Vice President Dick Cheney's energy speech last week fell on green ears with the harshness of a brusque directive from the supreme command of the Sopranos. Here's how it sounded to them:
Cheney to environmentalists: Drop dead.
Cheney to conservationists: Fuggedaboutit.
The message: Conservation is for sissies and self-righteous fatheads who think they're better than real people.
Real men drill.
Real men dig coal.
Real men go nuclear.
Everything about Cheney's speech was macho, beginning with the site where he chose to deliver it -- Toronto. America's coal-burning power plants are Canada's acid rain.
The administration is a bit jumpy about the environment -- at least when the polls show a reason for concern. Oil men like President Bush and Cheney simply do not understand why so many people are uptight about the outdoors, with no consideration for the boardroom or the bottom line.
The White House was taken aback by the howls that greeted early devil-may-care sallies on global warming and arsenic levels in drinking water. Bush threw a few bones to the environmentalists, and serious planet-preservers like New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a leading Republican moderate, began to breathe easier.
The Cheney energy speech put an end to all that happy talk, although the president sent a few paragraphs to his Second Thoughts Shop. It was a busy week for those charged with management of the We-Were-Only-Kidding, Have-You-Seen-Those-Polls? section of the White House. Once the president's men got that great rush of gushy 100-Days reviews about decisiveness and crisp management style, it was perhaps inevitable that they would do a little stumbling around.
For two hours on Wednesday, for instance, we were no longer speaking to the Chinese military. Brass-to-brass contacts were suspended, the Pentagon said. While the world was pondering the consequences, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his brass were putting the machinery into reverse. All contacts, a second announcement said, would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
The backup on energy conservation took longer. On Monday, Cheney dumped on the sun-wind-and-water set, and it took until Thursday for the president to show up with the dustpan and brush. How could anyone think, he said, that Bushies were against conservation? Had not the president that very day sent the energy secretary himself to La-La Land to turn out the lights?
Cheney's right hand, Mary Matalin, says it means that the press got it wrong, that Cheney favors conservation -- but as part of a mix.
Greg Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls Cheney's blueprint the "more pollution solution" and one that will do nothing to relieve the present energy crisis, whereas simple measures such as efficiency standards in home appliances would help dramatically -- and immediately.
The Energy Department Web site still features a department study, dated last November, which claims that 60 percent of the country's energy needs could be met by modest modifications in our cooling and heating habits.
Last week, the White House emitted another major policy speech on a subject that cries out for second thoughts. The president spoke on Tuesday at the National Defense University about Star Wars, a project close to his heart.
His discussion of the nuclear missile defense was strikingly different from Cheney's blast on energy. Bush's tone was measured, moderate -- so much so that the expected explosions in Moscow, Europe and Washington did not occur. The president wants to abandon the 1972 ABM Treaty that forbids deployment of a nuclear missile defense system, but he stated his opposition, for once, in rational terms, and he reached out to Russia for cooperation. He recognized the technological difficulties that have prevented the fulfillment of even a limited version of Ronald Reagan's fantasy.
Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, found the speech "very clever" -- "Bush made an excellent case against the ABM Treaty as a Cold War relic." But the president was still peddling a dangerous doctrine that enrages China and Russia and disturbs our allies. The ABM Treaty may be old hat, but it is all we have in the way of a framework for arms control. Bush offers no substitutes. Berger said, "The arms race will be unregulated, it will lead to the same chaos that came to California when they deregulated energy."
Star Wars, which needs more second thoughts than any item on the national agenda, seems likely to get none. Alas.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company