U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey in 1969 | Credit: Courtesy U.S. Govt. Printing Office

The co-chair of Earth Day and retired Member of Congress Pete McCloskey died May 8 at the age of 96.

Today it’s hard to find any elected official without a “wet finger,” always trying to gauge what positions on major issues are acceptable to the voters so the office holder might not offend and thus be re-elected. Pete made it a habit to always be ahead of his constituency, which is a risky habit for political job security. Pete approached each political issue in a quasi-lawyerly manner of thoughtfully explaining both sides of each issue and then presenting his conclusive stance. He was one the most articulate and persuasive extemporaneous speakers in either body of Congress. Every presentation was fact based with each fact building on the next.

Pete McCloskey was a co-chairman of the first Earth Day along with Senator Gaylord Nelson, first celebrated in 1970. He was a highly decorated Korean War Marine 2nd Lieutenant and later a Marine Lt. Colonel. He was the first Republican anti-Vietnam War Member of Congress. He was the first Member of Congress to call for President Nixon’s impeachment for obstruction of justice. He was also my former boss for two and a half years.

I first met the McCloskeys as Portola Valley neighbors in 1964. They had moved from the nearby community of Ladera to a new house in Portola Valley. Pete was already our family lawyer, and then the father of my 7th grade classmate Nancy McCloskey. My brother and sisters all knew the McCloskeys as they were the same ages. Pete McCloskey was also one of the founders of the Town of Portola Valley and served as the first “City Attorney” in 1964.

Pete came to more public prominence representing the Town of Woodside against PG&E and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to stop their construction of huge towers, which would carry high voltage lines that would march down the redwood covered slopes of the San Francisco Peninsula’s coastal mountains to power the two-mile-long Stanford Linear Accelerator. The successful resolution of the powerlines case helped launch Pete’s political career.

In 1967 the local congressmember, J. Arthur Younger, died, and a special election was announced. Pete won the Republican Primary against two leading candidates: venture capitalist Bill Draper and movie icon Shirley Temple Black.

I spent a couple days each week during the summer of 1967 walking precincts in Daly City and South San Francisco for McCloskey as the campaign perfected campaign brochures and different approaches for training the hundreds of McCloskey volunteers, who would be campaigning the last couple weeks before Election Day. This groundswell of volunteers helped McCloskey beat Shirley Temple by a huge margin in the Republican primary.

The precinct walking during the primary also paid dividends in the general election and McCloskey coasted to victory against Roy Archibald. Immediately after the election, Pete flew to Vietnam to speak with Marine 2nd lieutenants engaged in combat, to get a clearer picture of the war efforts, and then flew on to Washington to be ceremoniously sworn in by Speaker John McCormick and shake hands with President Lyndon Johnson.

The Vietnam War droned on, but McCloskey won re-election in 1968.

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated, which also brought about the emergence of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July 1970. McCloskey helped author a watershed of environmental legislation from his position on the Fish and Wildlife Committee in 1971: The Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammals Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Ocean Dumping Act.

The anti-war demonstrations were huge on the university campuses in the spring of 1970 after Nixon announced the aerial bombings of Cambodia. Pete called up his former Stanford Law Moot Court partner, John Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, to hitch a ride from their houses in McLean to the Capitol. Thus ensued, according to fellow passenger Lew Butler, who was Assistant Secretary of H.E.W. and a mutual law school classmate, a “battle royal.” McCloskey asserted that with the removal of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the bombing of Cambodia was an undeclared act of war that needed Congressional approval. Ehrlichman disagreed, and Pete decided then and there that the best way to oppose the President’s War policy was to run against him in the Presidential Primaries.

In the summer of 1971, I persuaded my parents to let me leave university and take a position McCloskey was offering me to organize California college voter registration for the McCloskey for President campaign, first in the Bay Area and then statewide. Campus campaign visits were advanced and organized as well as campus voter registration drives. Congressmembers Al Lowenstein and Don Riegle lent their support to the campus efforts along with Viet Nam vet John Kerry and musician Bill Withers.

Fundraising to sustain the presidential campaign was difficult, so the decision was made at the end of 1971 to focus on the New Hampshire Primary. At that point I was working half time for the campaign and half time in the Congressional District Office helping local businesses with grants, municipalities with flood control projects, working on San Francisco Bay tidelands legislation and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In February, my campaign project was to organize and charter a United 707 jet of McCloskey volunteers to fly to New Hampshire for the last 10 days before the March 2 primary to walk precincts in the state. 

I was assigned to the western part of New Hampshire based in the Town of Newport. The mayor, Charles Puksta, was a military veteran, an MIT-trained engineer, a Republican, and a Nixon delegate. He also admired Pete’s guts to take on Nixon. His daughter, a young dynamo, was the local chairperson for the McCloskey campaign. The mayor, with a twinkle in his eye, graciously invited the McCloskey Californians to stay in his brick house above the family grocery store during the waning days of the campaign.

Our little campaign group was fortunate enough to get 25 percent of the voters to vote for McCloskey against incumbent President Nixon, which was 5 percent more than McCloskey ended up with statewide.

Eleven days later I celebrated my 21st birthday by getting a photograph for my U.S. House ID, which allowed me into the Capitol as well as the House Office buildings after hours and allowed me to cash my California checks at the House bank.

At the end of the primaries, McCloskey reportedly upset those in the White House by getting a single delegate to the Republican National Convention from an unlikely place, the State of New Mexico. The Committee to Re-elect the President thought they would run the table.

I spent that summer in the Capitol Office covering for a legislative aide, who was a third-year Georgetown law student. Because of the presidential campaign, he had not been to class for months and needed to study for finals as well as the D.C. Bar exam. He miraculously passed both, and I got an on-the-job crash course in the committees and the legislative process.

Back home, McCloskey was primaried and gerrymandered in his San Francisco Peninsula Congressional district, but again because of a strong army of volunteers, he won the primary and eked out a win in the general election.

I stayed on for another year, and near the end, worked half time finishing projects while enrolled at Cal.

The Watergate Hearings came, and I learned the depth of the Nixon spying on our campaign. When John Ehrlichman went to jail, Pete remained his friend, helping him get back on his feet when he got out of jail and getting him a place to write his book to pay some bills.

The two and a half years had been quite an experience; one I could never duplicate.

My friend Lou Cannon, who as a reporter followed Pete, wrote a book about his presidential campaign, The McCloskey Challenge. A few years ago, Lou expressed a succinct description of Pete’s political career:

“Pete was an example of the true maverick. He upset the applecart, and he was a tumultuous figure in the House of Representatives. The political system couldn’t stand too many McCloskeys, but it needs a few and he’s the original.”

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