The new book by award-winning historian Douglas Brinkley (@ProfDBrinkley), 'Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America,' explores our 32nd president's environmental legacy. Brinkley sat down with Jim to talk about the legacy and how our modern-day presidents and presidential candidates compare.
Jim Braude: So we all know FDR's immense legacy on the economy and international affairs and I assume I'm not that atypical. When you read this you see how deeply committed he was to the environment. Why did this matter so much to FDR?
Douglas Brinkley: Because it mattered to Theodore Roosevelt a lot and everything FDR did he modeled himself after TR. That was one big thing but also he was born along the Hudson River. And that whole Hudson River Valley is storied in American history. It's a sanctified landscape. And a lot of our early conservation principles come from there. I mean he was a boy that was engaged with the protection of the Catskills, the Adirondacks wilderness for a while, you know.
JB: I went to Grossinger's and so I know the Catskills.
DB: And so that he always represented upstate New York. I think a mistake when we say FDR New York, everybody thinks its the city but he really represented the farmers, the foresters, the outdoor recreationists in that part so it came quite naturally to him both by family and topography.
JB: Give us the Cliff Notes version of his greatest accomplishments. What are his major environmental conservation creeds?
DB: Well as President, 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted nearly three billion trees, billion, across America. People think about the Great Depression and they think the stock market crash but our whole country was denuded. We had to do massive reforestation, we had to combat the Dust Bowl and soil erosion so we put these unemployed men, paid them a dollar a day and had them go to national parks.
JB: Three million of them right?
DB: Yep, 3.4 million eventually go through the CCC and they've created this beautiful outdoor recreation infrastructure whether it's Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado or ski slope lodges in Vermont, on and on. It was a very, I think the most successful of the New Deal programs.
JB: You know I'm so glad you started with that because the tension we today I know existed in his administration, this you're either for economic health or you're for environmental health. But he believed they were interdependent. Is that not so?
DB: Completely. It's crucial to him in any big public works project he'd do, like the Tennessee Valley Authority to electrify the rural South there, it'd also be a conservation component to an outdoor recreation area. You know something adjacent to it. He constantly wanted to play the balance now his heart was as a wilderness protector and he was a big believer in the National Park Service. He went to Glacier and famously did a radio broadcast from way up there in Montana and said there's nothing more American than the national parks. And he went on to say places like the Great Smokies in Everglades, Big Ben, Joshua Tree, the Olympics, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Cave. I could go on and on and on and at the back of my book I list all the great places he saved in America.
JB: Do the American people get the interdependency because that's another great tension in America in 2016, not only between the parties but between the electorate. Did they get it?
DB: Rural people seem to get it because all the ducks and geese were gone and so on one hand they wanted roads they wanted construction projects and the other hand they wanted their their way of life back. They wanted to be able to have streams that had fish in it they wanted lakes they could swim in. And Roosevelt was a big believer in outdoor recreation and yet also as the person gives us the Grand Coulee Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge and all this, so he would say that they have to go there in tandem, you have to do both.
JB: Well it wasn't just dams, you mentioned farms, and the other farm subsidy program is another thing that sort of was ran counter to his environmental cord. Did it not?
DB: And look I can praise the CCC to Holy Heaven but they also planted kudzu in the South which grows wild and they misplanted cottonwood trees where they shouldn't. There were errors made. But it turned a group of young urban Americans with no future, and it told them, "Care about the land. You are the land steward." And whatever Franklin Roosevelt did he wanted to see land managed properly. It was a number one pet peeve. I've even discovered letters he wrote like this Shah of Iran. After going there for Tehran and you know conferences and during the World War Two when he writes, "I've been here and you're reaching a point, you have soil erosion problem. Let me fix it for you. We could do tree planting." FDR would always put on occupation tree grower or tree farmer, because he ran a tree plantation on the Hudson and also Warm Springs, Georgia was a tree plantation where he created a retreat for people with polio.
JB: Wilderness Warrior, speaking of Teddy Roosevelt, was your great book on Teddy Roosevelt. How do they compare in terms of their approach to preserving and actually expanding environmental protection?
DB: They're very similar in some regards but Theodore Roosevelt was a writer and he loved to write himself into his his narrative you know his travels and so if he goes to the Amazon, he writes a book about the Brazilian wilderness Theodore Roosevelt. Well FDR as I write in my book, 1938 goes to the Galapagos and disappears for weeks as president following in the footsteps of Darwin but he doesn't write a word about it. In fact he wants it kind of quiet. I was able to find this archive of Dr. Waldo Schmidt at the Smithsonian that had diaries and recreate that trip. So that's one difference, publicizing themselves via writing.
But a bigger thing is, he liked exploration and loved you know going, he liked big monumental things, Theodore Roosevelt. Yellowstone and Yosemite. FDR was more a backyard naturalism, have a vegetable garden. Take care of the birds at the bird feeder, keep your local rivers clean. He wasn't quite as grandiose. And also about regulation-- by the time the 1930s what FDR is basically doing is saying, "We need an EPA." We don't get the Environmental Protection Agency until 1970 but the mechanisms are coming into place during the New Deal. Sewage treatment and things that aren't as exciting as you know saving a Buffalo. But they are just as important, more important in many ways. If the sewage treatment alone doesn't get covered but gosh is that a big big topic.
JB: Is he the greatest environmental president? And before you answer there've been a ton of pieces I'd say in the last six months saying the greatest environmental president is the current one. Not because he's passed any laws because I don't think he has but people say his interpretation of the clean water Act of 1970 I think it was and the executive actions he's taken has made more progress on the environmental front than anybody. Who's number one and how do the two compare?
DB: Well, I put on the very top of Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore. There are different ways but they are almost in a league unto themselves because they put environment conservation, whatever you want to call it, as the number one priority of their presidencies, over and over and over again. Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, have been very strong. And in Obama's case his fight on climate change and reducing coal you know emissions and from fossil fuels on that he is an environmental president-- I give him high marks but not not in the same degree as FDR and Theodore Roosevelt.
JB: Have you ever been to Cape Cod?
DB: I have.
JB: Don't leave JFK out, on the National Seashore, my friend.
DB: That's a very beautiful. And also he did South Padre Island, Texas National Seashore, and point race California. So Kennedy. Kennedy was good too.
JB: Let's fast forward for a second. You see any FDR in any of the three people left standing?
DB: Well that's, I would say no. But he liked to do big things FDR you know.
JB: Like Donald Trump?
DB: Well there's a little bit of that grandiosity that's there. I mean Stalin once said that Churchill will negotiate with you and try to sneak his hand and grab a coin, where that FDR just comes right up to you sticks both hands in and pulls everything out. And so both Roosevelts, TR and FDR there's a little of that narcissistic kind of personality of grandiosity, wherever those those words meet, that you see a little bit in Trump but that's about it. I mean FDR was about the people. He was a democratic socialist. His philosophy was closer to Bernie Sanders than, than even you know Hillary Clinton or and certainly of compared to Donald Trump.
JB: What's the closest you've seen in American history to the Trump phenomenon of 2016?
DB: I compare it to people like Huey Long on a smaller scale because you know Long would do chicken in every pot and promise middle lower middle class all these gifts, types of things their whole lives are going to change but also did with a kind of a panache and humor. George Wallace, there's kind of a racist kind of card you see Trump play. The Ross Perot syndrome of "I'm a billionaire and can self-finance myself," and remember Perot got 19 percent of the vote on "The sucking sound you hear are jobs leaving the country," meaning anti-NAFTA. And if Trump is able to win it's going to be because of the Midwest turning on NAFTA.
JB: Does 'Trumpism,' whatever it is, survive? Let's assume Trump is not elected president. Does it survive the Trump candidacy?
JB: These kinds of things?
DB: No. I think it will it survive because you may be seeing the last gasp of of white male America, sense of privilege and you know prerogative kind of shrinking. This may be a spasm here. I don't think there's this Trump, 'Trumpism. Is, if it doesn't work with Donald Trump this time around I think it will shrink as being a fringe part of the Republican Party, or you know a libertarian movement.
JB: You know we see a lot on CNN John King with the magic wall. Does this masterful work where he describes, well Trump is more favored by 5 percent of the economy but when you go to these industrial rust belt states in the Midwest he's favored by 25 points on the economy. If he can win them and maybe Florida says the master of the Electoral College John King, he can be the president. Can he be president?
DB: Yes he can. I would not underestimate Trump's position right now at all because I'm from Ohio and a lot of people there ready to vote for Trump. And if they get. If Trump can grab Ohio and Michigan and maybe put Pennsylvania in play. It's going to be close. It's, we have red states blue states and it's right back to these six swing states or so. But I think it's all about those Midwest and Trump's polling fairly well there.
JB: One last thing about current politics which isn't about politicians, about the press. Your great book about Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, even though I have to say there are some ethical lapses that I never knew about until I read your book, could Walter Cronkite exist in 2016?
DB: On PBS, on you know something you know, on NPR, but he was not of this ilk of entertainment bleeding into news and hyping 24/7, you know. That wasn't his style.
JB: Why was he the most trusted man in America?
DB: Because he triple sourced everything. He never broke news that wasn't right, he didn't have to do a lot of retraction. He also didn't show favoritism, he kind of did straight balls down the middle.
JB: Well for LBJ he showed a little favoritism.
DB: That's when it broke, by '68. Up until that point and then the people he was a leader in the anti-war movement inadvertently. But I think people just like the cut of his jib. You know in in the kind of the Midwest steadiness. In movies you go to see, you can go see a George Clooney movie and say, "I didn't like it" and then I have to live with Clooney for a year but with television you come in every day and so you have to wear well on people and Cronkite knew how to break through the glass and seem to be a family member or Uncle Walter.
JB: Let's end where we began Douglas Brinkley. What's the moral of the story from FDR for policymakers in 2016?
DB: Well on my book is that the environment matters, it's everything. That's our inheritance, the public lands, we have to protect them and we've got to clean, keep our rivers clean we can't gauge them every time there's a recession. And there's in the western states, we saw the takeover of a wildlife refuge by Yahoo and I mean so we've got to learn to treasure our over 550 National Wildlife Refuge, and thank people that work for the National Parks Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and state parks and people that do historical, you know preservation work. These are great American citizens and we've got to learn, I think, to say thanks to all of them.
JB: Another great book. Thank you.
DB: Thanks so much.