Pete McCloskey

Fighting Dragons

Recorded: November 8, 2012

An ethical politician? Yes, and a war hero too. Former Representative Pete McCloskey talks about fighting in the Korean War, how it has shaped his life and why he fights tenaciously for the Endangered Species Act and other environmental causes.

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, a person of great integrity.  In this tape he will cover 3 topics.  One is war; he was a war hero with extreme courage.  Two, a political figure whose elected to congress and seeing this tape will make you feel a lot better about congress.  Too many people think politicians are not reallypeople of great integrity; this guy is as you will see.  Then he talks about an important message to anybody who’s thinking about political office.  He describes what you should do, how you prepare and why it’s important.


Huey:    We welcome Pete McCloskey.  Pete comes to us as a heroic figure for many reasons, one as an environmentalist.  In one of the things that we’re thinking about in this series of interviews with people who have had successful careers; it’s often been a matter of demonstrating courage one way or another at some point or another.  And you were in Korea as a Marine.

Pete McCloskey:    Rifle Platoon Leader.

Huey:    Rifle Platoon Leader, can you tell us about that?

Pete McCloskey:    Well not very much except I was scared most of the time.  It’s mistaken to think of war as being a matter of courage.  You’re scared most of the time, but in the Marine Corp you’re more scared of having another Marine see you’re scared.  So I was supposed to be the only living guy that led 6 bayonet assaults and lived.  I asked another one of those platoon leaders once who later wrote a Pulitzer Novel, I said “Murphy, what do you think that early experience as a platoon leader did to your life and what’s it did to mine?”  And he said “Well,” he says “The only thing I think that experience of being shot at and getting scared to death has in all of us is that we take risks later in life.

Pete McCloskey:    We feel lucky enough to be alive that taking on dragons is – or windmills in my case, is something that you do.”

Huey:    In speaking of leading in politics, God, a couple distinctions you have which I am utterly delighted about is that you became one of the first opponents of the war.

Pete McCloskey:    Well there is no greater harm to the environment than what is caused by war.  I mean you see what Agent Orange did to a beautiful country, Vietnam, which is as lovely as northern

Pete McCloskey:    California.  The northern part of South Vietnam is a beautiful country, wonderful culture that love their old people, thoughtful about their kids.  To end the Vietnam War, I think I got obsessed with it because I felt we were fighting the wrong war.  We were ruining a good country and a good culture with our great weapons and our great desire to build a new world and build a nation.  And I felt a lot better when people are running the country who’d been scared to death in their youth knew what war was like because most of my friends who were in combat are pacifists in their old age.  These guys that have never been scared in their youth by being shot at are much more likely in their middle age to want to prove their manhood by making war.  So the environmental wars and the attempt to obtain peace through justice and courts instead of through bayonets is a sort of a passion.

Huey:    I think your champion move in that direction was deciding to run against a President once, can you tell us about that?

Pete McCloskey:    Well, he was a crook.  It was kind of hard to convince republicans of that for a while, but finally he was forced to resign.  There were some republicans against the war, but nobody wanted to take on the President.  And what had happened was is that Gene McCarthy, four years earlier in ’68 had taken on Johnson in the primary in New Hampshire and he only got 48% of the vote.  But that caused  Johnson to realize that the country was being split up by the war and he didn’t run again.  And I knew I wasn’t going to be president but I thought maybe I could get a vote on Vietnam which might force Nixon to rethink the thing in a Republican Primary.  And of course it was a foolish thing to do and there was no chance, but it was sort of a classic Don Quixote attacking windmill sort of a deal.  It seemed right at the time.

Huey:    It was.

Pete McCloskey:    Hmm?

Huey:    It was.

Pete McCloskey:    Yeah, well it almost removed me from politics.

Huey:    Of the many things you’ve done, one of my favorites is that you courageously called a whole bunch of people a few years ago and there was a fellow who was a congressman, long standing with a lot of seniority that was a anti environmentalist if I may say that, his name was Pombo.

Pete McCloskey:    He was a real estate developer.

Huey:    Yeah, whatever he was, he was.

Pete McCloskey:    Masquerading as a rancher but still a real estate…-

Huey:    And you called a lot of people saying “hey, why don’t you run against Pombo?  We can wipe him out in the primary.”  Nobody would do it.

Pete McCloskey:    Because I was against the war, I was put – the only committee I was put on was Fish and Wildlife Conservation.  Dingle was the chairman and I was his ranking republican.  And we put through our committee all of that stuff, Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and this guy Pombo you’re talking about, he wanted to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act.  The one thing I was proudest of, of having done in 15 years in that miserable town called Washington.  The Endangered Species Act, what it was, was an effort to preserve environment habitat.  The pre election polling showed we were going to lose about 2 to 1, and I did lose 2 to 1.  I got 32% of the vote, but it was enough to take him out on the general election.

Huey:    Yeah.

Pete McCloskey:    And so he’s gone.

Huey:    Boy, was that urgent.  Thank you very much for doing that.  God, he was – he was arrogant on top of his other flaws.  If a person, a young person were considering running for political office, how would you advise them?

Pete McCloskey:    Well, I’d give part of the answer that John Lindsay gave me when I asked him that question in 1963.  And he said “if you some day want to run for congress, read a good newspaper every day.”  And he said “The second thing is, you stay abreast of issues as they’re being debated and you understand.”  The third thing that he said was “Get involved in everything in your community, whether its old people or young people or education or health or whatever.”  You follow Lincoln’s advice and he once said “I will study and get ready and then the chance will come.”  That doesn’t mean you go out and run for office, it just means to get ready to serve if in my case, our congressman died.  I never would have gone into politics if we hadn’t had – we were in danger of having Shirley Temple as our congresswoman to go with George Murphy as our senator and Ronald Regan as our governor.  Something snapped and I ran, but I was not successful in politics.  To be politic, the definition is “not to offend.”  And if you’re not going to offend somebody so you can get reelected, you’re never going to lead in any purpose.  You and I have offended nearly everybody, that’s what Paul Newman said about it.  He said “McCloskey, he’s offended nearly everybody.”  The other advice and this is crucial, get good at something.  Get to be the best in your field whether its studying bugs or studying wildlife or being a doctor or lawyer, whatever.  Get good at something and put enough money aside so that you’re never afraid of losing office because you’ve taken some position.  You need a few people in the congress who don’t give a damn whether they get defeated because they can make a living when they get outside.  The men I’ve known, and mostly men, not women that have been corrupted, have been fearful of losing that job, that sinecure of serving in public life so they bend with the winds in order to stay getting reelected.  Congress is distrusted because it never gets anything done because there are so many politicians in it and so few people saying “Bullshit, I’m going to do what’s right.”