The Bush administration's environmental agenda is no longer about public policy. It's no longer even about balancing "good science" and economic costs. It's purely and simply about spinning.
Last week saw a veritable green wave of Bush backers washing over our TV screens and newspapers, portraying the president as the second coming of Julia Butterfly Hill. I wasn't sure if I was watching the news or the Nature Channel.
There was Laura Bush, pointing out how she and W. use recycled water to irrigate their ranch in Crawford, Texas. And there were members of the Cabinet out in force, asking America not to judge their boss on what he has done so far on the environment but on what he's going to do in, as Commerce Secretary Don Evans put it, "the years ahead." You mean like drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, letting industry "voluntarily comply" with regulations, building roads through national forests?
The president himself did sit-down interviews with all the network morning shows, reassuring Matt, Jane and Charlie that he "deeply cares" about the environment -- indeed, that he intends to make "the air cleaner, the water cleaner and the land more usable."
Interestingly, in separate appearances, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, using suspiciously familiar words, predicted that by the time Bush leaves office, the American people will see that "the air is cleaner and the water is purer." Can't you just picture the talking points being passed around at the last Cabinet meeting?
The problem for Whitman is that she keeps making the mistake of adding a spoonful of substance to help the spin go down. Last week, it was her assertion that the Energy Task Force she sits on won't recommend drilling for oil in the Arctic. You could almost hear Bush's oil industry pals jamming the White House phone lines in horror. I'm kidding, of course -- as we all know, they have permanent hot lines set up.
By the next morning, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was -- once again -- hanging Whitman out to dry, blaming her statement on "some confusion."
But before we shed too many tears for Whitman, let's take a look at her leaked March 6 memo to the president, offering her advice on how to deal with global warming: "We need to appear engaged," she recommends -- as if dealing with global warming is purely a public relations exercise.
She describes the problem as "an issue that is resonating here at home" -- not, you understand, as an issue that the world's scientific community considers a threat to the planet. Maybe she missed those front-page stories on the new studies that establish beyond a reasonable doubt that global warming isn't just cooking the president's poll numbers -- it's cooking Mother Earth.
So don't cry for her, Kyoto. Her take on the environment has been political from the very start. She just needs to realize that energy industry lobbyists also watch the Sunday morning shows -- and that they are sensitive souls that tend to overreact. But help is on the way: I hear that Karl Rove is sending her a video compilation of "The Best of Gale Norton" to study over the weekend.
Spinning also dominates the fevered thoughts of the administration's anti-environmental gurus. In e-mails circulating among them earlier this month, there was an earnest attempt to deconstruct the "arsenic flap." The hammering the administration took was chalked up to "poor communication" -- i.e. "poor spin."
So far, there doesn't seem to be anyone connected to this administration who is discussing the undermining of the environment in any terms other than how to lessen the political fallout.
Yet the White House press secretary actually had the temerity to claim: "The president is not concerned with his image. The president is concerned about results." Yes, polling results. And right now those results are decidedly not going his way. According to a New York Times/CBS poll, Americans, by a remarkable 7-to-1 margin, think that Bush is less concerned about protecting the environment than about protecting the interests of the energy industry.
Just as troubling for Bush is the fact that nearly a third of Americans say they get their political news from Jay Leno, David Letterman and the other late-night comics who've been feasting on W.'s environmental screwups. Arsenic and salmonella have replaced presidential cigars and stained dresses as the punch lines of choice. "I guess the Republican theory is you don't have to test for salmonella because the arsenic in the drinking water will kill the germs," Leno joked last week.
The real proof that the White House's new, greener-than-thou stance is nothing but spin can be found, most startlingly, in the president's willingness to put his fealty to his energy industry backers above even his own brother. Breaking another campaign promise, and jeopardizing Jeb Bush's reelection, Bush appears poised to allow new drilling for gas and oil off the coast of Florida.
Apparently, natural gas is thicker than blood. And the spin being used to paint the White House green is so thin it's transparent.
Truth, it seems, is not an option. I guess we can hold off on that ceremony welcoming integrity back to Washington.