Save the Earth -- dump Bush

In a slashing interview, environmental leader Bobby Kennedy Jr. denounces the administration's "crimes against nature" and discusses the Democratic presidential pack, the dawn of Arnold's California reign -- and his own political future.

Published November 20, 2003 12:42AM (EST)

When Bobby Kennedy Jr. talks about the corporate polluters he has been fighting for nearly 20 years as an environmental lawyer -- and their accomplices in the Bush administration -- he gets the same steely look in his blue eyes that his father did when he was confronting the moguls of organized crime. "I am angry," he says, with a Kennedyesque hand chop of the air. "Three of my sons have asthma and I watch them struggle to breathe on bad air days. And it's just scandalous to me that these polluters can give millions to Bush and suddenly all these environmental regulations are thrown out the window. These guys in Washington are selling huge chunks of America's natural resources, they have our government up for sale to the highest bidder, and they're getting away with it scot-free."

This week Kennedy declares war on this new "enemy within" -- the term his father applied to the Mafia lords who were subverting American politics, business and labor -- with a passionate, sweeping indictment of the Bush-sanctioned rape of our environment in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Kennedy lays out in legal-brief detail how, under Bush, the federal agencies supposed to be guarding our air, water and natural resources have been systematically turned over to the industry foxes that are ravaging them. But the tone of his lengthy essay, titled "Crimes Against Nature," is far from lawyerly. Kennedy's original subtitle was "Corporate Fascism and the End of Nature."

Kennedy, who has built a reputation over the past two decades as the leading defender of the huge Hudson Valley watershed that stretches from the Adirondacks to New York City, is senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and also chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, an organization of fishermen on behalf of whom he's battled G.E., Exxon and dozens of other corporate and governmental polluters of the legendary river. No other environmental champion has a higher public profile than Kennedy, a factor not just of his family name and impressive legal accomplishments, but of his tireless speaking schedule, which takes him all over the country, from an energy industry association one week to a conservative women's club the next (two recent engagements, he proudly notes, where he received standing ovations).

Kennedy, who is an avid fisherman and falconer, says he has been an environmentalist all his life: "My mother said that when I was in the crib, I was always picking up beetles." As a boy, he wanted to be a veterinarian, but after his father's assassination in 1968, when Bobby Jr. was 14, he decided to follow his father's path through Harvard and the University of Virginia law school. He was working for the Manhattan district attorney's office in 1983 when the drug problems he had long been wrestling with caught up with him; while flying to South Dakota for drug treatment, the 29-year-old Kennedy overdosed on heroin and was arrested for possession after his plane landed. The following year, as part of his rehabilitation Kennedy volunteered to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kennedy will not talk about what he took from this experience -- "That's not something I want to talk about with the press. I have other places where I talk about that," he once told the New York Times -- but it doesn't seem overly dramatic to suggest that by committing himself to a life of environmental action, he was saving his life. As the Times noted, 1984 was the year Kennedy (in his words) "reevaluated" his life: "I was going to do what I wanted to do."

Kennedy's main base of operations is a modest, two-story building on the Pace University campus in White Plains, N.Y., where he teaches law and runs an environmental litigation clinic. Outside, a weathered-looking fishing boat stands vigil. The building lobby is awash in aquatic life, with mounted fish on the walls and a big, brimming aquarium in the center. Kennedy's cramped office is adorned on one side with a wall of fame, including photos picturing him at various events with a mixed bag of celebrities -- Cameron Diaz, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Nancy Reagan, Dan Quayle, Gloria Estefan. (Kennedy has called his family name a "blessing" that gives him access to a range of public figures who can help his causes.) Another wall is dominated by a haunting black-and-white poster of his father, walking down a lonely open road in Oregon, with snow peaks in the distance, during his 1968 presidential run.

Kennedy, who is 49 years old and lives in nearby Bedford with his wife, Mary, and six children, sat down in the legal clinic's no-frills boardroom to talk with Salon over a Chinese take-out lunch and cups of Keeper Springs water, his bottled water that is sold in the Mid-Atlantic states (all profits go to the national organization of river keepers). Kennedy, who was wearing a navy blue work shirt and rumpled white Dockers, has an unassuming personality. Before digging into his "Triple Delight with Scallions" and fried rice, Kennedy, who is a devout Catholic, said a silent prayer and crossed himself. The conversation ranged from Bush's environmental record to the 2004 Democratic challengers to the fate of American democracy and his own political future. Kennedy also had a surprisingly warm assessment of the Republican in his extended family, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he is convinced is a strong environmentalist.

You charge in your Rolling Stone article that Bush is the worst environmental president in American history.

Yes, that's true. And he's far worse than No. 2, who's Warren Harding. Based upon the fact that we have 30 major environmental laws that are now being eviscerated. All of the investment we have made in our environmental infrastructure since Earth Day 1970 is now being undermined in a three-year period of astonishing activity.

The NRDC Web site lists over 200 environmental rollbacks by the White House in the last two years. If even a fraction of those are actually implemented, we will effectively have no significant federal environmental law left in our country by this time next year. That's not exaggeration, it's not hyperbole, it is a fact.

As I say in the Rolling Stone article, many of our laws will remain on the books in one form or another. But we'll be Mexico, which has these wonderful, even poetic, environmental laws, but nobody knows about them and nobody complies with them because they can't be enforced.

You also point out that the Bush administration has been very careful in how they've gone about rolling back environmental progress. You write that, unlike the Reagan administration's more confrontational approach, they operate in a stealth manner. Exactly how does this work?

Well, unlike Reagan, they control both houses of Congress, so they can attach stealthy, anti-environmental riders to must-pass budget bills. In that way they can alter statutes without debate or public scrutiny. Furthermore, a lot of the environmental regulations are arcane and highly technical and require strict enforcement by the various agencies. The Bush administration is suspending enforcement or changing agency policies without altering the regulations. A lot of the changes are illegal, and groups like the NRDC will sue them and we will win the lawsuits -- but that litigation process takes 10 or 12 years, and by that time the damage will be done.

So how are they getting away with it?

Because they've taken control of the agencies that are supposed to be protecting us. And Congress doesn't scrutinize them because, as I said, the Republicans control Capitol Hill. The people running Congress these days, particularly Tom DeLay, are among the strongest advocates for dismantling our environmental infrastructure. There are no hearings on Capitol Hill, no public scrutiny.

Why isn't the media being more of a watchdog on this?

The consolidation of American media over the past decade or so has dramatically diminished the inquisitiveness of our national press. There are now only 11 companies that control virtually every radio outlet, every TV outlet and every newspaper in our country. And because of that media consolidation, the news bureaus are no longer run by newspeople. They are now corporate profit centers. Most of these companies have liquidated their foreign bureaus, because they're expensive to run. That's why you can't get foreign news in this country; you have to go to the BBC. And they've liquidated their investigative journalism units, because that kind of reporting is also expensive. So news has become the lowest common denominator, which is why you see sensational crime coverage, you see Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant all the time, you see celebrity gossip, which is really just a form of pornography. And you see murders, which is really just another form of pornography. You just see notorious crimes, and you don't really see much substantive news anymore.

The Tyndall Report, which is the service that analyzes what's on TV, recently surveyed the environmental content on TV news and of the 15,000 minutes of network news that aired last year only 4 percent of them were devoted to the environment. And this is at a time when we have a president who is dismantling 30 years of environmental law, and when we are going through a global environmental crisis, including mass extinctions comparable to the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Global fisheries have dropped to 10 percent of their 1950s levels, the ice caps and glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and one out of every four black children in New York has asthma.

Your own children have asthma too, don't they?

Yes, three of my six children, three of my boys, have asthma. We don't know why there's this epidemic of asthma, but we do know that asthma attacks are triggered by bad air days, especially by high levels of particulates and ozone. And just a couple weeks ago, the Bush administration abandoned the new source performance standards (that regulate industrial pollution), which means that the amount of junk in our air is actually going to increase. The energy industry contributed $48 million to Bush and the Republicans in the 2000 campaign. And this is one of their big payoffs -- it will mean billions of dollars in extra profits for the industry. But the public is going to be paying that debt for generations -- with children, American children, who are gasping for breath and people literally dying. The National Academy of Sciences predicts that 30,000 Americans a year will die because of the Bush decision. And that's just one of the impacts.

Another is that airborne mercury contamination has made it dangerous to eat any freshwater fish in 28 states and the fish in most of our coastal waters. And that mercury is coming from those same power plants. Fifty percent of the lakes in the Adirondacks are now sterilized from acid rain that's coming from those same power plants. The forest cover all the way up the Appalachians from Georgia to Canada is now deteriorating, again because of acid rain from those same power plants. And in order to provide the fuel for those power plants, we're cutting down the Appalachian mountains. It's illegal what they're doing, for coal companies to blast off the mountaintops and dump them into the adjoining rivers and streams. But the Bush administration has announced that it will no longer enforce those laws. And that's what's happening at the White House these days.

If we're looking at an environmental wasteland under Bush, why aren't there people in the streets the way they were on Earth Day 1970, which launched the modern environmental movement?

Well, it's not because people aren't interested. The primary reason is it's not being covered in the news. I asked [Fox News chief] Roger Ailes about this recently, and he said, "We just don't cover it because it's not fast-breaking. If you release toxics into the air, people don't get sick for 20 years. We need something that is happening this afternoon. The polar ice caps melting -- that's just too slow for us to cover."

And of course the tampering with the regulations you're seeing in Washington is happening in back corridors, and the networks can't be bothered to investigate, much less explain to the public the connection between these regulatory rollbacks, even though the outcomes will be dramatic and will affect America for generations.

But I'll say this -- every poll shows that both Republicans and Democrats want strong environmental laws, up around 75 percent of the public, and there's almost no difference between the parties. Those polls are confirmed by my own anecdotal evidence. I speak all around the country on environmental issues. Three weeks ago I spoke at a petroleum and gas industry conference, and I got a standing ovation from the audience when I told them about Bush's environmental record. And I'll give you another example: I was recently in Richmond, Va., speaking to the Women's Club, which is solidly Republican -- I was told that none of its members had voted for a Democrat since Jefferson Davis. And I got a standing ovation there, too. It's because most Republicans are actually Democrats; they just don't know it. If they knew what was happening in the White House, they would be angry, they would be furious. And when they are told what is happening, they get angry. And that's the reaction I get all around the country. If we get the message out, we win.

You don't think people who belong to an energy trade association understand what's happening on the environment in Washington?

Well, the people who actually work in the petroleum industry, many of them are hunters and fishermen and they care about the outdoors and the environment. And no, I don't think they realize in many cases what their trade association is doing, what their lobbying groups are doing in Washington. These groups always take the most radical, ultraright-wing positions on every issue. But that doesn't necessarily reflect the views of their membership. And most Americans care about this country and the outdoors, and they understand that we have to practice some self-restraint. And over the long term what is good economic policy is identical to what is good environmental policy.

So why isn't the environmental movement giving Roger Ailes the visuals he needs by getting out in the streets and practicing the kind of civil disobedience and spectacular protest that would make the media take notice? Let me put it another way: Has the environmental movement lost its political fire and become too legalistic?

It's true that in its early years, the environmental movement was driven by former labor organizers who knew how to do grass-roots organizing. And they were able to bring 20 million people out on the streets of America on Earth Day 1970. But since then it has become less activist. Between then and 1995, because of the success of the movement, a lot of the leadership was focused on inside-the-Beltway concerns, about how to push through maximum contaminant levels for drinking water and water-quality standards, and issues that were arcane and technical that lost touch with the parables that gave the environmental movement its original power. The Cuyahoga River burning, Lake Erie being declared dead, Love Canal, and Three Mile Island. These were the dramatic stories -- where people suffered obvious environmental injury -- that once animated the movement.

At the same time, you had an extremely sophisticated industry effort to discredit the environmental movement, to dismiss them as tree huggers, as unrealistic, as anti-job, as elitist. And they have been very successful at it. They've put huge amounts of money into it. The Heritage Foundation is a creation of this industry movement, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- all of those type of think tanks in Washington are funded by industry to promote its views. That there is no such thing as global warming, that DDT is good for you, that caribou love the Alaska pipeline. And they stock these phony think tanks with marginalized scientists, who we call "biostitutes," whose whole job is to do the industry's bidding and to persuade the public that environmental injury doesn't exist, that it's an illusion, that it's henny-penny-ism.

In most Americans' hearts, the investment in our environmental infrastructure is well worth making. They want our children to have clean air and clean water to drink, and they want to preserve the wild places that make America special, the places that are sacred to Americans.

But there is a marriage between the pollution interests and these right-wing paranoid movements led by people like Rush Limbaugh, Paul Weyrich, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. They got a huge infusion of money in the 1980s from big industrial polluters like Joseph Coors, and it suddenly gave them an enormous voice. This wing has come to dominate the Republican Party. And the central platform of all these groups is their anti-environmentalism. They're against any regulations that interfere with corporate profit-taking.

What about the Democratic Party? Isn't it part of the problem too? Democratic politicians receive money from many of these same corporate polluters. And Al Gore certainly failed to make the environment a major issue in the last presidential race, even though he was supposedly Mr. Environment.

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's because most of the candidates do not know how to explain these issues in a way that makes them relevant to the average voter. And in fact they have extraordinary relevance to average people. We're not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we're doing it because it enriches us. It's the basis of our economy, and we ignore that at our peril. The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of our environment. It also enriches us aesthetically and recreationally and culturally and historically -- and spiritually. Human beings have other appetites besides money, and if we don't feed them, we're not going to become the beings that our Creator intended us to become.

When we destroy the environment, we are diminishing ourselves and we're impoverishing our children. And our obligation as a generation -- as Americans, as a civilization -- is to create communities that give our children the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment as the communities that our parents gave us. And we cannot do that if we don't protect our environmental infrastructure. And that's really what this is all about.

So why didn't Al Gore go near this issue in the 2000 race?

That was a great disappointment to me. I urged him to do it. And I believe he would be president if he had.

Have you talked with him about it since the race?

No, not since the race. But I talked to him and to [key Gore advisor] Bob Shrum during the race.

And what was their explanation at the time -- that it wouldn't get him swing votes?

Their rationale was, No. 1, that they were talking about the environment, but that it wasn't getting traction with the press, and No. 2, that everyone knew that Gore was an environmentalist and he needed to establish his credentials in other areas.

But it was my feeling that Americans don't vote for a politician because he's mastered the issues -- they vote for a politician who they believe shares values with them. And is passionate about those values, and will fight for those values. And I think Gore's challenge was to explain the environment in ways that made Americans understand it was intertwined with all the other issues they cared about, and all their basic values.

Gore's failure was he didn't embrace the thing he genuinely cared about -- he didn't have the confidence to do that. Instead, he felt he had to prove his competence in all these other areas, to master the minutiae of every other issue. And Americans don't care about that.

I mean, look at George W. Bush -- he knows nothing about any issue. He doesn't seem to have a single complex thought in his head or shred of curiosity. I mean, he claims he doesn't even watch the news or read newspapers. But people find something kind of charming and trustworthy about his manner -- and that's all they need.

Ironically, the environment -- because he did care so strongly about it -- might have been the one issue that humanized Gore as a candidate.

Exactly. And make people trust him. Make them feel he's not just a guy who's following the polls and consumed by ambition. That he's running because he has a core value that he considers worth fighting for. That's the challenge that every politician has. Instead, people just saw him as a phony, that he didn't really believe in anything, aside from getting elected. And that his campaign wasn't about a vision for America and for the world -- it was just about ambition.

You've endorsed John Kerry in the 2004 race. Do you think he'll champion the environment more boldly than Gore in his campaign?

I think he already is; he's already framed this as his issue. I like all of the Democratic candidates and they're all relatively good on the environment. Actually, I don't know anything about Wes Clark on this issue, I haven't talked to him. But I have good friends who have and they say he's expressed strong feelings on the environment. So I think all the Democratic candidates are in the right place.

But Kerry has the best record of any senator; he has a 96 percent lifetime rating with the League of Conservation Voters. This has been a passion for him since he got into public life. He was the Massachusetts organizer for Earth Day in 1970, and he has fought hard for fuel efficiency standards, which is now the holy grail of the environmental movement. He's been the one consistent champion on that issue.

I've known Kerry almost all my life and he's an outdoorsman, he loves being on the water, he loves fishing. I've spent a lot of time on Nantucket Sound with him. Last summer he called my brother Max and asked him to come to Wood's Hole to go windsurfing with him, and they ended up windsurfing all the way from Wood's Hole to Nantucket, which is 45 miles, over open ocean. And that's pretty good for a 56-year-old guy. And he wasn't calling a press conference or anything. He just did it because they got into the water. It's genuine.

Have you campaigned for Kerry?

Yeah. But I also have relationships with all the other candidates. Whoever the Democrat is, I'm going to be supporting him. I want someone to beat Bush, that's all I care about. And I think Kerry is more likely to do that than any of the other candidates.

In a one-to-one debate, Kerry's unbeatable. He's a genuine war hero, unlike the draft dodgers who are now devising our foreign policy, Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle, DeLay. Of course there are lots of people who evaded the draft during Vietnam due to moral qualms about the war. But these characters were pro-war hawks. They just wanted someone else to die for our country. Kerry's record of bravery, on the other hand, will appeal to voters in swing states like South Carolina where there are plenty of veterans who understand the significance of the sacrifice that he was willing to make.

You talk a lot about the environment in spiritual terms. Are you a practicing Catholic?


And yet, as you point out in your Rolling Stone article, some of the most passionate ground troops for the anti-environment backlash have come from the Christian right. How do you make sense of that -- that these people are also inspired by religious conviction?

I would say what the fundamentalists call "dominion theology" is a Christian heresy. These are people who read the Bible in a certain way, to justify corporate domination of the planet, the same way people used to read the Bible to justify slavery.

Dominion Christians believe that the Apocalypse is coming soon, the planet was put here for us to exploit, to liquidate for cash, and we have a duty to do that -- even if we destroy nature in the process. Reagan's EPA chief James Watt was a radical dominion fundamentalist -- he believed it was sinful for us to protect the earth for future generations.

The industrialist who first recognized the potential for organzing these right-wing fanatics into a political movement was Joseph Coors, who was Colorado's biggest polluter. Coors engineered a pact between polluting industries and this marginalized, paranoid element that has existed throughout America's political history. This was in the 1980s, around the same time that world communism was falling apart, and so the right wing needed a new bugaboo. If you read Pat Roberts' book "New World Order," the evolution is clearly outlined; he says the new communists are the environmentalists. He calls them "watermelons" -- green on the outside, but red on the inside. And he makes the same association that the John Birch Society did -- that because Earth Day happened to fall on Lenin's birthday, this was evidence that environmentalists were the new secret spies of the new world order, as communism disappeared.

Robertson interprets American politics through the lens of his apocalyptic theology. He calls environmentalists "the minions of Satan," who are trying to turn America -- which is the New Jerusalem -- over to the philistines of the earth who seek to dominate us through internationalism and the U.N.

Does this radical fringe actually have influence within the Bush administration?

Absolutely. Many of Bush's key appointments come out of this far-right fringe and the industries that fund them. [Interior Secretary] Gale Norton was Watts' successor at Mountain States Legal Foundation. Steven Griles, an energy industry lobbyist who is now Norton's deputy, also came right out of Watts' shop, and now he's busy doing all these terrible things -- giving away our parks, punishing scientists who tell the truth. The administration is full of these people, like Andrew Card, Condoleezza Rice, Spencer Abraham -- they come out of the auto or oil industries, the militantly anti-environmental wing of industry.

Why do you think Christie Todd Whitman resigned as EPA chief?

It was clearly a no-win situation for her. Now Whitman had an absolutely miserable environmental record when she was governor of New Jersey; she was one of the worst governors in the country -- the first thing she did when she took office in New Jersey was fire every lawyer in the state environmental department who knew how to do enforcement. We would have fought her EPA appointment, but despite her disastrous record, she actually looked good in comparison to some of the other characters Bush was recruiting as Cabinet secretaries.

After she took over the EPA, she tried to rein in the Bush administration on Kyoto [the global warming accords] and made a couple of anemic efforts to mitigate the industry looting. But each time, she was humiliated by the White House and ended up looking like a feeble scold at a frat house orgy. So if you look at it from her point of view, she was not making friends with the environmental movement and she was not making friends within the Republican Party. So what's the point of being there? It was just an untenable, no-win situation for her.

So for someone like Christie Whitman to find herself in an untenable position ...

Shows the radicalism of this crowd. That they made her look moderate!

In Rolling Stone, you use the term "corporate fascism" to describe what's happening under Bush. Do you think that's excessive rhetoric?

No, I don't. When I was growing up, I was taught that communism leads to dictatorship and capitalism leads inevitably to democracy. And I think that's the assumption of most Americans. Certainly if you listen to people like Sean Hannity or any other voices of the right, there's an assumption that capitalism in any form is beneficial for democracy. But that's not always true. Free market capitalism certainly democratizes a nation and a people. But corporate capitalism has the opposite effect. The control of the capitalist system by large corporations leads to the elimination of markets and ultimately to the elimination of democracy. And we desperately need to understand that point in our country -- that the domination of our country by large corporations is absolutely catastrophic for our democratic process.

Corporations don't want free markets, they want profits. And the best way to guarantee profits is to eliminate the competition; in other words, eliminate the marketplace, through the control of government. And that's what we're seeing today in our country. There is no free market left in agriculture. The free market has almost been eliminated in the energy sector. These are two of our most critical sectors, and the marketplace has disappeared. We're seeing the same process underway in the media industry now. So there's very little consumer choice and Americans aren't getting the benefits and efficiencies that the free market promises us.

Under Bush we're seeing the complete corporate domination of the various departments of government. The Agriculture Department, which was created to benefit small farmers, is now a wholly owned subsidiary of big agribusiness and the principal instrument of their destruction. The Forest Service is being run by a timber industry lobbyist, Public Lands by a mining industry lobbyist. Virtually all Bush's Cabinet secretaries, department deputies and agency heads come from the very industries that those agencies are supposed to be regulating.

The same thing happened in Germany, Italy and Spain during the fascist takeover in the 1920s and '30s -- you had industrialists flooding the ministries and running the ministries, and running them in many ways for their own profit. If you read the American Heritage Dictionary definition of fascism, it says "the domination of a government by corporations of the political right, combined with bellicose nationalism." Well, we're seeing that today.

Of course the first people who start talking about this connection are going to be derided for it. Even though Rush Limbaugh calls feminists "Nazis." The right wing for years has tried to discredit anyone who believes in the idea of community as a "communist" or a "pinko." But it's time that people started telling the truth about what's going on in this country. And start realizing that democracy is fragile, that corporate cronyism is as antithetical to democracy in America as it is in Nigeria.

The other day I got something in the mail from a farmer -- small farmers in this country understand better than anyone how markets are being stolen and democracy is being eroded. He sent me a quote from Mussolini that said fascism should really be called "corporatism" -- because it's the control of government by large corporations.

Another farmer sent me my favorite quote. This one was by Lincoln, in 1863, during the height of the Civil War, when he says, "I have the South in front of me and the bankers behind me -- and for my country, I fear the bankers most." Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Eisenhower and all of our great leaders have warned our nation that the greatest threat to our democracy is from large corporate interests.

Many conservatives would say it's easy for wealthy liberals like the Kennedys to talk about saving the environment because they've amassed their wealth already. Your grandfather Joe Kennedy was the buccaneer capitalist who made the family fortune, and all his descendants are living off his wealth. But what about the rest of us, who are still clawing our way toward our piece of the American dream and are being hobbled by government regulations? These are people who equate environmentalism with elite liberalism, and the Kennedy name to them symbolizes all of that.

Well, let me say this: Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy, if we want to measure our economy -- and this is how we should be measuring it -- based on how it produces jobs, and the dignity of those jobs, and how it creates opportunity, and how it preserves the value of our nation's assets. If, on the other hand, you want to treat the planet the way the current Washington regime does, like it's a business in liquidation, to convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible, to have a few years of pollution-based prosperity, well then you can create the short-term illusion of a prosperous economy, but our children are going to pay for our joy ride. And they're going to pay for it with denuded landscapes and poor health and huge cleanup costs that they're never going to be able to pay. Environmental injury is deficit spending. It's a way of loading the costs of our prosperity onto the backs of our children.

So your environmentalism is not the luxury hobby of a rich kid?

There is no stronger advocate of free-market capitalism than myself. As a small businessman who is founder and operator of a bottled water company, I believe in and understand the free market a lot better than Sean Hannity ever will. But in a true free-market economy, you can't make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community. What polluters do is make themselves rich by making everyone else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves by lowering quality of life for everyone else. And they do that by escaping the discipline of the free market. Show me a polluter and I'll show you a subsidy, I'll show you a fat cat who's using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his costs of production.

You look at all the Western resource issues, like grazing and lumber and mining and agriculture, and it's all about subsidies -- for some of the richest people in America, these welfare cowboys in the Western states who are getting $35 billion a year in federal subsidies that are destroying our ecosystems out there. And these are the same people who financed this right-wing revolution on Capitol Hill and helped put Bush in the White House, and now they have their indentured servants in Washington all demanding that we have capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.

I'll give you another example of how pollution is a form of corporate subsidy. When General Electric dumped PCBs into the Hudson River, it was avoiding the costs of bringing its product to market, which was the cost of properly disposing of a dangerous processed chemical. But when it avoided the cost, the cost didn't just disappear -- it went into the fish, it made people sick, it put people who depend on the river for their livelihood out of work. I now have 1,000 commercial fishermen, my clients, who are now permanently out of work. It dried up the river's barge traffic because the shipping channels are now too toxic to dredge. It forced local towns along the Hudson to invest in expensive water filtration systems. Every woman between Oswego and New York has elevated levels of PCB in her breast milk. And everybody in the Hudson Valley has PCBs in our flesh and our organs. All those impacts impose costs on the rest of us that should, in a true free-market economy, be reflected in the prices of G.E. products when they make it to the market. But what G.E. did -- which is what all polluters do -- is use political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay the costs of its production.

G.E. was finally forced to pay some of the costs of the cleanup, wasn't it?

Well, they're going to do an initial cleanup, but that doesn't start until 2006. They'll never have to account for the true costs that they imposed on the Hudson River community. I don't even consider myself an environmentalist anymore; I consider myself a free marketeer. We go out into the marketplace and we catch the cheaters. And we say to them, "We're going to force you to internalize your costs, the same way you internalize your profits." Because when someone cheats the free market, it distorts the whole marketplace.

The Kennedy family and the Bush family are the two modern American political dynasties. How would you characterize the differences between the two families and what they stand for?

What I see is this. I think there's always been a tension in American history between two separate philosophies. One is the philosophy that was first articulated by Jonathan Winthrop when he made the most important speech in American history, in 1630, as he approached the New World with a convoy of Puritans. He was the Moses of the great Puritan migration. And he stood up on the deck of the sloop Arbella, and he gave his famous speech, which was called "A Model of Christian Charity." And he said this land is being given to us by God so that we can create cities on a hill, not so that we can increase our carnal opportunities or expand our self-interest or disappear into the lure of real estate, but so that we can build cities on a hill -- models to all the rest of the nations of what human beings can accomplish if they work together and maintain their focus on a spiritual mission. And even though he was a Puritan and an Englishman, what he said that day was integrated into the fabric of what became America.

Now that philosophy distinguished the European settlement of North America from the European conquest of Asia, Africa and Latin America -- where the Europeans came as conquistadors to subjugate the peoples, extract the metals, and enrich themselves and then keep moving. Here, in America, they came to build communities that were models to the rest of the world.

There is, of course, also a conquistador aspect to our American character, which really didn't take a strong hold in our nation until the Gold Rush of 1849, when people said, "Oh, this is a place where you can go and get rich quick and take care of yourself, and it's all about making my pile higher and whoever dies with the most stuff wins."

I think those two polarized philosophies provide the tension that has driven every major political conflict in American history. One vision is about building communities, and emphasizing that we can't advance as a nation by leaving our poor brothers and sisters behind, or by abandoning our obligation to the next generation. And the other philosophy is "just take care of myself," and that will somehow drive the economy and make us great.

So you think those clashing philosophies are what define the Kennedy family vs. the Bush family?

Well, I don't want to make generalizations about the whole Bush family, but I think it definitely defines the current president. He's got the conquistador mentality, that you take care of your friends, you enrich yourself, and that's the point of government.

I know you've been asked this question many times, but I'm going to ask it again. The legendary environmental activist Dave Foreman has said that what the movement needs is a leader with charismatic appeal to make these issues come alive for the American people. I can't think of any other environmentalist with as high a profile as you have -- and it's based not just on your name but years of hard work as an environmental activist. I think you did the right thing by keeping a low profile for many years and just letting your work speak for itself. And that's certainly a commendable thing. But at this stage, clearly what America lacks is a solid bench of talented, progressive leaders. The country is crying out for it now. I know there must be a number of personal reasons that have made you hold back from going into politics to espouse these ideas. But certainly if there were any time for a leader to articulate the environmental agenda -- which is a progressive social agenda, as you point out -- it would be now. So why haven't you run for public office -- is it something that you've ruled out forever?

No. But I would prefer not to run for political office, because of the costs it imposes on the rest of your life. I have six children. And my primary obligation is to them. Otherwise, I almost certainly would have run, if I did not have children.

What are their ages?

My oldest is 19, and my youngest is 2. But my aspiration is to try to be effective without imposing the costs of a political race on my kids. At this point I can travel a lot and bring my family with me, and I see them every night at dinnertime and I'm able to spend weekends with them, while at the same time I'm doing my best [in the public arena].

But in the last six months, I've made a shift -- I'm going to be doing more public stuff, because I believe that we win this debate if the public understands it. And it seems so overwhelming a battle a lot of the time, because industry has so much money to get their arguments out there, and we have so little. But as Winston Churchill said, you just have to keep talking about it, you have to keep telling the story again and again and again. And ultimately the public will realize the truth. And I see that as my role. I'm going to do everything I can to tell this story to as many people as possible, with the hope that at some point the public will recognize the truth, and when they do, they'll share the same kind of anger and indignation that I feel.

I believe that George W. Bush is stealing my country, that he is absolutely stealing the environment from our children, stealing the breath from my children's lungs and stealing the Bill of Rights, selling off the sacred places, and trashing all the things I value about America. Our reputation across the globe, the love and admiration that other peoples and nations once had for America, the safety of our nation, the security of our children, the economy, the ability of our children to educate themselves for the future -- it's all being liquidated by this president for his wealthy friends and contributors. And I am so furious at this man for stealing the thing I love most, which is America, my country.

As a young man, your father was among the first public officials to recognize the dangers of organized crime, how it was infiltrating and corrupting business, labor and politics and undermining the nation. This threat clearly brought out the passionate crusader in your father. And I'm wondering if there is a parallel between his crusade against the underworld bosses and your own campaign against corporate polluters?

I'm very comfortable with my father's philosophies, and I feel very strongly that my life in many ways is an extension of the battles that he was trying to fight. His book on organized crime was titled "The Enemy Within" -- and I think the enemy within is still the greatest threat to our country, but it's no longer the Mafia, it's corporate control of our country and our communities, it's the erosion of democracy. I'm not scared of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. They can never hurt America in any fundamental way. As Teddy Roosevelt said, American democracy will never be destroyed by outside enemies -- but it can be destroyed by the malefactors of great wealth who subtly rob and undermine it from within. And I see that process happening today. And just as there were a lot of people who denied that the Mafia existed at that time, today there's a huge lobby that is denying the fact that our democracy is really threatened by corporate control.

Before I let you go, I have to ask you about the latest elected official in the extended Kennedy clan, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you think Schwarzenegger, knowing him as you do, will prove to be the governor who cozied up with Ken Lay of Enron or, as he claims he will, the governor of the people?

I think Arnold will be good for California. I think that having a Republican in office is always a bad thing, because you're bringing in the people who got you elected -- the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Farm Bureau, the American Petroleum Institute, and all of these kind of bad characters, the pirates of the American economy. But I think Arnold will be good. He said to me last summer, during an August weekend on Cape Cod, that he wanted to make the environment one of his key issues, that he was going to be the greatest environmental governor in the history of California. And he asked me then to help him put together a team. I didn't endorse him because I had a close relationship with Governor Gray Davis and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who had done decent things on the environment. But I helped Arnold put together an environmental policy, which Arnold read and then adopted. And it's probably stronger than Gore's policy. It's certainly stronger than anybody else who was running for California governor, with the exception of the Green Party candidate.

I'll be able to answer this question better in a little while, when Arnold will announce the new chief of California's Environmental Protection Agency. I encouraged Arnold to name a very strong conservationist, Terry Tamminen, who is the Santa Monica Baykeeper, to the post. And it looks like he's going to do it. And there's never been anyone with those kind of environmental credentials in that position. [Last week Schwarzenegger did indeed name Tamminen as his new environmental secretary.]

I know he was urged by very strong Republicans not to appoint Terry. I have a friend who was in the room with him when Arnold received a call from a Republican whom he's very fond of and who's in his inner circle [he was later identified in press reports as Schwarzenegger's powerful transition chief, California Rep. David Dreier], and he said to Arnold, "You cannot appoint Terry Tammimen." And Arnold said to him, "I deeply appreciate the work you did on my campaign and I value your advice, but I'm the governor and I'm going to appoint who I want." That made me extremely encouraged and proud.

Arnold still has one environmental flaw, his love of Hummers -- have you talked to him about that?

(Laughs) Yeah, extensively. He understands the issue and he's converting one of his Hummers to hydrogen. And he also understands that he needs to exert his influence on Detroit. And he supports the California fuel efficiency bill, which will make it the most progressive state in the country.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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