Remembering Robert Nordhaus, and When Public Servants Gave a Damn About the Public

As the shoddy GOP health bill unraveled last week, other Washingtonians were celebrating a life and remembering a time when things were really different.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

Last Thursday afternoon, while the Republican health care bill was unraveling, I went to a memorial service. Robert Nordhaus isn’t a name you’re likely to know, and if I just told you in the usual journalistic shorthand that he was a Washington lawyer and insider, it wouldn’t interest you very much. But he and the group of people he spent his life working with were people of extraordinary intelligence and vision and dedication, and last Thursday was one hell of an interesting day to reflect on their contributions to this country and on how ideas about public service have changed over four decades.

“Nord,” who passed away on Christmas Eve of prostate cancer at age 79, was an energy lawyer. I knew him because my sister, Susan, is an energy lawyer, too, and Bob gave her her first legal job in Washington back in the 1970s after they chanced to run into each other on the then spanking-new Metro. They were later law partners.

I’m no great expert on the area, but I know this much. The 1970s witnessed two momentous developments in the energy field: the dawn of the environmental movement, and the OPEC-embargo-sparked energy crisis of 1973. Up to this point, Americans didn’t give a thought to their energy consumption or to the planet. Gas cost around 30 or 35 cents a gallon in 1970, which according to this government chart would be about $1.70 today, and had increased only incrementally for the previous 20 years. People drove huge cars and cranked up the heat. Corporations could do pretty much what they wanted to the water and the air, and of course no one considered things like the environmental impacts of new development.

This meant that the 1970s was the first decade in the history of the United States when the federal government really had to grapple deeply with energy policy and thus develop an environmental policy. And Bob Nordhaus and a handful of others—notably Charles Curtis, another of my sister’s mentors and the first head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after it was created in 1977—were the people who did it. (My sister, if I may toot the family horn a bit, played an important part in this history as well.)

Bob—whose brother, incidentally, is the eminent Yale economist Bill Nordhaus—wrote much of the key legislation of the era. I trust most of you know that members of Congress, when they say they wrote legislation, don’t mean they actually wrote the language. Aides and lawyers do that.

So I was astonished as I listened to the speakers at his service list the laws he authored. The bill that made cars more fuel efficient in 1975. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 that expanded the EPA’s watch over polluters. The 1969 law requiring environmental impact statements. Outside of the energy area, he wrote the law creating the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the ERISA pension act of 1974. He even wrote the law allowing drivers to turn right on red, and the legislation that gave us Woodsy the Owl (remember “give a hoot, don’t pollute”?). And a lot more.

Of course, that makes Bob Nordhaus an American villain to many conservatives. Whatever. He and Charlie Curtis and their contemporaries were in fact a group of highly dedicated public servants who took public policy and legislation seriously. They leaned liberal, certainly, but they were pragmatists who were dedicated to balanced outcomes and who understood their responsibilities in both concrete and broader historical terms.

“Bob worked on the Hill at a time when Congress cared and could marshal the bipartisan will to ‘provide for the General Welfare,’” Charlie emailed me after the event. “You never hear much talk about that fundamental constitutional responsibility these days, but our founders believed they were creating a federal government that was not just simply representative of various constituencies. The Congress that served in the 1970s and got us through stagflation and the energy crises believed it.”

The service was held at an Episcopal church near the Library of Congress. Afterward we headed to the Tune Inn, which had been a favorite of the old gang back in the day. I left the Tune around 6:30 and turned on the news in my car. Our current Congress was making a mockery of policy. What was already a shoddy and cruel health-“care” bill was being turned into an even more draconian and punitive document to buy off the votes of radical extremists who clearly believe that the Congress in which they serve has no business helping citizens get health coverage in any way, shape, or form. And it was all being touted by a duplicitous speaker who called it “freedom,” and an out-of-his-depth president who obviously didn’t understand the first thing about it.

It was a jarring experience, and the contrast made me value my relationships with these fine people even more—even as it made me sadder and madder about what was unfolding a few blocks away from us that very night. When they pulled the bill the next day, it revealed how woefully ill-prepared to govern these people are. It wasn’t always this way.