"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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