Zirpoli: Republicans of the past too progressive for today's GOP

This July will mark the 27th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act passed by Congress and providing for the protection of people with disabilities from discrimination by any entity receiving federal funding. This includes discrimination from employment and educational opportunities, transportation accessibility and physical accessibility within the community. The ADA expanded the rights of people with disabilities outlined in The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibited the discrimination of people with disabilities for employment, and the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) which mandated that children with disabilities had the right to attend public school and receive an appropriate education.

Interestingly, ADA was signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush with great fanfare. I wonder, however, if such an anti-discrimination bill could pass Congress today or be signed by a Republican president. President Bush's understanding of the need for the ADA may be considered too progressive by today's standards.


Consider Bush's words upon the signing of this historic law which changed the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities. He said, "This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: Independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream." Indeed, the ADA has made a positive difference in the lives of many Americans.

Bush was not the only Republican president who might be considered too progressive for today's GOP. For example, many Americans would be surprised to learn that President Richard Nixon advocated for and signed a long list of progressive legislation. Consider, for example, that it was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency. Yes, this is the very agency that Republicans today love to hate.

Nixon also signed the Clean Air and Water acts, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Endangered Species Act. He created the Occupation Safety and Health Administration with the goal of protecting the safety and health of workers. Can anyone imagine a Republican Congress or president promoting any of these initiatives today? Instead, Republicans are trying to scale back these Nixon initiatives either by law or by budget cuts.

With all of his faults — and he had many — Nixon was an environmentalist. He thought it was important for the federal government to protect our nation's environment. Imagine that. In his 1969 State of the Union Address, for example, Nixon talked about the need to monitor motor vehicle emissions polluting our cities at the time, and he talked about protecting the Great Lakes from industry dumping. His establishment of the EPA resulted in the identification and elimination of thousands of toxic waste sites in America that were polluting our air, water and land.

While the current Republican Party is considered by many to be anti-science, Nixon created the first White House office of Science and Technology. He understood that keeping America first in science was key to maintaining America's leadership in the world in the areas of space exploration, medicine and education.

Speaking of the de-emphasis of science in America, it was a conservative Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, who warned Americans about the dangers of the Christian Right as they began to influence the values and beliefs of the Republican Party in the 1960s. Goldwater denounced the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "dangerous extremists." He once joked with another Republican candidate for President, Sen. Robert Dole, that the two of them had become "liberals" compared with today's Republican Party.

If one travels around the world it is difficult not to observe the many natural parks and reserves founded and funded by another progressive Republican, Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller served as vice president under President Gerald Ford. He was an early and strong environmentalist who used his wealth to purchase and set aside land around the world for preservation and for the future enjoyment of millions. Republican politicians thought to be too liberal at the time were referred to as "Rockefeller Republicans."

Today, Republicans in Congress are advocating for oil drilling and coal exploration in our national parks. I wonder how many of them have ever been to Glacier National Park in Montana, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or driven the Skyline Drive in Virginia? These national parks, like all the rest, are national treasures that belong to our children and grandchildren to enjoy. They must be preserved and protected, an idea that once reflected conservative values.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at