When U.S. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman left the agency in 2003, she said she wanted to “spend more time with her family.” If you believed that, Bernard Kerik‘s got a tax-free nanny he’d like to sell you.
Those skeptical of Whitman’s resignation excuse may soon have their suspicions confirmed. It seems she quit because she was hoodwinked and hamstrung by her superiors. Unable to implement her agenda at EPA, she was effectively captaining a ship that was on permanent autopilot.
Such is the implication of Whitman’s new political memoir-cum-manifesto It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America, due to hit bookstores on Jan. 27.
Enviros may be disappointed to find the EPA dish rather scanty — only one chapter is devoted to her experiences at the agency. The rest of the book examines the “rightward lurch” of the GOP under the Bush administration, which is causing a rift between moderate and hard-right Republicans along several fault lines, the environment chief among them. Whitman fears this rift could threaten the long-term viability of the Republican Party.
The thesis is compelling, particularly coming from a woman long dismissed as a Bush loyalist who quit with her tail between her legs rather than stand up for her principles. But don’t expect a scathing tell-all.
True to Whitman’s conflict-averse nature, her book is decidedly gentler in its Bush bashing than the exposés published by other ex-admin officials, such as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, whose story in The Price of Loyalty (written by Ron Suskind) contains a damning behind-the-scenes view of the guarded management of the Bush White House, and former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, whose Against All Enemies lays bare the administration’s inept handling of pre-9/11 counterterrorism efforts.
Whitman doesn’t go so far as to skewer her former employers — she jabs them, gingerly, even as she reveals behavior that deserves real skewering. For instance, take the moment when President Bush reversed his campaign promise to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions and then asked her to take the heat. Or the moment when the president pulled out of Kyoto without agreeing to pursue a compromise, making her a laughingstock among environmental ministers worldwide. Or the moment when the White House refused to give her the authority to investigate the safety of the thousands of chemical facilities in America vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Or the pressures she felt from above to weaken the new-source review clause of the Clean Air Act: “People became focused on reforming NSR, with some intent on getting rid of it altogether. The vice president seemed particularly eager about the issue, and he called me on several occasions, even tracking me down when I was on vacation in Colorado, to press his view [on] NSR reform.”
Most revealing of all, perhaps, is her description of her appointment to serve on the Dick Cheney‘s energy task force, “an eye-opening encounter with just how obsessed so many of those in the energy industry, and in the Republican Party, have become with doing away with environmental regulation.”
But never once does she express anger — nor, stranger still, voice opposition to the powers that be. The book’s title, It’s My Party Too, seems to imply that Whitman will cry if she wants to, yet the book itself — like Whitman’s EPA tenure — contains barely a whimper. There’s more defense than offense in her eagerly anticipated counterattack.
Things get particularly confusing when Whitman gives the benefit of the doubt to the very people who drove her to throw in the towel: “The Bush administration deserves credit for some important environmental measures, including … committing to increasing wetlands in the United States, and tackling mercury emissions from power plants” (though environmentalists have found plenty on which to fault the admin in these two areas).
Even harder to swallow is her claim that Bush has a real grasp of the climate crisis: “The ultimate irony in all this was that the president did truly believe that global climate change was a significant problem,” she writes, adding that he’s earmarked more funding for climate-change research than any previous administration (a blatant stall tactic, say critics, to avoid actually addressing the problem).
When Whitman does express disapproval, it’s in wistful, pinched passages such as the following: “I thought we had an opportunity really to accomplish something,” she writes. “To leave America’s air cleaner, its water purer, and its land better protected than we had found it. That belief was short-lived.”
Here’s another doozy: “Karl Rove told me … that I would be one of just three cabinet officers who would help determine whether the president would be reelected. I took Rove to mean that the work I would do in building a strong record on the environment would help the president build on his base by attracting moderate swing voters. As it turned out, I don’t seem to have understood Karl correctly.”
Readers encountering passages like these may be understandably overwhelmed by the “duh!” factor. That said, Whitman’s emotional restraint is effective in the way a 19th century British romance novel is effective: The reader is so deprived of climactic moments that even a clipped expression of disappointment is strangely gratifying — like the instant when elbows brush, or a gentleman sees a lady’s ankle exposed and swoons.
Really, what more could one expect from a woman descended from a family that is, as she describes it, “the embodiment of what was once known as the Republican eastern establishment”? The GOP pedigree of Whitman’s family, the Todds, is up there with the Rockefellers and the Bushes themselves.
Herein lies the power of Whitman’s book, according to Jim DiPeso, policy director at Republicans for Environmental Protection. “She’s the farthest thing from a malcontent or an upstart. She has always played her political cards very cautiously because she has deep roots and credibility in the GOP,” he told Muckraker. “Obviously it goes counter to her personality to publish something like this.”
What Whitman lacks in a pointed, specific attack on Bush’s environmental policies, she makes up for with her broader argument: “We stand at a historic juncture in American politics, a critical crossroads for both the Republican Party and for the nation.” She condemns the Bush administration for embracing “social fundamentalism,” which she says wrongly tramples on the personal right of Republicans to be pro-choice, advocate stem-cell research, and support gay marriage. And she argues that right-wing ideology flouts the deeply rooted Republican ethos of conservation.
Eric Schaeffer, the former EPA enforcement chief who quit during Whitman’s tenure to protest the Bush administration’s efforts to weaken his division, is one of the few EPA expats who has gotten his hands on an advance copy of the memoir. He has mixed feelings about it, but says it validates his complaints. “On the one hand, I felt like ‘Where were you when we needed you? Why didn’t you stand up to them when they bullied you around? Why didn’t you quit in protest?,’” he told Muckraker. “On the other, I felt like she did a very brave thing [in writing the book]. I never expected her to stand up and lay it on the table, to confirm what a lot of people inside the agency and out have been saying the past four years. It’s good to have her on our side of the battle.”
Given the timing of the book — which was slated to be published after the presidential election, concurrent with the inauguration — Whitman clearly had no intention of trying to prevent Bush’s reelection. In fact, she campaigned for him.
But it seems she wants to ally herself with moderates like Arizona Sen. John McCain, New York Gov. George Pataki, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (all pro-environment), staking her reputation and political future on the hopes that they will remake the Republican Party in 2008. This, at least, no environmentalist would begrudge her.