Photo: Martin Schoeller
If there was one thing, one precious thing, that Lisa Jackson's mother wishes she could have saved before the hurricane came—when Lisa stood over her bed on the eve of Katrina and said, "Mama, wake up, we have to go, we have to go now," and gently helped her diabetic mother into her wheelchair and then to the car for an 18-hour drive out of hell—it wouldn't have been her sacred rosary beads or her silverware (both of which miraculously survived) but that photograph. Of Lisa at age 3. In Washington, D.C., in 1965. Oh, it was a big deal back then to go to Washington, D.C.—to drive all the way from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, at a time when black people still had to worry about what might happen if they stopped at the wrong traffic light. But Lisa's parents were determined to show their daughter, "our little jewel," says her mother—the baby they brought home from an orphanage when she was two weeks old—everything they possibly could about the world.
"My husband, Benjamin, took this picture of her, in front of the White House," says Lisa's mother, Marie Perez Rieras, who is now 82. She remembers it so vividly, her beautiful toddler Lisa, whom she loved to dress in ruffles and lace, posing so proudly. "And he said, 'Look at this, my little girl. One day she will be in the White House.'
"We just laughed it off then," Marie says.
Marie thought about that photograph and her late husband's words when she returned to Washington, D.C. 45 years later, five years after Katrina, to meet her daughter's new boss, President Obama. "We got the whole VIP treatment at the White House," Marie says, approvingly. Obama had named Lisa to his cabinet as the first African-American to head the Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing a staff of more than 17,000 and a budget of roughly $10 billion. How does it feel to have a daughter in such an exalted position? "I feel like my chest is gonna burst wide open," Marie says.
Jackson's appointment was history-making, for sure. That was the good news. It would also catapult her to the head of one of Washington's most controversial agencies, the perennial punching bag of both the Right (some of whom view the EPA as a hippie holdover and meddlesome money waster) and the Left (which often thinks the EPA isn't doing enough to regulate polluters). As difficult jobs go, running the EPA is near the top of the list—now more than ever, as the economy sputters and phrases like "global warming" and "climate change" spark ferocious debate. Focus on the EPA, particularly from those you wouldn't call fans, has never been more extreme. And the stakes never higher.
The agency Jackson leads was built on drama that has scarcely abated in its 40-year history. By the 1960s, American industries exploited an atmosphere of lawlessness, in which the dumping of industrial waste and the pumping of factory smokestack emissions went practically unchecked. But by 1970, consciousness had been sufficiently raised to turn environmentalism into a movement: On April 22 of that year, 20 million Americans hit the streets and parks for the first-ever Earth Day. (As Jackson likes to say, when it comes to the environment, the biggest strides start at the grassroots level, with people saying, Enough already.) Even President Nixon heard the drumbeat—by July he would propose the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, with a mission to ensure clean air and water through research, regulation, and enforcement. That same year, landmark legislation had come in the form of a revamped Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act was overhauled two years later.
Yet for all the good it has done, the agency has long been viewed with skepticism and worse by foes of big government—particularly industry, which abhors regulatory intervention on principle, but also for the toll it says it takes on profits: It can be an expensive proposition, performing the tests, buying new equipment, and exploring less-toxic sources of fuel in order to meet EPA standards. Conservative demands that the agency be reined in have become a motif on Capitol Hill—even in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, with Newt Gingrich calling for its abolishment entirely.