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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 619

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This is the grave of Russell Train.

Born in 1920 in Jamestown, Rhode Island, Train grew up in Washington, D.C. His father was Admiral Charles Russell Train, who was usually gone on assignment. When Admiral Train was around, he was Hoover’s naval advisor and therefore his son grew up in the Washington Republican elite of the late 20s and the Great Depression. He spent quite a bit of time in the White House as a boy, being a favorite of Hoover’s wife, even staying the night sometimes. He went to elite schools and then went to Princeton, graduating in 1941 with a degree in political science. He was in the ROTC at Princeton and became an Army officer upon graduation. He of course served through the entirety of World War II, leaving the service as a major. He then went to Columbia Law, where he finished his degree in 1948.

He spent the first couple of decades of his career as a pretty standard Washington Republican semi-aristocrat. He became an attorney for several congressional committees and sometimes had more responsibility than that. In 1956 and 1957, he was head of the legal advisory staff for the Treasury Department. Now, the government has laws preventing recent Treasury Department appointees from being then appointed to other related positions. But do you think something like that would ever stop the Republican Party? Ha ha ha, no. Of course not. Train was named a judge for the U.S. Tax Court in 1957 and held that position until 1965.

But there was one remarkable thing about Train–his commitment to environmentalism. In fact, a lot of early environmentalism came from conservatives, especially relatively moderate and wealthy northern conservatives. Train was certainly one of those. In 1959, he founded the Wildlife Leadership Foundation to fight for wildlife parks. He was especially interested in helping the new nations of Africa manage their wildlife to preserve it and in 1961, started the African Wildlife Foundation to move that goal forward. He became the first VP of the newly established World Wildlife Fund that same year. In 1965, he became the head of the Conservation Foundation, which he held for four years.

When Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, Train was his top environmental advisor. To be clear, Nixon didn’t care one iota about environmental issues. Not at all. If anything, he was personally hostile. When Train explained to Nixon about the need for proper land management, Nixon responded by claiming that he and Bebe Rebozo were playing golf at this resort in Florida and wanted to cut down some trees in a mangrove swamp that blocked their view but couldn’t because of the law and wasn’t that awful. Train held his tongue. But Nixon also recognized that even though his business buddies hated it and were in the early stages of making it a partisan issue, at the time, environmentalism was extremely popular throughout the nation and that politically, it was an issue where if he showed leadership, he hoped he could peel off some liberals that would allow him to engage in his preferred activities of bombing the people of the Southeast Asia and punching hippies. It helped that nearly every bill that passed Congress on any environmental subject was being passed with massive veto-proof majorities, some nearly unanimous. This also goes to the absurdity of calling Nixon a great environmental president or, God forbid, the last liberal president, as the occasionally daft lefty with no concept of history or politics would do when trying to slam on Obama. Nearly any president would have done the same thing given those politics of 1969.

Anyway, Train was on board with all of this and as a real environmentalist, played an important role in shaping American environmental policy over the next few years. In fact, Train is who sold Nixon on the political benefits of environmentalism. He was first named as the chairman of Nixon’s Task Force on Environment in late 1968, shortly after the election. He was named Under Secretary of the Interior in 1969 and then in 1970, headed the newly formed Council on Environmental Quality. Even George McGovern praised his nomination. At Interior, Train was appointed to be the antidote to the awful pro-business hack Wally Hickel who Nixon named to head the department, a man who Ed Muskie started screaming at shortly before his confirmation hearing when the new appointee brought James Watt with him to visit the leading senator. Train was supposed to solve these problems and did, at least to some extent. In fact, when Hickel ordered Train to give Watt a high-ranking position, Train outright refused and Hickel backed down. Train was also possibly more responsible for the critically important National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 than any other person. This is the law that basically created the administrative state to work on these environmental issues that modern fascists in the Trump administration and in the Republican Party generally so despise.

Then, in 1973, Train was tapped to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Staying in this position until 1977, he may have been the best EPA administrator to the present. He pushed forward the approval of the catalytic converter to get the auto industry to comply with the Clean Air Act. He was in charge in implementing such important new laws as the Toxic Substances Control Act and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. He successfully fought to ban several of the most toxic pesticides used in American agriculture. He also worked to start environmental dialogue with the Soviets, helping Nixon’s foreign policy agenda there too. Train’s work got harder as things went along, as Nixon began to rant against environmentalists and complained that he couldn’t out-Muskie Muskie so why bother. Ford temperamentally was of course very different than Nixon but he also was extremely conservative, even more than Nixon, and so certainly didn’t support a vigorous EPA, even if he didn’t openly rail against it.

In 1978, Train became president of the World Wildlife Fund, serving until 1985, while remaining the group’s chairman until 1994. He was big on using debt forgiveness as a tool to protect ecologically sensitive and wildlife rich areas in the developing world. Unfortunately, even as environmentalism became a partisan issue, with Republicans becoming openly hostile to the issue, Train remained a good Republican. George H.W. Bush claimed he wanted to be “the environmental president” but this was obviously ridiculous in 1988 and was certainly proved so over the next 4 years. But Train was Bush’s campaign advisor on environmentalism and was named chairman of the National Commission on the Environment in 1990, staying in that position until 1992. In 1991, Bush repaid Train by giving him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2003, Train published a memoir entitled Politics, Pollution, and Panda: An Environmental Memoir, but I have never read it. He died in 2012, at the age of 92.

His wife Aileen, who was by his side in their environmental commitment and who seems to have been a skilled Washington hostess of the old set, is of course buried with him. She was particularly interested in consumer-based environmentalism and in the mid-60s, founded a non-profit called Concern, Inc, that tried to link the two ideas. She was later on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Summit Fund of Washington, as well as a long-time volunteer for Planned Parenthood. In other words, she was a committed person in her own right, but given the time, place, and milieu, generally operated in the shadow of her husband, using her social skills to advance his agenda.

Russell and Aileen Train are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. This was a grave I just happened to stumble across when looking for someone else, which is always nice.

If you would like this series to visit other EPA heads, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Anne Gorsuch, mother of THAT Gorsuch, who was Reagan’s first EPA administrator, is in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and, well, she’s the only other EPA head I can get burial details on, as people such as William Ruckelshaus, who died last year, don’t have any information available online. Maybe that will change. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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