The Clinton EPA Building? Why Not Nixon?

The Clinton EPA Building? Why Not Nixon?

By Carl M. Cannon - July 29, 2013

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has renamed Washington's Ariel Rios Building the William Jefferson Clinton Building. If you never heard of the Rios Building, that's because nobody in Washington, even the people who worked there, ever referred to it that way. The building is the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is called, well, "EPA headquarters."

Ariel Rios was an incongruous person to name it after in the first place. He was an undercover federal agent murdered in 1982 by South Florida drug dealers. A hero, yes, but not an environmental hero.

Yet Bill Clinton is also an unlikely person to rename the building after. For starters, he's still alive, which makes me happy, as both a newsman and a human being, as I covered him for eight years and got to know him. But naming things after living politicians seems fraught. If you lived in New York, how comfortable would you be using the facilities, say, at a New York Thruway stop named The Anthony Weiner Rest Area.

Moreover, Bill Clinton was only tangentially interested in environmental issues as president. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but another U.S. president actually launched EPA. His name was Richard M. Nixon.

Apparently, Democrats seem intent on airbrushing the Nixon administration out of history, and with little objection from Republicans. At the EPA renaming ceremony, Clinton-era EPA administrator Carol Browner implied that she, Clinton, and Al Gore launched the agency.

"Twenty years ago," Browner said, "we embarked on a journey that has led to unprecedented success in cleaning our air and water and protecting our communities."

"This was a very strong building and Bill Clinton was a very strong president," added California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation that made it happen. She also crowed that the edifice "will be forever known as the William Jefferson Clinton Building."

The do-over on the name passed Congress unanimously, meaning that Republicans went along. In return, they got a Texas courthouse named after George W. Bush and his father. This doesn't seem a fair trade, unless one considers the antipathy modern Republicans feel for environmental regulators. In other words, they couldn't care less who that building is named after.

But is it fair to history? Yes, Richard Nixon had his problems. As Jack Torry of the Columbus Dispatch pointed out after the EPA ceremony, some people think that if a federal building is named after Nixon, it should be a federal prison. But isn't Nixon one of three presidents to face the threat of impeachment? And wasn't Bill Clinton one of the other two? There's a larger point here, which is that naming stuff is too important to be left to incumbent politicians.

That's how the nice California airport that straddles Costa Mesa and Santa Ana came to be John Wayne International. Some commercial airline types still call it by the old name -- Orange County Airport -- although adding to the confusion is its airport code of SNA, which brings to mind Santa Ana more than John Wayne -- or even Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, if you follow my meaning. What did John Wayne have to do with aviation anyway? Asked about this a few years ago by a wisenheimer Chicago newspaper man, John Wayne International official Katie Rutherford replied, "He was a real American hero."

Actually, The Duke was an actor, not a hero, although they can be the same thing. Maybe you see where I'm going with this: Why is no major airport named after Jimmy Stewart, who was an actor, a war hero, and a decorated pilot?

Orange County officials can keep the John Wayne moniker or not -- I'm all about local control -- but I live in Arlington, Va., home of the airport (sort of) named after Ronald Reagan. Here's a modest proposal. Let's rename it after Jimmy Stewart. This solution would clear up some confusion. The airport's official name is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and some of this confusion is deliberately caused by local liberals who defiantly called it "National."

There's a small regional airport in western Pennsylvania named after Stewart, but we in Washington need the name more than they do -- for its bipartisan appeal, if nothing else. I'm not dissing Reagan here, and not trying to interfere with tax crusader Grover Norquist's ambitious plans to name something after Reagan in every state and all 3,000-odd counties in the country.

Ronald Reagan admired Stewart for answering the call in World War II before the rest of the country did, and the two men were good friends from their moviemaking days. Stewart was also a Republican who campaigned for Reagan (who, in private, did a pretty good Stewart impression).

But Jimmy Stewart was much loved by Democrats, too, who identify with his performance in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” "America lost a national treasure today," President Clinton said when the actor passed away in 1997. "Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot."

And as far as I know he never set foot in the William Jefferson Clinton Building. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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