Sen. Robert T. Stafford, left, at the end of his 17-year Senate career, is seen in 1989 with Sen. James M. Jeffords, at the beginning of his.
I was flabbergasted reading Elizabeth Courtney’s July 28 commentary “The True Cost of Fossil Fuels.”
While calling the roll of Vermont’s historic environmental leaders, she pointedly praised “our U.S. senators, notably George Aiken, Patrick Leahy, Jim Jeffords and Bernie Sanders” for having “contributed to a proud legacy of environmental stewardship.” Inexplicably and stunningly, she omitted the name that belongs at the top of that list: Rutland’s Robert Stafford. I am not trying to pick on Elizabeth Courtney, whom I respect. Nevertheless, her historical lacuna deserves correction.
Perhaps it is easy to forget Bob Stafford. After all, The New York Times once described him as someone who “may give the worst interview of any public official in the capital,” a man who “not only upheld the reputation of New Englanders for being laconic; he enhanced it.” True, Stafford never spent much time tooting his horn; he was not a walking billboard for his own ego. Yet, as the Times also reported, in his quiet way he made his words count.
While the Stafford name was recently spotlighted during the nationwide debate over the federal student loan program, there is more to his congressional record than that. Notably, he helped nurture the first shoots of our landmark environmental laws. Once they flowered, he was there to defend them when opponents attempted to trample them underfoot.
That time came in 1981, when Ronald Reagan moved into the White House and Bob Stafford slid into the chairman’s seat of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. For 20 years, he had never been in the majority party, but for the next six, this quiet environmentalist seized the day. He became the most powerful and effective defender against his own party’s assaults on our federal laws governing clean air, clean water and toxic waste.
In 1988, his last year in office and in the minority again, Bob Stafford saved perhaps his best for last.
In a series of prophetic speeches on the Senate floor, he called attention to global warming, well before that subject was in the public consciousness, and introduced comprehensive legislation to combat it and other threats to our atmosphere.
A quarter-century later, the World Wildlife Federation was still quoting from those Stafford speeches. And had his proposal been enacted, according to one former aide, our carbon dioxide omissions by now would have been cut in half.
No wonder the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote shortly after his retirement, “Long before Time magazine declared the Earth ‘Planet of the Year,’ there was Sen. Robert T. Stafford, a Vermonter who loved the planet before it was hot.”
What a testament: a Vermonter who loved the planet before it was hot. How did Elizabeth Courtney miss all this? Recalling Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark, did her omission signify something more than historical ignorance? Could it be that, even in Vermont, the term “environmentalist” has become so compromised and conditioned that we no longer recognize the real thing when we see it?
George Aiken advocated damming up Victory Bog for recreation; Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders bless mountaintop sacrifices to the false god of industrial wind. If they can make Elizabeth Courtney’s list, why not Bob Stafford, whose environmental record outweighs that of all three combined?
That, of course, is for her to answer. In the meantime, though, the rest of us should seriously ask ourselves this: Despite our constant bragging about Vermont’s environmental credibility, do we truly have the courage of Bob Stafford’s convictions? One can only hope.
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