Russell E. Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism
by J. Brooks Flippen
LSU, 278 pp., $29.95
Between 1970 and 1977, Congress passed a major environmental law every year, and environmental stories regularly led the news. Russell Train served during that period as Richard Nixon's chief environmental adviser and as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He then joined the World Wildlife Fund, retiring in 1994. He made news most recently in 2004 when, age 84, he campaigned for John Kerry out of disagreement with the Bush administration's environmental policies.
Russell Train was born into the world of East Coast/WASP privilege. The first Train arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1635. Trains suffered at Valley Forge, and fought at Concord, Saratoga, and Antietam. Russell Train's grandfather was an admiral, and his father served as naval aide to Herbert Hoover.
Train was born in Washington in 1920. The family had two full-time servants. They worshiped at Saint John's--the Episcopal church on Lafayette Square--and the Train children were President Hoover's overnight guests at the White House. Russell attended St. Alban's School, like the children of other prominent Washingtonians, then and now. His wife, who brought him a fortune and much else, was a bridesmaid at Jackie Kennedy's first wedding.
As a student at Princeton and Columbia Law School, Train proved universally popular, and academically able but not outstanding. After law school, he stepped off the hereditary path by taking a job at the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax legislation, rather than at a law firm. Through good performance, connections, and political skill and diligence, he rose by the age of 37 to a judgeship on the United States Tax Court.
Hunting safaris in Africa changed his life. They fired a desire to preserve African wildlife and its habitat, and led him to found the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation and then work full time for the Conservation Foundation. By 1965 he had become one of America's few full-time environmentalists, and one of the very few Republicans among them. When, a few years later, the environment exploded as a political issue, his path to appointed office lay clear.
This biography tells its story well, but misses the opportunity to cast light on such broader issues as how to succeed in government, or the changing political fortunes of environmental protection. The author clearly likes and admires Train, and shares his old-school positions. But in some ways he does not give Train enough credit. Not every able and personable Capitol Hill aide enjoys anything like Train's success. What made the difference?
It seems to have been Train's unfailing and widely recognized ability to work with all kinds of people to solve problems. Why else would President Reagan have appointed Train to the Base Closing and Realignment Commission--a most sensitive assignment--even though Train had publicly criticized Reagan's environmental policies? This book could have used a more detailed description and analysis of these skills.
Grasping the formidable details of environmental regulation was not Train's strength, and it is not a strength of this book. In fairness, during the time of Train's government service, such a grasp was not required: The flaws of many development projects, then newly subjected to environmental analysis, were pretty self-evident, while the regulatory task consisted more in getting the control structure up and running than in refining its operations. But the book would have needed to engage those issues to probe the biggest and most interesting topic raised by Train's career: the transformation (perhaps temporary) of environmentalism from a consensus issue into one split between greens on the left and browns on the right.
Though Russell Train was hardly apolitical, J. Brooks Flippen continually stresses his preference for bipartisan approaches and solutions based on a greener version of the conventional wisdom of post-New Deal Washington. An instinctive centrist, Train had no sympathy with anti-environmentalist conservative Republicanism, and broke with it decisively in opposing the reelection of George W. Bush. But by not addressing this conflict analytically, the book does justice to neither side.
On one side, 1970s-style environmental regulation was bound to produce a backlash. It relied pretty exclusively on detailed regulatory commands issued by the federal government, often without much analytical justification, to tell industry what to do. Once the most immediate and obvious problems had been successfully attacked, this approach proved cumbersome, intrusive on private and state autonomy, unduly expensive, and politically unpopular.