Pete McCloskey

Lessons from Earth Day

Recorded: November 8, 2012

Hear firsthand about the origin and consequences of the very first Earth Day from Pete McCloskey, the co-founder of Earth Day with Gaylord Nelson.

Born into a staunch Republican family in California­, Pete McCloskey is known for being a courageous leader. After serving 15 years in the Navy, Marines and Ready Reserve, Pete retired from the Service after achieving the rank of Colonel. By 1974, Pete left the service, having served in the Korean War in the Navy, Marines and later in Ready Reserves. Pete received a Navy Cross and the­­­­­­­­­­ Silver Star for his courage and two Purple Hearts for battles in the Korean War. He wrote the book, “The Taking of Hill 610” describing his war experience in Korea.

In the late 1950s, Pete founded a law firm in Palo Alto, California. It was one of the first firms to practice environmental law in the nation. He lectured at Stanford and Santa Clara law schools on ethics. In 1967, he was elected as a Republican to fill the post of Representative J. Arthur Younger and was reelected seven times. By 1972 he was a seasoned politician and decided to run against Richard Nixon as a Republican Primary challenger on a pro-peace/anti-war (Vietnam) platform. Although he did not win that election, he continues his anti-war stance to this day.

His environmental legacy is as impressive as his commitment to peace; he co-wrote the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and was the co-founder of the First Earth Day with Gaylord Nelson. McCloskey fought tenaciously for the ESA when California Representative Richard Pombo, a developer in California’s Central Valley, repeatedly tried to eviscerate the Act. In a 2006 bid for the 11th Congressional District Republican primary, McCloskey ran against Pombo, but was unsuccessful, even after being endorsed by the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. McCloskey would not rest until Pombo was unseated, so in 2006, he endorsed Democrat, Jerry McNerney, who finally won the District from the seven-term Pombo. In 2007, McCloskey changed his party affiliation to Democrat.

Huey:    Pete McCloskey is one of the remarkable people I’ve known in my lifetime.  He is a person of great courage and principle and stands by what he believes, no matter what.  His achievements were numerous enough that we made two tapes out of our interview with him.  The first one is about the invention of Earth Day.  Earth Day, some believe, was the beginning of the Environmental Movement before long it’s a world wide huge annual event.

[bell dings]

Huey:    I recall you had something to do with Earth Day?

Pete McCloskey:    Well, Earth Day incidentally is some, is a story that should be told because it started with one man.  A guy named Gaylord Nelson who was a senator from Wisconsin, Democrat.  He’d seen the Wisconsin of his youth and the land of forests and they cut all the trees down and you know he was a true environmentalist.  And he was sitting in an apartment in the Christmas time in 1969 with a man that was in the Kennedy Administration, kind of a famous guy, and they’re having a few drinks as the sun sets over the Golden Gate and one of them says to the other, and we’re not sure whether it was Fred Dutton or Gaylord that said it to each other.  They said “We ought to celebrate this place, the inspiration of the Bay Area. We ought to have an Earth Day.”  And they have another drink and they say “Yeah and it ought to be bipartisan, yeah.  And it ought to be bicameral, yeah.  So Gaylord, you’ve got to find a Republican congressman who’s an environmentalist.”  Well there weren’t any, except I’d been elected and had made a few speeches on the subject.  So Gaylord calls me, he says “Would you be co-chairman of Earth Day?”  And Gaylord said “You know, let’s get some kids to run it.”  So they hire the Stanford Student Body President, a guy named Dennis Hayes and he says “Let’s find out, see what the schools will do.”  And they get a list of I think 2000 universities and 10,000 high schools, they sent out a letter “Dear Student Body President, we’re thinking of having an Earth Day to study issues of the environment on April 22nd, Arbor Day, would your school be interested?”  Well out of the 12,000 addressees, they must have gotten 10,000 responses, nearly every college and high school.  “Yes, we’d like to have an Earth Day.”  Well the funny thing was, is that Nixon was President, it was – he, the anti-war sentiment in California, Nixon thought the youth of the nation were a threat to the security of the country so he put Earth Day under surveillance.  About a week after Earth Day, John Erlichman [Sp?] calls me, he’s then the assistant to the President and Erlichman was an environmentalist.  I’d never heard him laugh so hard in my life.   He calls me over; he says “Pete, you won’t believe this.  Nixon was so paranoid about Earth Day that he had the FBI put every Earth Day observation around the country…“  He says “Let me read you from the report that I have to give to the President tomorrow.”  He says “A lot of these girls are wearing flowers in their hair.  They’re petting their dogs.  They’re drinking a little beer.  They’re maybe smoking a little pot, maybe there’s a little love made out in the bushes, but it was not an anti-war, anti-President thing at all Mr. President.”  About a week after that, I’m sitting in the Republican Cloak Room one day and I was not the most popular republican being against the President and against the Vietnam War, and a guy comes running in with a copy of the Washington Star and there’s a big headline down page 6.  “Youth group labels 12 members of Congress the Dirty Dozen and vows their defeat.”  And this guy’s waving and he sees me and he yells at me “McCloskey, this is your work.  God damn it [unintelligible].”  Well this wakes up 6 old guys that are sleeping there and they look at the article and they say “Aw, come on Harry, leave Pete alone.  It’s just a bunch of kids, ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, ho.”  The kids had not picked out the 12 worst guys in congress; they’d had to pick out the 300 that matched these guys.  But they picked 12 that could be beaten.

[Radio address]  The great thing about the teaching today is that these students are looking at the issues.  They’re coming up with specific solutions and then they’re asking specific questions of me and the other members of congress, “Well have you done it or aren’t you?  And if you don’t do it, we’re going to defeat you at the polls.” Seven incumbent congressmen taken out by a youth movement.  And so Earth Day was not so much, but it had an impact because when congress convened in January of ’71, look what happens.  Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Environmental Species, Esterean Protection, Coastal Zone, all the great environmental landmark stuff was passed ’72 or ’71 through ’74.  Republican President, Nixon, but with an environmental Advisor Erlichman, Democratic Congress, great leaders John Dangle, Moe Udall, Scoop Jackson and bipartisanship existed for the next 24 years until Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1994.  You had ¾ of the congress were always environmentalists in those 24 years.  That’s changed now, but that was Gaylord Nelson, one man looking out at a sunset in San Francisco thinking “let’s have an Earth Day.”

Pete McCloskey:    I have a good deal of optimism because the way the vote came out in the recent Presidential election where it showed that young people under 30 were voting for Obama and young people getting involved in the political process has always been kind of a leadership in rebellion whether it was Women Rights, Human Rights or Environmental Rights; it’s always started with the idealism of young people.  I’m optimistic because that electoral result shows that young people cared enough about the environmental issue to vote against the man who had said he was going to abolish a lot of the great environmental progress.  These republicans wanted to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act.  I go back to Earth Day, the defeat of those 7 members of the house, the so called 7 of the 12 of the Dirty Dozen, when congress reconvened in January of ’71, nearly everybody said “I’m now an environmentalist.”  Well, that wasn’t President Nixon.  That wasn’t the congressional leaders.  That was kids getting involved in the political process and forcing the removal of politicians who were deemed hostile to the environment.  And I see that happening locally all around.  If young people stay involved with a few old guys like you and Martin Litton and some of the old guys that remain alive against all odds to lead the way, young people could take over and make the country better.