Driving through a mountain pass in Ireland three years after graduating from Yale, James Connaughton ’83, chairman of President Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality, was struck by an idea.

“I realized I wanted to get into environmental policy,” he said.

Speaking at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea Monday, Connaughton discussed his job and the path that led him to it. He touched on the importance of pursuing interests and being open to possible changes.

As Chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality, Connaughton is in charge of a 22-person staff that researches, informs and advises President Bush on environmental policies.

Connaughton said it has been a “very weird path” from Yale to the West Wing. At Yale, Connaughton was a history major who was also very involved in theater. In his senior year, he became close friends with current Berkeley Master John Rogers when they were both second tenors in the Whiffenpoofs.

Rogers said he thought of inviting Connaughton to Berkeley for a Master’s Tea when the U.S. Senate confirmed Connaughton’s appointment in June 2001.

“[Connaughton] has a very important position as the Chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality and this is not a heavily Republican college campus,” Rogers said. “[His talk] will be interesting for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it will be highly controversial.”

In his speech, Connaughton said the air and water are the cleanest they have been since the Industrial Revolution, contrary to what many Americans believe.

“If you poll most Americans, they think it is all getting worse, and part of that is the American psyche that we are never satisfied,” Connaughton said. “The challenge now is how can we make twice the progress with half the cost, and a lot of that turns on technology.”

After graduating from Yale, Connaughton stayed in New Haven and worked as a paralegal assistant for a plaintiff who represented asbestos victims for three years. After that, Connaughton went to law school at Northwestern University and spent 10 years working in Washington, D.C. as an environmental lawyer.

Connaughton said he spent much of his time as a lawyer educating himself on new, pertinent issues.

“I wanted to work on anything new,” Connaughton said. “I learned about the next big issue so that I would have some expertise in it.”

Connaughton then spent eight years working with foreign governments and companies on environmental issues. For the next five years, he did hands-on work, traveling around the world and going into factories to make sure environmental policies were being implemented correctly.

In 2000, Connaughton worked for Bush as a campaign consultant on environmental policy. In the seven weeks after Bush’s election, Connaughton said he worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day formulating an environmental policy for the Bush administration.

Eventually, he was put in charge of finding people for the job of Chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality. However, all the nominees for the position failed, mainly because — unlike Connaughton — very few of them had hands-on experience. When Connaughton interviewed with President Bush for the job, they clicked and the president liked that he had experience in implementing policy. Connaughton says that his getting the job was “a fluke, but the result of following what I love.”