Tuesday, June 12, 2012

John Who?

Bruce Bartlett is bewildered by the story of John E. Bryson, our commerce secretary and his weird auto accident (is it really a hit-and-run?).  "In other news," Bartlett reports on his Facebook page "a man named John Bryson apparently is secretary of commerce."  Fair comment, I suppose; I don't think anyone would give Bryson a celebrity score in the same order of magnitude as say, his distinguished colleague the secretary of state.

But there is an intriguing backstory  to Bryson, even forgetting the odd accident.  That is: in the hierarchy of the American environmental movement, Bryson surely counts as a paid-up member of the College of Cardinals.  Specifically he is one the nucleus who get credit for creating the Natural Resources Defense Council, surely the most plugged-in of all environmental interest groups.

There are four: Bryson, James G. ("Gus") Speth, Richard E. Ayres and Edward L. Strohbehn, Jr.  They were together in the Yale Law School class of '69.   Yale gave all four "Awards of Merit" in 2010 for their environmental work.    You know those charts that draw lines to show how people are connected? I've never seen one for this crowd, but I suspect it would show a pattern of plugged-inness that would be hard for anyone to match.

Of the four, I suppose Speth has remained the most visible.  He was dean of the Yale School of Forestry from 1999 to 2009; he is now a professor at Vermont Law School, though I'm betting he spends a lot of time on his extracurricular agenda.  His Vermont faculty webpage recounts:
One day, riding the train to New York City, he came across a newspaper article about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, followed a few pages later by an article about an environmental problem. "It occurred to me, 'Gee, we need a legal defense fund for the environment.'"
Ayres, who now runs an environmental litigation boutique, tells a similar story:
There was a group of about 6 or 7 of us who, in our third year of law school, sat down one day and began to talk about what we were going to do when we left law school. We ended the discussion by deciding we were going to create an environmental law firm. We then went to a foundation -- the largest one in the country at that time -- and proposed this preposterous idea. Much to our amazement, they agreed it was a good idea and even agreed that we were the people that should try to do something about it. So, NRDC was founded basically based on a discussion by a bunch of law school students in their last year of law school.
The rest, as they say, is history.        But Bryson took a distinctive career path.  He moved into California state government, heading first the Water Resources Control Board and then the Public Utilities Commission.  He moved thence to the dark side, becoming chairman of the parent of Southern California's mammoth private electric utility.  From such a comfortable perch, Bryson seems to have accumulated the trophies of establishment status: corporate directorships, public-policy board seats, and chubby pay packets.   He seems to have worked hard at the same time to maintain his environmental credentials.

 With all this establishment bling, you'd think there'd be some insurgent blowback.  A cursory Google search reveals a bit, but not as much as you might expect.  What's most prominent, rather, is a gaggle of references to the high-visibility lawsuits that NRDC won in the early and golden days of environmental regulation.  Indeed if there is anything shameful about the record, it is an almost gag-inducing torrent of mutual self-congratulation.  As in:

What makes Bryson exceptional is his character. He is a gentleman who puts people at ease with his warmth and thoughtful attention. He radiates calm, even in the thorniest negotiations. And he is a devoted family man. Even after a brief conversation with Bryson, you soon realize that he is terribly proud of his four daughters and delights in their triumphs and joys.
Yet as personally charming as Bryson is, he is also a man of substance. His keen intelligence and sense of duty draw him to engage in meaningful work. As an earlier generation might have put it, Bryson wants to make a contribution.
That is from (surprise!) the staff blog at the NRDC.  You know, strictly speaking, every word of this might be true.  But you still want to cry out, "oh, give me a break," or more simply, "gak!"   Never mind: in his current inglorious moment, I suppose a good character reference is just the ticket.

Fun fact: a classmate of the fab four in the YLS class of 1969 is John F. Daum, who has spent most of his career at O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, where he, it is said, earned the name of "Dr. Doom," for represnting Exxon in oil-spill litigation.

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