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Richard Nixon, the unlikely environmentalist

Nixon's Watergate nemesis, former EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, recounts how an outspoken populace and shrewd political calculation led the Watergate president to create an impressive environmental legacy.

Bill Ruckelshaus

Bill Ruckelshaus Courtesy of Madrona Venture Group

Bill Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, being sworn in, with President Nixon.

Bill Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, being sworn in, with President Nixon. Environmental Protection Agency

"We're the ones with big brains," Bill Ruckelshaus told the crowd at a luncheon on August 4, when he was asked about Puget Sound restoration, but "if I were a salmon counting on the big brains to solve my problems, I'd be nervous."

Ruckelshaus was speaking at the William D. Ruckelshaus Center Foundation's inaugural Chairman's Circle luncheon at the Washington Athletic Club (Full disclosure: Ruckelshaus is a Crosscut board member). He had just finished two days of oral history interviews with historian Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (among others) and editor of The Reagan Diaries. Brinkley is writing his own history of environmentalism, but the interviews, all of which were recorded by TVW, will be available  to any historian or interested citizen who wants to see them. Brinkley and Ruckelshaus appeared together at the luncheon to talk a bit about the oral history and answer a few questions.

At a media session afterward, Brinkley made it clear that he considers Ruckelshaus an American statesman — in a class with General George Marshall and other major figures of the 1940s and 50s — and one of the few Watergate heroes. At the time of the scandal, Nixon had reassigned him from acting director of the FBI to assistant Attorney General. When Attorney General Eliot Richardson resigned rather than fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox during the "Saturday Night Massacre," the responsibility shifted to Ruckelshaus. He too resigned. Ruckelshaus, Cox, and Richardson emerged as "truth tellers at a time of national deceit," Brinkley told reporters.

But Ruckelshaus is best known for his national environmental impact. When the United States got into the business of seriously regulating polluters and protecting species, he was involved from the beginning. Locally, he was the first chair of the Puget Sound Partnership's Leadership Council and also chair of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In the other Washington, Nixon made him the first head of the brand new Environmental Protection Agency. As EPA Administrator, Ruckelshaus was responsible for organizing the agency and hiring its original staff. After a few years, he moved on to the FBI job, and then to the Department of Justice.

In 1983, he went back to the EPA to clean up Dodge. Before Ronald Reagan had finished his first term, the EPA had fallen into disrepute. Reagan's first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch, slashed the agency's staff and tried to restrict its function. Superfund money was used for political purposes. Gorsuch was held in contempt of Congress (a strange offense — by this point, you'd be hard to find an American citizen who didn't have contempt for Congress) for refusing to provide Superfund documents. Another EPA official, Rita Lavelle, went to jail for lying to Congress. The agency needed a cleaner image. So Reagan brought in Ruckelshaus.

The interviews with Brinkley aren't Ruckelshaus' first recorded recollections. As all former directors do, he created an oral history for the EPA archives and he was also interviewed at the Nixon library in San Clemente on the EPA's 40th anniversary. At the library, he took part in a discussion with two men who had worked in the Nixon White House on domestic policy. All three were shown memos they had written to Nixon, with his comments in the margins. "We had never seen [the comments before,]" Ruckelshaus recalled. "Some of them weren't too favorable."

Still, Brinkley said, Nixon was one of the nation's four greatest environmental presidents. The historian's short list also included Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Whether or not Nixon cared about the issue, Brinkley said later, is another matter. According to Ruckelshaus, not only did Nixon not care about the environment, "he wasn't [even] curious about it." Even Reagan had more interest in the subject, he remarked.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 15, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

"We're the ones with big brains"

Is that what they'll be printing on the new Puget Sound Partnership fleeces?

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Aug 15, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Don't worry BlueLight, we'll put a different motto on your fleece. And on your bib too.

More seriously, Ruckelshaus is a true public hero and a stellar public servant. For many years moderate Republicans like him were the glue that held our political society together. Too bad no one is following in their footsteps.

woofer

Posted Mon, Aug 15, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"Don't worry BlueLight, we'll put a different motto on your fleece. And on your bib too."

Wow! Thanks, Woofer! I would soooo love one of them mahogany boxed bottles of apple cider but - alas! - I'm not Canadian...

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Aug 15, 8:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Hard to believe, when you see the Rapture awaiting crazies who have taken over the party these days, just how many good Republicans there once were. Rep. John Saylor of Pennsylvania fought for years to save places and pass the Wilderness Act. He'd be run out of today's Republican party were he around.

Posted Wed, Aug 17, 4:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I am sure Mr Ruckleshaus is a nice guy and all and yes he is a pioneer in protecting the environment, but let's get serious. If a river is burning common sense says we should deal with it.

But today the river's aren't burning, they are absorbing. Absorbing heavy metals, chemicals and the heat from the sun. Water is a natural coolant, until you add chemicals. Just because our river's aren't on fire doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

I feel Mr Ruckleshaus has an opportunity to create a real fix involving the private sector and not the "puget sound partnership". This Puget Sound Partnership is taking away valuable dollars from either enforcing the pollution laws on the books or allowing government/companies to install filters throughout urban areas to remove pre-existing pollution problems. Instead of wasting our time talking about it why not start fixing it?

As our oceans become warmer and more acidic, I remember 3rd grade science teacher explaining when you mix 2 chemicals you get a chemical reaction, and it's usually acidic, hot or potentially flammable.

salmonjim

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