In the first of year long series of Richard Nixon Legacy Forums, four distinguished members of RN’s Domestic Council were at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on Friday, January 8th to discuss the President’s innovations on far reaching issues including health care reform, environmental protection, energy conservation and government organization.
Moderating the panel was Domestic Council Associate Geoff Shepard who spoke about government organization and the origins of the Domestic Council.
Shepard explained that the Domestic Council started in the Nixon White House as a counterpart to the National Security Council to provide the President with information and analysis before he implemented policy.
“The staff was housed in the Executive Office of the President and became professional assurors of a fair and balanced memo,” Shepard explained. Their “job was to review and prepare for the President the context of the issue.”
Discussing healthcare policy was Dr. James Cavanaugh, who served as the chief principal on RN’s proposal for healthcare overhaul in the early Seventies.
“That program if enacted would have fixed the problem.” Cavanaugh said. “The President was quite serious in his instruction he gave to Cap (Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Caspar Weinberger) and to me. What he wanted was a program that would meet the test – be public and private – cover the people that needed coverage, yes provide a mandate,” “but he wanted to do it in such a way that would pass the Congress.”
After meeting with union leaders, Senator Kennedy later stopped the plan in its tracks believing that he could attain a better deal for the Democratic Party, a decision he would later come to regret.
For Cavanaugh, the centerpiece of RN’s legacy in healthcare was the National Cancer Act of 1971, which the President of the National Cancer Society called a “wonderful Christmas present for the 52 million people who will develop cancer” and “probably the greatest thing ever been done by the United States.”
“I think for people who follow health issues, who follow health policy, who follow the history of healthcare programs in this country,” RN’s legacy “will be fairly good.” Cavanaugh said. “People who realistically look at what his program had look at it favorably.”
Discussing environmental protection was longtime RN associate and trained geologist Dr. John Whitaker. In addition to serving on RN’s Domestic Council, Whitaker went on to become Undersecretary of the Interior in both the Nixon and Ford Administrations.
While Whitaker had the environmental portfolio on the Domestic Council, the environmental movement proclaimed the first observance of Earth Day. “He (RN) and Theodore Roosevelt were the two most famous presidents to deal with the environment. I would put him strictly in Roosevelt’s class if not ahead of him.” Whitaker said. “Nixon “institutionalized the environment,” if the “government comes out with a program that’s not pro environment it spikes right away again.”
Whitaker also helped spearhead RN’s Legacy of Parks program, an initiative that lead to the conversion of over 80,000 acres of government property to parks open to all Americans.
“He used to talk about how the poor kids in his neighborhood couldn’t get in the family car and drive to Yosemite or up to Yellowstone and how parks ‘needed to be near a people,’ Whitaker said, “the final result of what we did was to make many of the government agencies shed a lot of the land that they owned and make it into parks. “He created 600 and some parks that way including the Gateway to the East and West in New York City and San Francisco, two of the largest parks in the country.”
The final speaker in the panel was Ambassador Richard Fairbanks, who served in the Nixon White House as the Associate Director for energy, environmental and natural resources policy on the Domestic Council.
According to Fairbanks, before RN the words “energy policy” had never been spoken by a United States President, also marking the first time the issue had been talked about in a “cohesive manner” in terms of both its ‘domestic and international implications.”
Fairbanks – who went on to serve as the lead negotiator for Middle East peace during the Reagan Administration — also contends that RN’s policy as articulated in 1973 was groundbreaking in terms of its environmental understanding and its cost effectiveness, early thinking that lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Energy Policy which later became the Department of Energy.
“We put the bedrock in,” Fairbanks said. “The bedrock has stayed and people haven’t even thought of changing those bedrock ideas.”
Photo, Pictured left to right: The program featured Geoff Shepard on government re-organization, James Cavanaugh on health care reform, John Whitaker on environmental protection and Ambassador Richard Fairbanks on energy conservation.