Planet Hollywood, Planet Earth, and Planet Clinton
No political constituency has been more zealously courted and massaged by Bill Clinton and Al Gore than the Hollywood liberals. Not only has this community of stars long been an enormously important source of campaign money, but this year California is vital for Bill Clinton's reelection. Furthermore, support from the Hollywood liberals is a bellwether for how money-giving liberal trendsetters across the country are feeling about the administration.
In this liberal Hollywood set environmental issues are high on the agenda. Robert Redford sits on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council and speaks out for mining reform and the protection of Western wilderness areas. Meryl Streep founded her own group, Mothers for a Livable Planet, which campaigns against the dangers of pesticides. The grand diva of Hollywood, Barbra Streisand, promotes the virtues of the Amazon rainforest, while Richard Gere recites the eco-wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Clinton's pal Ted Danson heads up an ocean protection group. (For those with an appetite for Hollywood trivia, Governor Clinton slipped out for a date with Danson's wife and fellow Arkansan Mary Steenburgen on the night slated for the first execution in Arkansas after the Supreme Court reinstalled the death penalty.) Scores of other Hollywood names attach themselves to causes ranging from desert preservation to saving the whales.
So it was scarcely surprising that a five-bell alarm went off in the White House in mid-May when a series of full-page ads taken out by Voice Of The Environment ran in all Western editions of the New York Times. Voice Of The Environment (or simply: VOTE) is a feisty and unabashedly political group with a mind of its own. Founded by Lewis Siler, son of a Hollywood producer, VOTE's operations are run out of Belinas, California, by longtime environmental activist David Orr. Its board is populated not by big-money types but by hardcore activists, such as Andy Mahler, Susan Schock, Mat Jacobsen, and Dennis Banks. Consequently, VOTE's ad pulled no punches.
Drawing on past Nature and Politics exposés and on a cover story in The Progressive by the present authors ("Slime Green," May, 1996), it featured in bold type the headline: America Betrayed. This was followed by the litany of Clinton-Gore sellouts on the environment: increased logging in ancient forests; support for NAFTA and GATT; retreats on banning the use of ozone-depleting chemicals such as methyl bromide; importing of PCBs for incineration in the U.S.; attempts to overturn dolphin-protection laws; quiet support for Norway's efforts to continue whaling; the salvage logging rider that suspended the rule of law on America's public lands; gutting the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act; lowering cattle grazing fees on public grasslands. "President Clinton," the ad declared, "you have done more to harm the environment and weaken environmental regulations in four years than Presidents Bush and Reagan in their 12 years. Your hypocrisy and deceptiveness while trying to greenwash your administration is not fooling anyone." The VOTE ad concluded by urging anyone caring about the environment and democracy to support Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaign.
The White House received dozens of calls from supporters and big-time contributors on the West Coast worried that such direct attacks might harm the administration in critical states such as California, Oregon, and Washington. Within days of the appearance of this ad, no less an eminence than Vice President Al Gore was swiftly drafted to defend the administration's record. Gore duly placed calls to the Hollywood elite promising to personally address their concerns. He consented to radio and print interviews where he admitted that signing the salvage logging rider had been "the administration's biggest mistake." But the vice president pledged to use "every power in my hands to minimize the damage."
But the fact is that the administration has done absolutely nothing to slow down implementation of the salvage rider. Indeed, the Forest Service claims to be 15 percent ahead of schedule in logging off timber under the law. These sales have resulted in the logging of 1,000-year-old trees in Oregon, irreplaceable rainforest in Alaska, and rare grizzly bear habitat on the border of Yellowstone National Park. The administration had the discretion to cancel all of these timber sales and chose not to do so.
Meanwhile, Gore's staff rushed a column under his name to Western papers attacking Senator Bob Dole's purported plans to usher "takings" legislation through the Senate before he retires in June. The takings issue--which has little public support--is really just a kind of sophisticated ecological extortion racket in which corporations demand to be compensated for not polluting the environment. Gore's column blasts the Republicans advancing this budget-busting idea, but conveniently elides any mention of the Clinton administration's strategy on this subject, which has been to simply give the corporations what they want, such as gaping exemptions from the Endangered Species Act.
While Gore was popping up on op-ed pages and talkshows, his former top aide, Katie McGinty, now head of the Council on Environmental Quality, was dispatched to Los Angeles for a courting ritual with celebrity, glamour, and big money. McGinty had learned that some Hollywood greens had been making dangerous mutterings about defecting to the Nader camp. One of those leading this rebellion was the actor Ed Begley, Jr. Begley is one of the few Hollywood greens who has earned a reputation as a real environmentalist. He lives in a small bungalow in Studio City that is entirely powered by a bank of solar panels. He owns an electric car and studiously avoids travel in autos powered by what he calls "infernal combustion engines." Usually, he bikes to work or hops Amtrak for out-of-town gigs. With these credentials, Begley could pose a big problem for the administration.
McGinty scheduled a soiree at the home of Norman Lear, and Begley was invited to attend. McGinty assured the gathering of celebs that the environment was indeed a pressing part of Clinton's agenda. As evidence, she pointed to what she called the administration's "49 budget wins for the environment." McGinty claimed that the Clinton team had thwarted the evil plans of the Republicans at every turn. She was especially proud of the role the administration played in smashing Bob Dole's regulatory reform bill and efforts to close the national parks.
Her summary was not unremittingly upbeat. She warned of an alternate future. Imagine, she intoned, the dark fate awaiting the Republic's ecosystems with Dole in the White House, Trent Lott presiding over the Senate, and Newt helming the House. Only Clinton and Gore stand between these barbarians and the unrestrained looting of the nation's natural heritage. Much hooting about the Republican Horror followed.
McGinty ended by telling the celebs to be patient. Once Clinton was reelected, she bubbled, the real man would emerge with an even stronger environmental agenda. Of course, the real Bill Clinton doesn't give a damn about the environment, as shown by his unnerving history of sell-outs to corporations in Arkansas. And McGinty failed to mention that a lame duck Clinton presidency will almost certainly throw even more power into the hands of Newt's Congress.
Neither McGinty nor her mentor Al Gore proffered any explanations about the fate of the many now mildewed promises of the administration on the environment. What about Gore's valiant pledge during the '92 campaign to halt the dioxin-belching WTI incinerator outside Liverpool, Ohio, a stand that was quickly reversed in one of the more disgraceful episodes in recent presidential politics? Then there were the high-minded plans to eliminate the billions in subsidies to corporations that log timber and mine gold on public lands, plans that were eighty-sixed only two months into the administration at the request of Western Democrats.
Also buried in mothballs at the request of the oil industry are Gore's vows to increase fuel efficiency standards and secure reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, this appears to be an administration cruising along without any discernible energy policy, whose pathetic response to the oil companies' recent frenzy of price gouging was to simply give them more oil from the strategic reserves and lift the 30-year ban on the exportation of Alaskan crude oil. This extraordinary action, almost entirely ignored by the press, multiplies five times the value of Exxon, British Petroleum, and Arco's holdings in Alaska and makes it profitable for them to accelerate their drilling rates, thus rendering it almost inevitable that the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge will be opened to drilling in the near future. There is no way a Republican president could have maneuvered this measure through the Congress. Oilman George Bush tried and failed. But Clinton has given the oil companies a prize they sought vainly from five previous presidents.
To stay with Alaska, consider the Tongass National Forest. McGinty claimed that Clinton beat back Rep. Don Young's attempts to speed up clearcutting on the nation's largest temperate rainforest. Yet only days before McGinty jetted off to L.A., the Clinton administration unveiled its plan for the Tongass prescribing three times as much clearcutting as their own biologists say is sustainable and legal.
Clinton's record on toxics makes George Bush look like Rachel Carson. Clinton's obsession with free trade at any cost has turned the U.S. into a PCB-importing country. PCBs will be trucked into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico to feed toxic incinerators that this administration has supported from day one. No surprise here, since the First Lady rehearsed the White House posture by sitting on the board of one such lethal enterprise in Arkansas.
The best way to test Clinton's actual performance, as opposed his posture-and-wink maneuvers, is to examine what his administration achieved in the first two years of his term, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Guess what? It is almost universally agreed that the 1993-94 congressional session was the most environmentally null of the last generation. Nothing good came out of the White House or the Congress. One example: The Endangered Species Act was up for reauthorization. If we are to believe Ms. McGinty, Clinton should have been propelling a strengthened law through a friendly Congress. He did nothing of the sort. In fact, his Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, was busily hollowing out the Act with corporate-friendly easements helping timber companies in the Northwest, land developers in California, and sugar barons in Florida.
Needless to say, Norman Lear and his crowd did not press McGinty on these matters. Liberal Hollywood is basically composed of a tight circle of Clinton loyalists, who appreciate the President's talent for play-acting and his capacity for fulsome prevarication. To speak out might mean forfeiting future opportunities to cozy up with presidential power. So, Katie McGinty's mission was hardly impossible. She had only to soothe and placate, to set the celebs up for the large contributions that will soon be sought by the solicitors for the Clinton/Gore campaign. Only Begley stood up to challenge the administration's dismal record.
A central irony here is that the man supposedly counselling Clinton to sell out in the interests of political expediency saw more than a year ago that expediency required Clinton to hang tough on the environment. That man was the bad boy of the White House, Dick Morris. Morris is a Republican pollster and longtime Clinton intimate who was brought on board to help resurrect the administration two years ago. His polling data showed a stunning 70 percent support for strong federal environmental protections. The support cut across the economic and political spectrum and revealed a significant vulnerability for the Republican juggernaut. According to several White House sources, Morris strongly urged Clinton to veto the salvage rider.
But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ridiculed Morris's advice. Babbitt argued that signing the salvage rider was a win-win situation for Clinton. The administration could appease the big timber corporations and pick up some votes in key Western states without fear of losing the support of the environmental groups. The big green outfits, Babbitt sneered, would swallow nearly any betrayal by Clinton with barely a whimper of distaste. Where else could they turn? Babbitt was right.
As always with the Clinton gang, the rule has been "Watch what we say, not what we do." And the corporate press and many green organizations have played along with the scam. Alas, what they say is fraudulent, what they do has been dangerous to health and environment.
But Clinton's act may be starting to wear thin. Environmentalists such as Ed Begley and groups such as VOTE are beginning to stand up. And now Ralph Nader has given them a place to turn. It's his time to run seriously and not merely go through the motions. Nader has to run as though he hopes to win.
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