Air Date: Week of October 4, 1996
What kind of environmental policy would the Reform Party make with Ross Perot as President? Mr. Perot doesn't talk much about the environment, but when he did, reporter David Wright was listening.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In 1992 H. Ross Perot captured 19% of the popular vote. Some say he spoiled the reelection bid of Republican President George Bush and left Bill Clinton without a clear mandate. This time around the pollsters say Mr. Perot is not getting the support he had before, though he still could make the difference in closely-contested states. What makes this Perot candidacy most important, perhaps, is the Reform Party he has started. A respectable showing by him this year will give the Reform Party Federal dollars no matter who its candidate is in the year 2000. And what kind of environmental legacy is being created for the Reform Party? We asked David Wright of member station KQED in San Francisco to do a little digging into Mr. Perot's views on the environment. Here's what he found.
WRIGHT: Ross Perot has 2 minds when it comes to the environment. The dichotomy's been apparent since the night in 1992 when he first confessed his presidential ambitions to CNN's Larry King. On one side, the part of Mr. Perot that's given to sweeping generalities and lofty statements of principle makes a firm stand for the environment.
PEROT: This is our home. The planet is our home. If we destroy the planet we've destroyed our home. So it is fundamentally important.
WRIGHT: Fundamentally important, except for those other priorities that for Mr. Perot are apparently even more fundamentally important. The other side of Ross Perot is a pragmatist, a man who deals with first things first. And for him, the environment doesn't come first.
PEROT: If we're broke, we can't fix the environment. We have got to rebuild our industrial base. We've got to put our people back to the work to have the flow of money to do this.
WRIGHT: Ross Perot hasn't said much on the environment, but he's said enough to raise some serious doubts in the minds of environmental leaders.
POPE: Ross Perot unfortunately has shown himself in the last 4 years to be know nothing on the environment.
WRIGHT: Carl Pope is the executive director of the National Sierra Club.
POPE: When he entered the race in 1992, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups tried to work with him. We went down to Texas, we met with the staff, we prepared papers for him. We thought he might demonstrate some real fiscal understanding of the fact that environmental protection is both good for business and good for the Federal budget. But since that time Perot has demonstrated a real shallowness and a lack of seriousness about the issue.
WRIGHT: Take for instance remarks Mr. Perot made last month to members of the Commonwealth Club of California. The day was September 18th and President Clinton was at the Grand Canyon declaring thousands of acres of Utah wilderness a national monument in order to protect it from coal mining. Asked whether he supports the President's action, Ross Perot didn't hesitate.
PEROT: I'd have to look at it, study it, and analyze it. I haven't. And I will not jump into an empty swimming pool at night.
WRIGHT: He then went on to volunteer his views on an environmental controversy he's taken more of an interest in: the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.
PEROT: I have looked at a few owls; I was up in Washington State and the people were so worried about this huge area they wouldn't let them do any timber cutting on because of these owls, and I finally asked a relevant question. I said how many owls are there? They said 20. And I said okay, I suggest we send Air Force One out here, transport them in absolutely first class comfort to the nearest national park. Now the owls can live happily ever after in hundreds of thousands of acres in some nearby park, and we can go back to work here. Well shucks, we hadn't thought about that. I rest my case.
WRIGHT: It's not the first time Ross Perot has proposed a get under the hood and fix it solution to sensitive issues such as habitat conservation and biodiversity. In 1992 he outraged environmentalists in Alaska when he told a Fairbanks talk radio host that he'd like to see the US drill for oil in ANWAR, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.
PEROT: If we're really, really lucky, as a country, this could be like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that could pay off the national debt. Think about it.
WRIGHT: People who know Ross Perot attribute his apparent lack of enthusiasm for environmental issues to his background.
POSNER: Part of the problem with Perot is he's so pro-business. It's all about business. It screams business. He comes from that business environment. And therefore if you had to put him on a pro-development or pro-environment side that is at this conflict that there is in Washington State and elsewhere and all over, I find, and I would think Perot's more pro-development.
WRIGHT: Gerald Posner conducted numerous interviews with the Texas businessman for his recent biography Citizen Perot: His Life and Times. Posner notes that many goals of the environmental movement would seem to be in synch with Ross Perot's overall philosophy. But he says Mr. Perot doesn't seem to recognize the connection between environmental concerns and his desire not to squander American resources and to preserve a legacy for our children. As a result, Posner says, Mr. Perot is not ideologically opposed to environmental protections. He just doesn't give it much thought.
POSNER: It's more an insensitivity, I think. I think he could care about the environment, if he focused on it, but I don't think he really cares right now because it's not an issue high on his agenda. He thinks there are more pressing problems. The deficit finances figures, money seems to him more important than some endangered species.
WRIGHT: In fact, the times Ross Perot has taken a strong stand on the environment have tended to be in the service of issues in which he has a greater interest. For instance, he spoke out against the likely environmental consequences of free trade, but it was just one of several arguments he raised against the North American Free Trade Agreement. He's called for a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax, but primarily as a way of weaning America from its dependence on foreign oil in the wake of the Gulf War. For leaders of the environmental movement, like the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, those isolated positions do not constitute a coherent environmental policy.
POPE: If he appeared to understand that if we're going to leave a world behind for our children we have to take care of our environment, I would be much more impressed. I mean, it is the shallowness of his approach. Most public officials, they may be good on the environment, they may be bad on the environment. Most candidates at least appear to want to talk about what their approach is. Sometimes they lie. But he just kind of goes woof, you know, I'm not going to chase that hamster. And it's -- it's disturbing.
WRIGHT: Beyond Ross Perot's words about the environment, he can also be judged by his actions. On one hand, he gave the city of Austin, Texas, a blank check to try to keep alive the city's ancient treaty oak. Also, the various companies Mr. Perot has been involved with over the years are not corporate polluters. But there are at least 2 incidents that mar his record. One involved some Austin land that a Perot affiliated company tried to develop even after concerns were raised over habitat it contained for the golden cheeked warbler, then listed as a threatened species. The other incident had to do with a coral reef offshore from Mr. Perot's house in Bermuda. Again, biographer Gerald Posner.
POSNER: Perot denies this and said no, it's not quite like this or that. But evidently there was this coral reef which is getting in the way of unfortunately getting his boat a little bit closer to the house. The coral reef's no longer there, is my understanding; the boat is docked right next to the house. So sometimes, you know, things will be pushed aside. A billionaire can get his way. Nature should not stand in the way.
WRIGHT: With his record as with his rhetoric, Mr. Perot seems to be of 2 minds when it comes to the environment. It's fundamentally important except when it gets in the way. For Living on Earth, I'm David Wright in San Francisco.
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