Pete McCloskey: Still Speaking His Truth to Power

PAUL NORTON “PETE” MCCLOSKEY, JR., IS WHAT SOME MIGHT NOSTALGICALLY CALL AN OLD-TIME REPUBLICAN. A fiscal conservative and social progressive in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt, he was at the forefront of both the environmental movement and the push to end the Vietnam War.

With a political career dating back to the late 1960s, McCloskey, JD ’53 (BA ’50), has left his mark on American life in many ways— perhaps most notably as an architect of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and other seminal environmental laws. He even helped to organize the first Earth Day. But also notable was his disregard for party lines. He spoke his truth and pursued what he believed was right, regardless of the fallout.

He was a highly decorated leader of a near-legendary Marine rifle platoon in the Korean War—who became an early and ardent advocate for peace in Vietnam. He became the first member of Congress to call on the House of Representatives to consider the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

At 78, he mounted a quixotic congressional campaign to unseat a Republican incumbent he saw as corrupt. At 79, he registered as a Democrat—renouncing family roots in the Republican Party dating to the mid-19th century.

To say he is unhappy with the current state of affairs in Washington is an understatement.

“The political environment stinks more and is more controlled by big money today than during my brief stint in the political world from 1967 to 1983,” says McCloskey, who turned 90 in September. “We have become a militaristic and arrogant nation and have abandoned the thought of world peace through world law.”

McCloskey’s worldview was shaped by a family of lawyers and farmers with a history dating to the early days of California statehood. His great-grandfather was orphaned in the great potato famine and put on a boat for America, landing in San Francisco in 1853. He and his son, McCloskey’s grandfather, were farmers and early members of the Republican central committee in Merced.

His maternal grandfather served as mayor of San Bernardino, California, a U.S. attorney, and captain of a National Guard unit that was sent to San Francisco in 1906 to control rioting after the Great Earthquake. Paul N. McCloskey, Sr. (BA 1915) practiced law in Southern California, where his son was born in 1927.

“It turned out that a lot of people who disagreed with him thought he was so courageous they voted for him anyway.”

––Lewis Butler, JD ’51, Campaign Manager

Following in his father’s footsteps, McCloskey studied law, coming to Stanford at a time when the law school was on the threshold of becoming among the very best in the nation. Two future Supreme Court justices were in the class behind him. In the senior class ahead was Warren Christopher, JD ’49, president of the new law review. But McCloskey downplays his academic accomplishments. Like his father, he joined the Stanford baseball team; unlike his father, he says he so enjoyed the experience he almost flunked out.

The Korean War interrupted his law studies and ball playing. He became a twice-wounded Marine Corps rifle platoon leader who led six bayonet charges against the enemy and was awarded the Navy Cross and Silver Star. Returning to school, McCloskey was so eager to be moving on with his life that he took the California bar exam a few months before graduating in 1953, a decision he says that horrified his professors. (He passed.)

The freshly minted lawyer served as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, founded the firm McCloskey, Wilson & Mosher, a forerunner to Palo Alto’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and practiced environmental law, with SLS classmate and former Peace Corps director Lewis Butler, JD ’51. They took on a cement company that planned to dig up a swath of California’s gold country, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop a huge dam that would have displaced an Indian reservation, and developers of a subdivision that would have filled in sections of San Francisco Bay tidelands.

An invitation to a White House conference on civil rights in June 1963 whetted his appetite for public service. President Kennedy had gathered a group of lawyers from around the country and urged them to take action to address racial inequality in their communities. McCloskey responded by launching a campaign to persuade the State Bar of California to oppose a ballot initiative that would overturn a new state law that banned housing discrimination. The initiative passed but was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

McCloskey was also in the headlines for representing the city of Woodside in a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission over an overhead power line to serve the Stanford Linear Accelerator. He prevailed—though Congress rushed through a bill exempting U.S. atomic energy installations from state or local regulation.

In spring 1967, political opportunity finally knocked, when the congressional seat for the San Francisco Peninsula was vacated—and former child star Shirley Temple Black became the odds-on favorite of the GOP establishment to fill it.

California at the time already had a former tap dancer as U.S. senator (George Murphy) and a former actor as governor (Ronald Reagan). McCloskey recoiled at the thought of another celebrity lawmaker. “Something snapped,” he says, “and I decided to run for office.”

Pete McCloskey: Still Speaking His Truth to Power
Pete McCloskey, JD ’53 (BA ’50), on his farm in Yolo County, California (photo by: Kevin Fiscus)

Growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Laos dominated the campaign. His opponent, Black, was a hawk. McCloskey, the decorated veteran, felt the war was illegal and unwinnable. Black never got traction beyond her star credentials, and McCloskey won in a rout. He was re-elected seven times.

“I remember telling him, ‘Pete, I’m against the war, too, but this is going to kill you in this campaign,’ ” recalls Butler, who served as one of McCloskey’s campaign managers. “It turned out that a lot of people who disagreed with him thought he was so courageous they voted for him anyway.”

War and the environment dominated his early days in Washington. Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin, sought out the conservation-minded McCloskey to serve as co chairman of what would become the first Earth Day in 1970. The day was the brainchild of another SLS alum, Denis Hayes, JD ’85 (BA ’69, MBA ’74).

That November, a majority of the “Dirty Dozen” list of members of Congress with poor environmental records were voted out of office. Over the next four years, with a Democratic Congress and a Republican president, sweeping environmental legislation was passed on a bi-partisan basis.

“When these congressmen lost their jobs, suddenly Pete started to get requests from these other congressmen to tell them ‘about the environment,’ ” says Butler, who at the time was a senior official at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where environmental programs created by Congress were then housed.

McCloskey’s anti-war stance increasingly put him at odds with his own party. Vice President Spiro Agnew compared him to Benedict Arnold. McCloskey ran protests out of his congressional office in Washington. He led an effort to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to cut off the president’s war-making power—only weeks later to have President Nixon authorize the bombing of Cambodia in April 1970.

Butler recalls a “battle royal” over the war between McCloskey and Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman, JD ’51— his moot court partner—while riding to work in a White House limousine the morning after Nixon’s announcement. “At that point, I think Pete decided he was going to get Nixon,” Butler says. That led in 1972 to his running against Nixon over the Vietnam war in the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire. His insurgency candidacy in the primaries yielded only one delegate to the RNC in Miami. Nixon got the rest.

A year later, as the Watergate scandal began to unfold, McCloskey took to the House floor in June 1973 to advocate for what he called a “tempered” discussion of the possible impeachment of the president for obstruction of justice. McCloskey had read only two of the 11 pages of a speech suggesting that Nixon had violated several federal criminal laws when Republican loyalists cut him off on a procedural issue, according to an account in the New York Times. A year later, articles of impeachment against Nixon were reported to the full House for consideration, and Nixon resigned.

McCloskey was not done provoking the powerful. During the 1970s, he exposed a plan by the Carter administration to require the use of American-built and American-manned tankers to transport imported oil as payback for campaign contributions from the maritime industry. During the 1980s, he pushed mandatory national service legislation, despite opposition from the Reagan administration.

And, in what some observers say ultimately cut short his time in Washington, he proposed cuts in foreign aid to Israel for expanding settlements on the West Bank.

“Pete felt U.S. policy was too one-sided, and too pro-Israel, and that we needed to hear arguments on the other side,” says Lee Aubry, a former McCloskey congressional aide who specialized in foreign affairs. “He feared that was going to potentially cause some kind of war in the Middle East. He feared it was going to start World War III.”

“It was hugely unpopular but he was being true to who he was,” Aubry adds. “He was always very much a maverick.” In 1982, McCloskey ran for an open U.S. Senate seat and lost, after opponents painted him as an existential threat to Israel.

Back in California, he returned to practicing law and bought a 140-acre farm in Yolo County, where he tends organic oranges and olives with his wife, Helen. He stepped back into the political fray in 2006 to run against a seven-term Republican member of Congress with ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He lost but got enough of the Republican vote to ensure the lawmaker’s ouster in the general election. A year later in 2007, McCloskey registered as a Democrat, fed up with the modern Republican Party’s hostility to progressives. More recently, he has been helping raise money for Democrats and throwing editorial grenades in a regular blog on the Huffington Post.

McCloskey says he is hopeful that a new generation of passionate students will rise up in 2018 and force Congress to re-establish bipartisan cooperation and balanced environmental protections. But he sees the political environment as polluted by big money. For young people thinking of public service, his advice is to succeed in some business or profession first, so that they can run without fear that if they lose, they can return to a better way of life.

“I accept the fact that my goals will not be achieved in my lifetime,” he says, “but wish better for Helen and my grandchildren and their heirs.” A bedtime ritual, meanwhile serves as a kind of coping mechanism.

“Our family consists of five rescue dogs that sleep with us,” he says. “When the newest horror is reported on TV, we thank our pagan presence on high for having the farm, our animals, and each other.” Then, they have a group hug. SL