Bill Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, being sworn in, with President Nixon. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency
While we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair, which hit its peak-season stride in August 1962, another anniversary is running through my mind. It was the amazing election year of 1972, when so much of the promise of the New Frontier came crashing to the ground because of a burglary known as Watergate.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the scandal that began in ’72. That August, a young, unknown duo at The Washington Post — Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — had connected the burglars to campaign funds earmarked for the re-election of President Richard Nixon. What began to unfold was a great and complex scandal that not only brought down a presidency, but significantly changed the way Americans view their government.
Seattle has some direct links to Watergate. Top Nixon aide and counsel John Ehrlichman was deeply involved and went to jail. Ehrlichman was a Seattle land-use attorney who once battled to keep an aluminum plant off Guemes Island, a seminal 1960s battle to preserve the San Juan Islands. Jim Ellis once called him “one of the ablest lawyers in this state.” The late Bagley Wright, who was on the Seattle planning commission, remembered the time the commission opposed an Ehrlichman project. The attorney promptly informed the commission members that he didn’t care what they thought, and that he’d go over their heads. Decades later, Wright told me over lunch one day, what he remembered most was Ehrlichman’s sneer.
Seattle attorney Egil “Bud” Krogh worked with Ehrlichman at his local law firm, then followed him to the White House. Krogh is famous for two things: His misdeeds while heading Nixon’s covert operations group, the Plumbers, and his arranging of the famous meeting between Elvis and Nixon. Krogh, who now practices law in Seattle, has been one of the most contrite of the Watergate operatives.
Another Watergate local is William Ruckelshaus, who moved here afterward and has been involved in many civic affairs, notably the Puget Sound Partnership. He is former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was a Watergate victim, not a perpetrator. Ruckelshaus had been interim director of the FBI and then was made deputy attorney general. He resigned after refusing to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. Cox was demanding the White House tapes, which would prove incriminating to the president.
For some young people, 1972 was a time of political activism and awakening. A 16-year-old Greg Nickels went with his mother to his first Democratic precinct caucus that year. His passion for politics was ignited in the living room of a neighbor on Capitol Hill. Nickels went on to volunteer for a guy running (unsuccessfully) for governor named Jim McDermott. It was a key time for me, too. Eighteen-year-olds got the vote, and I, too, attended my first precinct caucus, mine in Mount Baker. I was elected a delegate to the King County Democratic convention. That year, I volunteered for George McGovern and was a poll worker. I got my first exposure to local backroom and shoe-leather politics, Seattle-style, especially as I watched favorite-son candidate Scoop Jackson’s ground troops Bigfoot the anti-war delegates like me.
Recently, Ruckelshaus shared some of his experience of Watergate and its impact on the public. According to a Pew Research Center poll, in 1958, confidence that government would do the right thing was at 73 percent. In 2010, it was down to 22 percent. Watergate marked one of several sharp declines. The scandal, says Ruckelshaus, validated every conspiracy theorist. That might be Nixon’s most lasting legacy: Sometimes the paranoids are right; now we think they’re always right.
Ruckelshaus believes the only solution to such lack of faith is to push decisions back to the local level, where it’s easier to solve systemic problems through smaller, focused action. The top-down, command-and-control structure of government no longer works — there’s some agreement on both the right and left on that, from Occupy to the Tea Party. If you want to clean up Puget Sound, for example, you might have to do it neighborhood by neighborhood, one cul-de-sac or septic system at a time. Ruckelshaus calls this a new kind of Jeffersonianism. Over time, the people’s belief in government might be restored.
Maybe. We have many holes to dig out of here in Seattle: pollution, transportation, school reform, police department accountability. That work has been made harder by the fallout from a “third-rate burglary” 40 years ago.
This column previously appeared in a slightly altered form in the September issue of Seattle Magazine. Disclosure: William Ruckelshaus is on Crosscut’s board of directors.
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