Bill Ruckelshaus, well known in these parts for his leadership in efforts to save salmon and Puget Sound, is having his 15 minutes of national fame. The lifelong Republican has endorsed Barack Obama, with the timing meant to be helpful to Obama's primary efforts in Indiana, where Ruckelshaus is a still-revered native son.
Ruckelshaus has had his earlier moments of fame, notably when he joined Elliot Richardson in defying President Nixon by refusing to fire Archibald Cox. It was a moment of great integrity, typical of Ruckelshaus's principled character, and it may have cost him the White House. I can explain.
First, you will be amused to read this helpful story about Ruckelshaus's career and sudden re-emergence from The New York Observer. Amusing because the picture of Ruckelshaus in the story is actually a glowering Dan Evans, looking understandably puzzled about what he's doing there. Fame is fleeting.
Back to the White House. In 1976, when Gerald Ford was looking for a vice presidential candidate, Ruckelshaus made the short list, along with Anne Armstrong, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole. Most agree that Ruckelshaus was the initial choice. Ford was far behind Carter in the polls and the Nixon pardon was Ford's biggest negative, so Ruckelshaus as a Nixon-defier looked like the proper medicine. That lasted one night, and the next day Dole was picked, mostly to head off any more conservative defections to the Ronald Reagan challenge to Ford. Dole proved a liability in the campaign, which Carter narrowly won.
Ruckelshaus, meanwhile, had spent some time after his Watergate Moment exploring a race in Indiana, where he had lost a close race for the U.S. Senate against Birch Bayh in 1968. He discovered that Republican stalwarts in the Hoosier State, which hasn't voted for a Democratic president since 1964, were unforgiving of Ruckelshaus's temerity in opposing a sitting president. So this revered figure (he was also the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency) went into a business career, eventually leading to his senior role in Madrona Investment Group, a leading Seattle venture firm. (Disclosure: Ruckelshaus is one of 18 individual owners of Crosscut.com.)
The second brush with Washington came in 1988, as George H.W. Bush was moving toward clinching the GOP nomination. Some Ruckelshaus admirers and friends here, including Tom Alberg and Paul Schell, proposed a true draft movement, without Ruckelshaus's involvement, to get him to on the California primary ballot, very late in the game. Ruckelshaus opposed the idea, explaining in typical fashion that a presidential candidate needs to go through the entire democratic process, starting with Iowa cornfields.
The nation's loss was the region's gain.
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