On the road to EPA chief, Leavitt stays in the middle

Cedar City, the little town from which Mike Leavitt hails, is set in the often harsh but spectacularly beautiful terrain for which southern Utah is famous.

It is ranching and horse country. Hollywood moviemakers sometimes choose nearby vistas for the backdrop for their westerns. Intrepid hikers come to the area to lose the cares of city living.

But Cedar City is no cultural wasteland. It has a delightful, tree-shaded university and a Tony award-winning Shakespeare Festival so authentic, in a replica of London's Elizabethan Globe theater, that Shakespearean actors and directors come from Stratford-on-Avon to pick up tips.

Cedar City is also no stranger to movers and shakers from Washington. For instance, Ken Adelman and his family make an annual pilgrimage to the Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Adelman, who headed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and held other senior posts in the Reagan administration, is also a Shakespeare authority and now an adjunct professor of Shakespeare at George Washington University in Washington. He was in Cedar City again earlier this month with an entourage of friends and family, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

While Mike Leavitt comes from southern Utah cowboy country, and can pull on his cowboy boots, don his cowboy hat, and ride a horse with the best of them, he is no cowboy. Or if he is, as one wag puts it, "he's an urban cowboy."

Actually, he's urbane. A smart, polished, three-term governor of Utah who's maintained huge popularity ratings, he's honed his political skills not only in Utah, but also in the West and on the national scene, chairing the National Governors Association and serving in a variety of national appointments. He's paid his political dues, patting pigs, kissing babies, wearing funny 3-D glasses, and once appearing at our newspaper offices in a Father Christmas hat with a handbell-ringing group to play Christmas carols (absorbing mock scowls from his wife, Jackie, when he rang the wrong bell).

Leavitt is a visionary who's pushed Utah's reputation as a high-tech state. He's urged an already education-conscious state to higher effort, particularly in engineering and the sciences.

In the West, where land and water are paramount issues, he's run afoul of local environmentalists who will be funneling ammunition to the Democratic senators lying in wait for him at his confirmation hearings. Those hearings are expected to be tough, but the odds are that Leavitt will be confirmed and become installed in the hot-seat Washington position of Environmental Protection Agency chief.

Actually, Leavitt's record on the environment has been a middle-of-the-road one. For instance, he's fought vigorously against the forces that would make Utah a nuclear-dumping ground for the rest of the country - just about threatening to lie on the railway tracks to prevent containers full of spent nuclear fuel coming in. On the other hand, he's roused the ire of environmentalists by championing the multimillion-dollar Legacy Highway to booming suburbs north of Salt Lake City, which would traverse fragile wetlands bordering the Great Salt Lake.

As a moderate Republican, Leavitt preaches a moderate, balanced approach to environmental affairs. He may not be able to get the extremists of industry together with the extremists of the environmental lobby, he says, but he can get moderates of the center together for reasonable compromises.

One of his favorite slogans is "enlibra," a word he made up from Latin roots, which he says means balance and moving toward common ground. It's a word that's been tough to sell to the headline-writers, but it's what Leavitt devoutly believes in.

This philosophy on environmental affairs is pretty much his general political philosophy. It's served him well in building a reputation as a persuasive negotiator and innovator who can bring conflicts to a constructive close without alienating his opponents.

President Bush and Leavitt hit it off during a 1998 trip to Israel. Though Leavitt is reticent about it, they apparently shared moving personal thoughts of a spiritual nature as they visited sites in the Holy Land.

Clearly, Mr. Bush hopes that Leavitt can help defuse attacks on the administration's environmental record from big guns such as Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, during the coming presidential election campaign.

That will take a fair amount of "enlibra."

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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