The environment may not come to mind when most people think about former President Bill Clinton, but on Wednesday he defended his legacy as the Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., was renamed in his honor.
At a ceremony in the EPA complex, Clinton mentioned reading an article that questioned whether his was the right name to put on the building.
"I think it more than sort of fits — not for me, but for what we did. For what our administration did," Clinton said in remarks greeted by applause from a small crowd that included senators, a congressman and former members of his administration.
Clinton cited actions his administration took that protected wild lands, coral reefs and old growth trees. He stressed that his EPA put in place rules to clean up exhaust from factories and vehicles and set the first air quality standards for soot.
"When I left office, there were 43 million more Americans breathing air that met federal standards, which means less asthma among young people and fewer senior citizens dying because of air pollution," Clinton said.
The former president credited the environmentalists on his team, including his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, his EPA chief Carol Browner and his vice president, Al Gore (who was not among those at Wednesday's ceremony).
Judith Layzer, associate professor of environmental policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that unlike Gore, President Clinton wasn't an environmentalist. But she says he stood up for the EPA in 1994. Congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, wanted to eliminate regulations. Some wanted to do away with the agency.
"Instead of backing down — the way liberals often do and the way environmentalists sometimes do and the way Clinton sometimes did — he really reared up and said, you know, we are going to protect environmental laws we are not going to let Congress gut them," says Layzer.
But Clinton's record didn't please all those who consider themselves to be environmentalists. He supported trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement that were criticized for hurting the environment. Environmentalists feared factories would move to countries without pollution laws, and polluting industries would set up just across the border with Mexico.
And although Clinton signed the international climate change treaty called the Kyoto Protocol, he failed to send it to Congress to be ratified.
In his speech Wednesday, Clinton mentioned that the Senate had made its opposition to the treaty clear to him. "It is the only bill I ever lost in Congress before I sent it to them, and an astonishing example of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate, which voted against it 98 to nothing," Clinton said.
The building that's been renamed after President Clinton is one of a string of imposing structures with limestone facades near the National Mall. It sits next to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
Clinton accepted his new honor in an ornate hall — with elaborately carved wooden ceiling and walls and crystal chandelier.
The former president also looked ahead during his remarks, saying that as he travels the world as an elder statesman, it is clear to him that these days leaders no longer have the option of ignoring climate change if they want to build jobs and strong economies.
"That is what the whole 21st century world is going to be about," he said.