The Stephen Johnson story
Anyone interested in understanding not only Bush’s environmental legacy but the Bush Era simply must carve out the time to read "Smoke and Mirrors," a blockbuster series on the EPA put together by Philadelphia Inquirer. Go. Read it.
There’s too much in it for a facile blog summary, but I do want to comment one aspect of the main piece, about EPA administrator Stephen Johnson.
The most amazing thing to me about Johnson’s frequently amazing tenure at EPA is just how wrong everybody was about him. When Johnson was first chosen to replace Michael Leavitt as EPA administrator, enviros fairly showered him with praise. Check out these quotes from Amanda’s "Let Us Now Praise Innocuous Men":
"A spectacularly good appointment," said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group. "We welcome the nomination," said Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters. "[A] good sign," said Phil Clapp of National Environmental Trust. "[T]he best we could expect," said Carl Pope of the Sierra Club.
He ascended the agency ladder swiftly under the watch of Carol Browner, who headed the EPA during the Clinton administration. "I promoted him several times, into very important positions in the pesticides and toxics office," Browner told Muckraker. "I don’t know if Johnson is a Democrat or Republican, but he’s a very green guy, a truly committed environmentalist, from my experience." He didn’t shy away from enforcing tough standards, safeguarding public health, and taking action against chemical companies when needed, said Browner.
"One is almost left to wonder," she added, "if the Bush administration knew just how deep his commitment is to these issues when they decided that he was their man."
It turns out the Bush administration knew exactly how deep Johnson’s commitment ran: not very. As chief White House environment adviser James L. Connaughton put it, "He has done as we would have expected and hoped" — and what the White House expected and hoped was that that Johnson would carry our their ideological orders.
As you read through the Inquirer‘s piece, what emerges is a man uniquely susceptible to the messianism and persecution complex of the executive branch under Bush. As he made the transition from bureaucratic functionary to Important Personage, he got caught up in a dynamic Bush himself personifies: As critics attacked his decisions, he simply disengaged and took to viewing himself as a martyr. This gives a flavor:
"There are times when you feel like you are in the fiery furnace, but I also know that for me, personally, I answer to a much higher calling," Johnson said.
He rarely grants in-depth interviews, and during this tumultuous year he largely has limited media interaction to brief telephone news conferences.
"People don’t really know me," he said.
He is, he said, as misunderstood as Bush.
This is quite accurate: he is as misunderstood as Bush, which is to say, he’s not misunderstood at all — he misunderstands himself. His self-conception is one thing; his actions reveal another. He is able to justify and compartmentalize for himself, but his critics see his deeds and draw the obvious conclusions.
Not to get all Marxy, but Johnson seems like your standard-issue false consciousness bolstered by deep religiosity (that should have been been on Bush administration business cards). It turns out Johnson’s degree is from an religious college that teaches creationism alongside biology. Asked about it he says, "It’s not a clean-cut division. If you have studied at all creationism vs. evolution, there’s theistic or God-controlled evolution and there’s variations on all those themes." Mm hm.
One friend says Johnson’s faith "gives him a sense of confidence in himself." But "confidence" isn’t the right word. More like immunity. It gives him armor to deflect accountability for his decisions and his record. If critics understood him, they’d understand that he’s a God-fearing man carrying out God’s work — “I can’t imagine doing this without the Lord,” he says — and a person like that can’t be one of the bad guys. Can’t even do bad things! His faith means he is good by definition; criticism is by definition misunderstanding. It’s Bush without the swagger.
I don’t know enough about Lisa Jackson to know if she’ll be a successful administrator, and hell if I’m going to try to predict this time. But one thing I feel certain of is that she’ll be an improvement over Johnson, the most flaccid apparatchik in an administration drooping with them.