virulent opponent of clean air legislation. Dingell can himself be a merciless interrogator and evidently saw Gore’s potential. Gore would describe himself later as Dingell’s spear-carrier.
Gore’s skills at self-promotion carried his name into the news and afforded him a certain national reputation as a crusading liberal. But at the substantive legislative level Gore remained emphatically on the center-right. Take the issue that perhaps defines the Democratic Party’s social mission more than any other: labor rights. In the dawn of the Carter presidency, with Democrats controlling both houses, a bill came before the House aimed at expanding unions’ picketing rights. Famously in America, one has the right to strike (barely), but not the right to win, because picketing—a vital component of any serious strike—is so circumscribed by legal restrictions it is effectively useless as a coercive tool in many fights with employers. So this vote was a big one. The AFL-CIO felt confident of victory, but it missed the fact that newly arrived Democrats like Gore felt no loyalty to labor and were intent on advertising that disposition to their business contributors. Gore provided one of the crucial votes that turned back labor’s bill.
As a House member Gore was virtually a poster boy for the National Rifle Association. In 1978 he voted to block funding for the implementation of new federal handgun regulations, explaining many years later that, “when I represented a rural farm district in the House of Representatives there wasn’t a problem [with handguns] perceived by my constituents.” In 1985, after he had moved from representing the crackers in the 4th District to being the junior senator for all the people of Tennessee, he voted for what the NRA called “the most significant pro-gunners’ bill in the last quarter-century”…
As a Congressman, Gore spoke of his belief in “the fetus’ right to life.” He was a relentless supporter of the Hyde amendment, which banned federal funding for abortions for poor women. In one early version of Hyde’s bill, there was language allowing exceptions to the ban in the case of rape. Gore voted against that.
The most far reaching of all the measures dreamed up by the conservative right to undercut Roe v. Wade was an amendment put forward by a Michigan Republican, Mark Siljander, in 1984. It carried a one-two punch. First, it defined the fetus as a person from the moment of conception. Second, it denied federal funding to any hospital or clinic that performed an abortion. Gearing up for his Senate run that year, Gore was one of seventy-four Democrats to vote for Siljander’s ultimately unsuccessful measure.
Those votes returned to haunt Gore as his political ambitions went national and he bid for more support than he’d ever needed in the 4th District or even the entire Volunteer State. By 1988 he was brazenly rewriting his political biography. He and his staff were well aware that his votes against choice—only four years earlier—would be brought up by his opponents. “Since there’s a record of that vote,” an aide told US News & World Report in March of 1988, “what we have to do is deny, deny, deny.”
The problem returned briefly in 1992 and again in the Democratic primaries in 2000, when Bill Bradley, challenging Gore for the nomination, used the occasion of a debate in the Apollo Theater in Harlem, to flourish and then read out a letter Gore had written to a Tennessee constituent in 1984, in which had stated: “It is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong. I hope that some day we will see the current outrageously large number of abortions drop sharply. Let me assure you that I share your belief that innocent human life must be protected and I have an open mind on how to further this goal.”
When confronted with contradictions between his pretensions and his deeds, Gore reflexively performs a ritual of numbed incantation. “I believe a woman ought to have the right to choose,” he kept repeating to his interlocutors in 1992, and he did the same thing at the Apollo in 2000. Someone less rigid could have said, “Look, I’ve evolved.” Freed from his lawyers, Bill Clinton can go through such a routine effortlessly. But Gore, the perfect child of demanding parents, can never admit error, even in retrospect. In 1988, even as both Al and Tipper issued their fabrications about their use of marijuana, Tipper said, “It was either admit it or lie, and we would never lie.”
One unlovely hoof print after another tracks its way across Gore’s legislative voting record. In the 1980s, when the IRS proposed new regulations denying tax-exempt status to private schools that barred black students, Gore was among those in Congress who tried to undermine the regulations.
Likewise, in Gore’s supposed devotion to the environment, there has always been a vast rift between stirring proclamation and legislative reality. Back in the late 1970s, two of the hottest environmental battles concerned the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and the Tellico Dam, both within the purview of the TVA. As it was planned, the Clinch River reactor was not only a $3 billion boondoggle of the first water, but was also destabilizing in terms of the arms race, since it was scheduled to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The Congressional battle over the planned reactor stretched from the mid-1970s to 1983, when, amid growing national disquiet about nuclear power, it went down to defeat.
Gore was a fanatic defender of the reactor, the most ardent of all the Tennessee House delegation. When the Republicans briefly captured the Senate in 1981, the senior senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker, became majority leader and made protection of the Clinch River project one of his priorities. He and Gore kept the fight going until the end. Arkansas’ Senator, Dale Bumpers, gave an entertaining account of this in a 1997 speech: “I remember in 1981, Republicans took over this place and Howard Baker, the senator from Tennessee and one of the finest men ever to serve in this body, became majority leader. I was trying to keep any additional nuclear plants from being licensed—and it was not a tough chore. A lot of people had made up their minds at that point that the nuclear option was not a good one. I fought for about four years to kill the Clinch River Breeder. But I was up against the majority leader. And as everybody here knows, as the old revenuer said, when they announced United States v. Jones, he turned to his lawyer and said, “Them don’t sound like very fair odds to me.” And it was not very fair odds to go up against the majority leader on the Clinch River Breeder, which was going to be built in his beloved Tennessee. Howard Baker could always just pull out that one extra vote he needed. The vote was always close, but you are majority leader, you know, you can just call somebody over and say, ‘I need your vote,’ and you usually get it. Finally, one year I was ahead by about six or seven votes as the votes were being cast, and I think Senator Baker decided that he was done for, and he turned everybody loose that had committed to him [those] who did not really like the idea of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and only voted for it to accommodate him. He turned them loose, and I think we won that day by about seventy to thirty. Happily, that was the end of the Clinch River Breeder.”
In 1984, Al Gore took Baker’s Senate seat and, over the next eight years, voted for the nuclear lobby 55 percent of the time. As vice president and author of Earth in the Balance (which stays fairly mute on the topic of nuclear power) Gore, along with his former legislative staffer, Energy Department Assistant Secretary Thomas Grumbly, tried to bring the Clinch River scheme to life again as the Fast Flux Test Facility in the Hanford nuclear reservation in the State of Washington.
Then there was the Tellico Dam, the first big test of America’s greatest environmental law, the Endangered Species Act. A law passed in 1973 during the Nixon presidency, which also saw creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The dam, on the Little Tennessee River, was 95 percent complete when biologists discovered the imperiled snail darter species still clinging on in the stretches of the river that were to become the reservoir behind the dam. Environmentalists brought suit against the dam project, and eventually the Supreme Court ruled that the Endangered Species Act required that the dam not be completed.
The Little Tennessee was one of the few wild rivers left in the state unmolested by the TVA. The dam wasn’t needed for flood control and wouldn’t generate power. All it would do was store water and divert it to another dam nearby. The recreation benefits were negative, since the Little Tennessee was a famous trout stream and popular with canoeists. In fact, the only purposes of the dam were to line the pockets of the cement producers and construction nabobs of Tennessee, and to afford an amenity for the “Timberlake” community being planned by Boeing. As Mark Reisner puts it in his book Cadillac Desert, “It was like deciding to put a 50,000 seat Superdome in the middle of Wyoming and then building a city of 150,000 around it to justify its existence.”
Shocked that the Act could threaten huge pork barrel projects, the very lifeblood of Congress, the legislators set up the so-called “God Squad,” which would pass judgment on species-endangering schemes, using cost-benefit analysis as the standard. In the case of the snail darter, the God Squad, led by economist Charles Schultze, did its homework. “Here is a project that is 95 percent complete,” Schultze concluded, “and if one takes just the cost of finishing it against the benefits, it doesn’t pay.”
The fight over the snail darter was fierce and bitter because the stakes were so high. If the pro-dam forces could win a waiver of the Endangered Species Act here, then such a waiver would inevitably be the first of many. Gore was among the leaders in the effort to get this waiver, and in the end Congress exempted the dam from compliance and overturned the Supreme Court’s injunction. As the defenders of the snail darter predicted, the path to destruction of the Endangered Species Act now lay open, and first down that path had been none other than Al Gore.
After he and the other pork-barrelers got the vote that exempted the dam, Gore announced triumphantly, “It was unfortunate that the controversy over the snail darter was used to delay completion of the dam after it was virtually finished. I am glad the Congress has now ended this controversy once and for all.”
How Gore, Howard Baker, and James Duncan (the Republican Congressman in whose district the dam was located) consummated their awful victory was vividly described by Representative Bob Edgar, a Democrat from suburban Philadelphia: He recounts how on June 18, 1979, Gore and his colleague Duncan pushed through, as a rider to the appropriations bill, a measure allowing the Tellico Dam to go forward. “Duncan walked in waving a piece of paper. He said, ‘Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker! I have an amendment to offer to the public works appropriation bill.’ Tom Bevill and John Myers [two dreadful reps] of the Appropriations Committee both happened to be there. I wonder why. Bevill says, ‘I’ve seen the amendment. It’s good.’ Myers says, ‘I’ve seen the amendment. It’s a good one.’ And that was that. It was approved by voice vote! No one even knew what they were voting for! They were voting to exempt Tellico Dam from all laws! They punched a loophole big enough to shove a $100 million dam through it, and then they scattered threats all through Congress so that we couldn’t muster the votes to shove it back out. I tried—lots of people tried—but we couldn’t get that rider out of the bill. The speeches I heard on the floor were the angriest I’ve heard in elective office. They got their dam. That is the democratic process at work.”
The foes of the dam had one last hope, that President Jimmy Carter would veto the bill. But Carter too was bushwhacked. The Baker-Gore forces threatened to withhold support for the Panama Canal Treaty, which Carter was fighting for at the time.
Gore supported a scheme to transplant some of the snail darters to the nearby Hiwassee and Holston rivers, where they survived. But the larger damage was done. As David Brower, America’s greatest environmentalist, said in retrospect, “This was the beginning of the end of the Endangered Species Act.” After the snail darter came other species and other waivers, the most notorious of them engineered under the auspices of Vice President Gore. In the Pacific Northwest the spotted owl and marbled murrelet, in the Southeast the red-cockaded woodpecker, in Southern California the gnatcatcher—all were as chaff under the chariot wheels of the timber and real estate industries, who successfully lobbied the vice president and his minions for the all-important waivers. Like refugees in wartime, imperiled species were assigned one holding pen after another, issued temporary “safe” passes, while Gore’s appointments in the Interior Department and the Council on Environmental Quality felt the heat from developers and timber barons and crumbled.
The way American politics works, it took a reputed environmentalist to destroy America’s best environmental law. In l98l, there wasn’t a major environmental group in the country that didn’t bugle its frantic alarums at the approach of the Reaganauts and that Beelzebub of the greens, James Watt, Reagan’s Interior Secretary. The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, National Audubon, the Natural Resources Defense Council, all raised millions of dollars on the specter of Watt and the havoc he would wreak on environmental regulations. In fact, the pathetic and maladroit Watt never stood a chance. He set back the cause of environmental pillage by at least a decade.
But when Watt was gone and Reagan was gone and Bush was gone, the Democratic “greens” came back to power, and they accomplished triumphs that the Republicans had never dared dream possible. Gore, who had reinvented himself as an environmentalist, largely on the basis of Earth in the Balance, was embraced by the Big Green organizations. They used his entirely mythical green credentials as a way of getting their membership to overlook Bill Clinton’s own adversarial relationship with nature while he was governor of Arkansas.
Yet consider Gore’s record by Big Green’s own criteria. Like all the major environmental organizations, the League of Conservation Voters functions as an outrider for the Democratic National Committee, and its annual ratings of Congress members are notoriously skewed against Republicans. Gore’s lifetime rating from the League is 64 percent, meaning he was in sync with the League’s positions two-thirds of the time. This is not much when you look at such green stars of the League as Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tim Wirth of Colorado, George Miller of California, or even a Republican like the late John Chafee of Rhode Island, all of whom were consistently ranked in the 90s. The League’s rating of Gore in his House years ran at an average of about 55 percent, with one year down at 30 percent, which put him in harness with such world-class predators as Don Young of Alaska.
Gore didn’t make many friends in the House, but his propensity to techno-flatulence (e.g., “The government is just a big software program”) soon prompted him to sniff out a kindred soul in the form of a pudgy young Congressman from suburban Atlanta who had a marvelous facility for rotund phrase-making on any issue to hand. From the time he was first elected, in 1978, Newt Gingrich was positioning himself with precisely the same blend of opportunism, albeit at a noisier level, as Al Gore was.
The two consecrated their amity in a group called the Congressional Clearing House on the Future. They met monthly, published a newsletter and hosted lectures by futurists and pop scientists including, Carl Sagan and Alvin Toffler. But these monthly klatches were not enough to satiate Gore and Gingrich’s passions for heady chat about meta-technical trends, artificial intelligence, the population bomb, and extraterrestrial life (Gore believes ardently that We Are Not Alone). The two would meet for dinner at each other’s houses. Poor Tipper, hoping for a romantic candle-lit evening with her spouse, would open the door to see the beaming, porcine features of the rising Republican star from Georgia on the doorstep. The relationship didn’t end when Gore reached the Senate. In fact, in 1985, he and Gingrich co-authored a bill titled the Critical Trends Assessment Act. The legislation called for the creation of a White House Office on Futurism (WHOOF) to “study the effects of government policies on critical trends and alternative futures.” In his career in Congress, Gore was rarely the principal author of a bill. This was an exception, albeit a doomed one. Although the two battled for WHOOF strenuously, it never went anywhere.
Soon after his arrival in Congress, Gore formed the Vietnam Veterans Caucus with John Murtaugh, Jim Jones, and Les Aspin. For Gore, the caucus opened up a useful avenue into hawkish Democratic circles, where men like Aspin and Sam Nunn were doing the Pentagon’s work, proclaiming that “Vietnam Syndrome” was sabotaging the nation’s vital sinews. Gore picked up the lingo quickly enough: “I think it is important to realize that we do have interests in the world that are important enough to defend, to stand up for. And we should not be so burned by the tragedy of Vietnam that we fail to recognize an interest that requires the assertion of force.”
With such language, Gore established himself early on as “safe” from the point of view of the Pentagon and the national security complex. Safety meant never straying off the reservation on such issues as America’s right to intervene anywhere it chooses. Gore backed Reagan’s disastrous deployment of US Marines in Lebanon in 1983. He supported the invasion of that puissant Caribbean threat to the United States (population 240 million) by Grenada (population 80,000). He later chided his 1988 Democratic opponents for their failure to embrace this noble enterprise. At a time when many Democrats wanted to restrict the CIA’s ability to undertake covert actions, Gore said he wouldn’t “hesitate to overthrow a government with covert actions,” a posture he ratified with his approval of the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan. This, the largest covert operation in the Agency’s history, ultimately saddled Afghanistan with the Taliban fundamentalists, destroyers of cities, stoners of women, harborers of Bin Laden, and overseers of that country’s rise in status to the eminence of world’s largest exporter of opium and heroin to the United States and Europe.
To be continued.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.