Boomers Watched Presidents Make Their “Big Ask”

When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress last week, it may have seemed like deja vu all over again for boomers. The reason for this is very simple; every president during the boomer era has addressed Congress with an ambitious agenda that amounted to a “big ask.” Indeed, suggesting legislation is a main part of the job and a good part of why we elect presidents. See if you remember this portion of our shared history, now that decades have passed and we have had the benefit of hindsight to evaluate their effect on our lives.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower — National Interstate Highways
For many people, Eisenhower’s signature legislation was the building of the interstate highway system. President Eisenhower officially introduced his proposal to Congress on February 22, 1955. A year later Congress allocated $26 billion for the construction of the 40,000 mile system of interconnected highways. Construction began in 1956, but wasn’t completed until 1992, so the budget had ultimately ballooned to more than $115 billion.

President John F. Kennedy — Man on the Moon
The Space Race began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. The U.S. soon matched Soviet orbiting satellites and established a manned space program. In 1961, Kennedy upped the ante by stating the goal of sending men to the moon and back by the end of the decade. He addressed Congress on May 25, 1961. Project Mercury was already two years old, and only two weeks earlier on May 5, Alan Shepard took the first U.S. manned sub-orbital flight. In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. With these initial steps, the President asked Congress for $7-9 billion to be added to the Space Program over five years. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon.

President Lyndon B. Johnson — Medicare
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had tried to pass a form of healthcare legislation specifically for senior Americans, but failed in committees. President Kennedy was working toward being the third president to introduce legislation, but was assassinated before he could do so. President Lyndon Johnson picked up the task and in his State of the Union address on January 4, 1965, revealed his plan for Medicare. Congress dedicated $2.2 billion dollars to establish the program, and Medicare became part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965. Johnson recognized Truman as the “real daddy of Medicare,” so on July 30, 1965, he signed the bill at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. On hand were former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess. President Johnson personally issued the first and second Medicare cards to them.

President Richard M. Nixon — The Environmental Protection Agency
Most people point to the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as the alarm that raised public awareness for environmental concerns. It had become evident that pollution of our air, water and land had become a major problem. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin accompanied then President John Kennedy on an 11-day trip in September of 1963 to raise awareness on pollution and environmental issues. (Nelson later was the founder of Earth Day.) Congress acted on the growing public sentiment for clean air, water and land management with the Clean Air Act of 1964. They passed additional bills over the next four years addressing national pollution problems.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon didn’t pay much attention to environmental issues. Then eight days after he was sworn in as President in January of 1969, there was a rupture on a Union Oil platform off the coast of California at Santa Barbara that spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A 60-mile oil slick covered beaches, devasted the local fishing industry and destroyed habitat for marine animals. The American people were horrified.

Congress reacted with the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Nixon was not on board at first, but voters were all for some environmental protections, so two months after the Union Oil disaster, he signed the bill. Prior to 1960, the Republican Party was seen as a big supporter of environmental issues, especially relating to farm land management and wildlife conservation. Now, with an increasing number of bills concerning the environment, more than 40 agencies were tasked with enforcing the new laws. After much consultation with his colleagues and aides, Nixon signed an executive order in June of 1969 establishing the Environmental Quality Council to oversee environmental issues.

Now with public sentiment behind him, and having been convinced that the environment would be a big issue in the upcoming election, on July 9, 1970, Nixon asked Congress to set up an agency that would consolidate and control all environmental issues with his Reorganization Plan No. 3. Nixon requested additional money for combating current pollution, including money to upgrade the country’s water treatment plants. His total ask was just over $10 billion. Congress passed the bill and on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations.

The moral of the story for boomers is, we’ve been here before. The presidents during the boomer decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s all requested large-scale legislation from Congress. As time has passed, most historians agree that the positives for the American people acquired through these boomer-era programs have outweighed the negatives.

Do you remember these historical events, boomers?

Boomers See Climate Change By Their Own Experiences

Watching and reading the reports this week, about the efforts of millions of young people around the globe, marching to persuade their governments to act on climate change, put a hopeful smile on Mister Boomer’s face. After all, we boomers are not novices when it comes to environmental issues, or protests. Unfortunately, though, it was also a little bit of “deja vu all over again” (as Yogi Bera reminded us). Putting all politics aside (well, as much as can possibly be put aside), Mister Boomer can only say he is admittedly a tree-hugger from way back when. Environmental concerns have always been one of his top pet projects, and the reason is directly related to his experiences as a boomer.

It all started because, first of all, Mister B, like almost all boomers he has ever spoken to, spent the vast majority of his time outdoors. That not only gave him an appreciation for blue skies and green trees, but also offered direct contact with nature and wildlife. The fields and creeks where Mister Boomer and the neighborhood children played were teaming with grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, frogs, snakes and birds. Mister Boomer, though fascinated when a neighborhood kid captured something in a jar, always suggested the animal be released back to its natural habitat.

At the same time, Mister Boomer’s father took to heart the Boomer Era idea of family vacations by car to visit National Parks. Before Mister B reached his peak teenage years, his family had visited the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park, not to mention numerous state parks. The effect this had on a young boomer was one of wonderment at the sheer beauty and awesome vastness of Mother Nature.

At the same time that he developed these sensibilities, a young Mister B experienced pollution in his own area. A nearby lake had been the family’s favorite fishing spot and swimming beach for years, until one day they drove up to find the space fenced off. A sign said the lake had been closed because it was no longer safe for humans to swim, boat or fish. Access to the lake remained closed for 10 years.

Mister Boomer has also written about how the steel mills in his area lit the sky up an eerily bright orange each night when manufacturing was in progress. Smokestacks from various factories spewed enough brown clouds of soot into the air that his mother had to shake off the accumulated particles from the sheets she hung on the backyard clothesline before she could fold them and bring them back in the house for their next use.

Years later, when he was on an airplane for the first time, he could see firsthand that the plane flew through a layer of smog on takeoff before breaking through to a beautiful blue sky. That same layer of smog was readily seen from the highest point of the city’s freeway system once Mister B began driving.

It’s been Mister Boomer’s experience that these happenings were not unusual for boomers who were raised near a major metropolitan area. All that was true before the government became actively involved in protecting the public — and the environment — through the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. People tend to forget that it was Richard Nixon, with bipartisan support, who first brought the agency into existence by Executive Order in 1970. The House and Senate later approved its creation. The original idea of the agency was to create an independent organization responsible for establishing guidelines, rules and regulations, and also holding those who violated the rules responsible for cleaning up the environmental messes they were making. The agency issued its first regulation in December of that year, and for the next five years, added about 1500 rules and regulations concerning air, water and land per year.

Rachel Carson’s 1964 book, “Silent Spring,” is often credited with being the moment when public opinion changed about how our resources of air, water and land should be treated by individuals and corporations alike. As a direct result of that book, DDT, the most widely used pesticide in the world at that time, was banned because of its effect on birds — killing them by thinning their shells so they couldn’t reproduce — and its entry into the waters that fed drinking water systems. For decades municipalities as well as private corporations spewed raw sewage and industrial chemicals and waste into rivers and streams. Smokestacks, once thought of as a sign of progress after the Industrial Revolution, began to be seen as source of concern for humans, especially those who lived near factories. Clean water, once taken for granted, was now seen as a right worth fighting for. The environmental movement was born from these sentiments, and many boomers participated in marches of their own in the late sixties and early seventies.

The point Mister Boomer is making is, we’ve been here before, at the edge and looking over a steep fall. Boomers witnessed the stepping back from the edge, and the world was better off for it. Boomers saw many things that once seemed impossible become reality during their early years. And how boomers felt about Mother Nature is laced through the songs of the era.

In his famous speech that challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, President Kennedy said that, “… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …” So Mister Boomer says this is another hard nut to crack, but we’ve been there before. Mister B salutes the young people around the globe, and adds his Right On! Groovy! and Sock It to Them! to their cause. That doesn’t sound like politics to Mister B. It sounds like the boomer values which we proclaimed when we were their age: freedom of expression, freedom of expanded opportunities and freedom to shape their own future.

How about you, boomers? How did pollution affect you and your family in your area? Did you take part in environmental protests in your day, boomers?