Recent Stories



Contact Us


The Consortium On-line is a product of The Consortium for Independent Journalism, Inc. To contact CIJ, click here.

W: Inarticulate or Deceptive?
Page 1, 2, 3

Environmental Haze

The environment is another example of what looks like verbal misdirection. Through Bush’s first weeks, his administration brushed aside the widely held belief that having lost the popular vote and not even being the choice of voters in the key state of Florida, Bush would fashion a government of the center. Instead, he built an administration regarded as the most conservative in recent history, with an anti-regulatory philosophy most obvious when it came to the environment.

Among Bush's early environmental actions: He repudiated the Kyoto treaty on global warming. He rescinded President Clinton’s order to reduce arsenic in drinking water. He moved to open public lands for increased logging and drilling. He slashed budget allocations for energy conservation and non-polluting fuels. He renounced his own campaign promise to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Bush’s blitzkrieg on the environment prompted political resistance across the country, drawing in even Republicans who reminded the new president of the party’s long tradition of defending the environment. The Bush administration felt "stung by the furious reaction to its early decisions on the environment," the Washington Post reported . [WP, March 31, 2001]

Going into the week before Earth Day (April 22), Bush’s approval ratings, which had risen to the mid-60s, had slipped as many as 10 points. Much of this drop came in the suburbs, where the critical swing-voting block of Soccer Moms frowned on Bush's early moves to rescind Clinton-era environmental protections. Americans respond 2-to-1 that Bush "cares more about protecting the interests of large corporations than of ordinary people," according to an ABC/Washington Post survey. [WP, April 24, 2001]

In response, Bush, who sold himself as a politician not influenced by polls, suddenly was polishing his green credentials. In successive days, Bush decided not to block President Clinton's rules to protect wetlands; supported Clinton’s proposal to tighten standards on lead pollution; and announced his intention to sign a global treaty negotiated by Clinton’s State Department on toxic chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). When the dust settled, Bush had a string of pro-environment newspaper headlines, just in time an Earth Day ceremony in the Rose Garden.

Bush kept up his pro-environmental rhetoric in interviews surrounding his first 100 days, though sometimes showing little comprehension of what he was talking about. In a CBS interview on April 25, Bush ticked off some of his pro-environmental stands. "I have made it clear we're going to do something on sulfur – sulfur oxide, nitrous – nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, and we're got work to do with this greenhouse gas, this CO2."

While it's true that sulfur dioxide and mercury do present pollution problems, it's unclear what sulfur oxide is. Nitrous oxide is a mild anesthetic used by dentists, known popularly as "laughing gas." Bush's lack of precision aside, his pro-environmental rhetoric – combined with his gentle treatment in the national news media – helped restore some of the luster to Bush's poll numbers.

Refuge Drilling

Another part of the administration’s environmental strategy seems to be to create confusion in the public eye over what Bush's priorities and policies are. Take for example the clarifications and re-clarifications on drilling in Alaska’s Natural Wildlife Refuge. The on-again, off-again, on-again plans to drill in Alaska’s Refuge have become a political soap opera with real world consequences for one of America’s most spectacular natural wonders.

A few weeks ago, all signals seemed to point to Bush dropping his plan for drilling in the Refuge. With his comments at a press conference, he appeared to indicate that he was refocusing his attention on drilling in other locations, particularly in Western public lands. On Earth Day, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Whitman reinforced that impression when she announced that plans for drilling in the Refuge were not part of the recommendations from Bush's energy task force.

The next day, however, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer corrected the record. Fleischer said Whitman "was speaking in ‘confusion’ Sunday when she announced that a White House energy task force would not recommend oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." [Boston Globe, April 24, 2001]

If the confusion is not intentional, this administration has some work to do on improving its communication and planning. If it is intentional, the strategy would seem to be to keep the environmental community and the American people guessing as to what the real intentions are.

Further evidence of the administration’s two-faced strategy on the environment can be found by looking past Bush’s pre-Earth Day newspaper headlines to a little-noticed announcement about drilling off the coast of Florida. During the most pro-environment week of his young administration, Bush’s Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, approved plans to auction 6 million acres of Florida’s Gulf Coast for oil and natural gas exploration.

USA Today reported that Norton’s decision was a slap in the face to Bush’s younger brother, Jeb, who is opposed to exploration and drilling off Florida’s coast. The decision is also strongly opposed by Florida’s tourist industry as well as the environmental community and a majority of Floridians. [USA Today, April 17, 2001]

Drilling off the Florida coast nearly became a significant campaign issue in Florida during last year’s presidential contest but for Bush’s skill in dodging the issue coupled by the news media’s failure to demand a detailed answer. With Florida in play and realizing the political cost of coming out in favor of drilling, the Bush campaign announced support for the existing moratorium, but refused to detail future plans. By contrast, Gore supported a permanent ban on exploration and drilling. [AP, Nov. 2, 2000]

The Bush campaign’s discipline in hiding its intentions about Florida’s coast frustrated efforts by Gore to contrast his opposition to oil exploration with Bush’s plans. Also obscured was an issue that millions of Floridians care deeply about. Now that Bush is in the White House, having been awarded Florida’s 25 electoral votes, he has belatedly clarified his intentions.

In Bush’s defense, banning drilling off Florida’s coast is a political catch-22. It would be difficult to explain why he thinks it is advisable to drill in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge or in other Western public lands, but not off the coast of a state where his brother is governor.

Still, one has to ask, why wasn’t all this known before the election? Was Bush just being coy in not telling Floridians that he planned to open the Gulf Coast to offshore oil rigs or hadn't he given the issue any serious thought? For a president who advertises himself as a straight shooter, this is political spin at its best. Claim the White House first and then let the voters find out what they're getting.

page 3: Blowing Smoke