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Richard Nixon, the unlikely environmentalist

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

Nixon’s lack of interest notwithstanding, “he had to do something about it,” Ruckelshaus says, “because the public demanded it.” Nixon took office just in time for the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. An offshore well in the Santa Barbara channel blew out eight days after his inauguration. Pictures of oiled seabirds made TV news and newspaper front pages all over the United States. That June, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River — or at least the oil and debris floating in it — famously caught fire. Clearly the images of those disasters had impact, but were they responsible for the popular uprising that made Nixon an environmental President?

That’s hardly the whole story according to Ruckelshaus. He believes Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, Silent Spring, was another driving force. “I think that book had a cumulative effect over the course of that decade,” he says.

So did the coverage of environmental issues by TV news. In those days TV viewers probably watched one of the big three broadcast networks, and environmental issues were “pushed by the talking heads on [all] three networks.” People didn’t have to watch them in black and white either: By the late 1960s, “the advent of color television showed pollution problems in graphic color.”

But U.S. residents could also see them in person. There was “pollution that people could see,” Ruckelshaus recalls. “We had flammable rivers and the problems of smog.” Nasty things flowed out of pipes directly into the water. If you drove across the Key Bridge between Georgetown and Virginia, you could see “raw sewage coming out of our nation’s capital right into the Potomac River.”

Nixon would propose strong environmental legislation, Ruckelshaus says, then Congress would change it, and the President would be faced with a choice between signing something he didn’t like and vetoing his own bill. Mostly, he signed.

Presumably, the President didn’t like the way he saw things turning out: In 1972 he made two decisions that showed the public that the government would act on their behalf — banning DDT and requiring catalytic converters in automobiles.

Not that either decision was or has been easy. At the time U.S. automobile companies vehemently resisted the converters and Nixon is still blamed for killing millions of people by depriving tropical countries of the pesticide that had once held malaria-carrying mosquitoes at bay (not true, since the ban covered only the U.S, and exceptions have been made even here). The auto manufacturers were certainly justified in their surprise: When the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, no one anticpated that “for the first time, the federal government [would be] involved in the manufacture of [automobile] engines.  . . . Fortunately, we had the Japanese [car] companies who said, ‘If those are your rules, we’ll comply with them.'”

In general, the laws have evolved in ways that no one anticipated. When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, “I think what people had in mind were major megafauna like bears and eagles and whales.” The act has, of course, been used to protect — and derided for protecting — many less glamorous species. Ruckelshaus considers that a good thing — preserving the ecosystems on which the charismatic species depend and increasing “public awareness of the pervasiveness of man’s impact.”

But eventually, after signing all those major laws, “Nixon turned against his own record,” Ruckleshaus said. “People forget that he vetoed the Clean Water Act. [Although] Congress overrode his veto overwhelmingly.” It was the election year of 1972, and Nixon was leading Democratic candidate George McGovern in the polls by 20 percent. Maybe, Ruckelshaus speculates, he finally felt free to be himself.

“I’m sure it would be more interesting, and probably more fun, to work for a President who agreed” with the environmental policies you were advocating, Ruckelshaus remarked. Nixon was only forced to do something about the country’s environmental problems because the public demanded it. But after all, he commented, “that’s the way democracy’s supposed to work.”

At the luncheon, former Governor and U.S. Senator Dan Evans asked if, with hindsight, Ruckelshaus would make any changes, and if so, what they might be. Ruckelshaus replied that he might send regulators to charm school; more seriously, he explained that he’d try to make the regulatory process less adversarial.

Legislatures don’t provide enough money for regulation. They also don’t provide enough money for the monitoring on which regulation should be based. In Puget Sound, he says, most of the monitoring is done under the terms of individual federal or state grants, so there are lots of overlaps and inconsistencies, and there’s no coordinated system.

Regulation works fine for larger pollution or point sources, he explains, but it hasn’t worked as well for individual or non-point sources.  Most people are happy to see government regulate big corporations, Ruckelshaus told the luncheon guests; they probably figure corporate officials should be in jail, anyway. But when you get down to regulating individuals — the farmers and rural homeowners who contribute to non-point-source pollution — there’s no public support.

“People are in favor of regulation on a theoretical level,” Ruckelshaus observed. “They are not in favor of regulation on a personal level.”

At first that was fine. When the EPA started, an estimated 85 percent of the nation’s polluters were factories, municipal sewage systems, and other point sources. But that was then. Now, there’s more of a focus on individuals, which means millions of property owners. Going after individuals creates an us-and-them antagonism.

Appropriately, the mission of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center is “to act as a neutral resource for collaborative problem solving in the region.” It “is dedicated to assisting public, private, tribal, non-profit, and other community leaders in their efforts to build consensus and resolve conflicts around difficult public policy issues.”

Some environmentalists are uneasy with this approach, skeptical that government can do the job using only carrots and no sticks. But Ruckelshaus doesn’t advocate a stick-free approach. He believes regulation is still needed to backstop the collaborative process. By this time, though, he figures regulation by itself makes little sense. If what you’re doing doesn’t work, he asks, does it make sense to keep doing it more intensely?

Not that Ruckelshaus finds environmental laws beyond reproach or believes that, after three decades, they are beyond updating. Still, there is always a resistance to change. “Every time you pass a law, you create a constituency for the status quo,” he explains. And in today’s polarized Washington, Ruckelshaus doesn’t see a serious re-examination of environmental law happening any time soon. (Some Republicans would like to see environmental regulation scrapped once and for all, but that’s not what he’s talking about.) At this point, he says, you have “the Republicans, in many cases, basically denying the science” behind environmental protection. In the red-versus-blue alignment of values, “the Republicans tend to think of environmentalism as a Democratic issue.”

That is not, of course, the history of government concern with the environment. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican and so was Nixon, though their approaches — and their personal levels of commitment — were very different.

John Whitaker, who served as Nixon’s Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and Under Secretary of the Interior, told Ruckelshaus that a year or so before Nixon died in 1994, Whitaker was in his Manhattan office. Nixon looked up Park Avenue and said he hoped he’d be remembered for doing good things. Whitaker said, “Mr. President, you’ll be remembered as a great environmental president.” Nixon said, “God, I hope not!”

Nevertheless, Nixon compiled an “unparalleled record,” Ruckelshaus says. The first time he met Brinkley, whose biography of Theodore Roosevelt he had already read, he contrasted TR, who was out ahead of public opinion, and Nixon, who was pulled along by public opinion, and asked the historian, “does it matter?”

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