ARE YOU TOUGH ENOUGH? By Anne M. Burford with John Greenya. McGraw-Hill. 291 pp. $16.95.
ANNE M. BURFORD, it will be recalled, was appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1981 and resigned that position two years later amid the proverbial storm of controversy. She had been accused of mismanaging Superfund, the toxic-waste-cleanup program, and of using EPA to advance partisan political ends; she was also the administration's point woman in an ill-advised, clumsily organized attempt to confront Congress over the question of executive privilege. When she finally stepped down, it was to the accompaniment of howls of righteous approval from just about every conceivable quarter -- not to mention the full barrage of media harrumphing with which such occasions are now routinely greeted.
During all that noise-making Burford was no shrinking violet; she remains true to character in Are You Tough Enough?, her recapitulation of the whole sorry business and her apologia pro vita sua. It is a bitter, angry book, and it is likely to produce bitterness and anger in reaction: not so much among her old foes the professional environmentalists, whom she treats perfunctorily, but among her ostensible allies in the White House and Justice Department, whom she showers with ridicule and contempt, all of it richly earned. She has written a cautionary tale, one that deserves considerably more attention than is likely to be given it by those inclined to dismiss its author as a reactionary kook. She summarizes it in characteristically blunt prose:
"I have received an expensive mid-life education. But was it an education I needed to acquire? In some ways I would have preferred my illusions. Look at some of the truths I came to see: Congress's lack of concern with and its lack of accountability for the terribly serious budgetary problems of this country; the virtual disappearance of the Constitutional doctrine of executive privilege; the prevalence of personal, as opposed to political or philosophical, agendas; loyalty, and the lack thereof, as practiced in Washington politics; and the depths to which certain environmental lobbyists will sink to play on the very real emotional concerns of the American people for their environment."
TO CALL ALL of these "truths" is stretching matters a bit; like all of us Burford has her biases, and they color her judgment in many instances. But in two broad areas -- the prevalence of "personal agendas" in contemporary political life and the herd instinct of the press, which she discusses elsewhere -- she speaks too persuasively to be ignored. As for the various particular issues that arose during her tenure at EPA -- Superfund, executive privilege, Rita Lavelle -- she predictably represents herself as being in the right, though she is not immune to self-criticism and is willing to acknowledge at least some of her own mistakes; but these matters are primarily of interest to trivia junkies, and are the least interesting aspects of her book.
What is unquestionably most interesting is the portrait she paints of political infighting and territorialism in Washington. It happens that the people playing these games are in this instance appointees of Ronald Reagan, but they can scarcely be dismissed as right- wing aberrations in this city where sodding one's own turf has become the principal and near-universal preoccupation. That Burford herself is probably considerably less simon- pure in this department is beside the point; what matters is her depiction of the snake pit of self-interest that "public service" has become.
Burford says that from the time she was first considered for the EPA position until well after she left it, she was under constant pressure from men (apart from the egregious Lavelle, no women play leading roles in this tale) who were far less interested in formulating a coherent environmental policy than they were in acquiring power and privilege for themselves. What she says about the environmentalists applies equally to the politicians: "The truth about the vast majority of them is that they are not interested in the environment at all. They are interested in power, political power, and the environment is just a platform for them." In the netherworld she portrays, scarcely a soul has clean hands.
One who does, in Burford's view, is James Watt, about whom she writes with admiration and affection; this hardly comes as a surprise, given her own strongly conservative views about environmental policy. What is more interesting, though, is that she writes with not much less admiration about two Democratic congressmen, John Dingell (Mich.) and Elliott Levitas (Ga.), who strongly opposed her on the question of excutive privilege; she seems to recognize that these men were pursuing what they believed to be duty and principle, and she respects them for it even though she disagrees with them. Both of them were interviewed quite extensively for this book, incidentally, and both seem to return her respect in kind; apparently the old tradition of vehement but polite and civil political disagreement is not entirely dead.
BUT THE PRESS, so far as Burford sees it, is neither polite nor civil. Her depiction of its "liberal bias" is reflexive and, in my judgment, inaccurate; she and others of that conviction should give careful attention to an article in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review by Herbert J. Gans, who argues with great care and logic that there is little truth to this stereotype. But -- and as a member of the press, I address this subject with considerable discomfort -- she is on far firmer ground when she berates the press for its herd instinct and its tendency to focus on personalities and "stories" rather than issues. She writes:
"In recent years so much has been written about the 'pack mentality' of journalists that one hesitates to add to it, but as someone who was its prey, I know whereof I speak. What bothered me more than anything, as I indicated earlier, was the media's insistence on making me rather than the issues the center of the story, and their reluctance to do the work that would enable them to see that I was only one of several main characters. All the stories focused on me and my 'defiance' of the (congressional) committee; hardly anyone bothered to ask the folks over at the Justice Department anything more than perfunctory questions.
"Clearly they thought I made the better story. A Reagan administration official is on the hot seat, and it's a woman. Can she take it? Will she be tough enough? You could plot the curve as it ascended."
The charge has merit, alas, and we members of the press do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss it as the rantings of an aggrieved and embarrassed politician. Certainly Burford's complaints against the press must not be permitted to deflect attention away from her record at EPA, which was not perhaps quite as glorious as she would have us believe. But those complaints are legitimate, and they are heard too often not merely from politicians -- politicians of widely varying political views, incidentally -- but also from many others who for one reason or another fall under the limelight. When that many people say that something is wrong, they can't be hallucinating.