William Ruckelshaus will be remembered for principled leadership, a legacy he carried from his native Indiana to Washington, D.C., to Washington state.
Ruckelshaus died at the age of 87 last week at his home in the Seattle area, after a career that is most notable for an auxiliary role in the Watergate scandal but was most impactful through his work to protect the environment. He was the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency starting in 1970 and returned to the position in 1983. In between, he served as acting director of the FBI and deputy U.S. attorney general.
Throughout, the lifelong Republican adhered to the principle that government is for the greater good rather than personal aggrandizement or partisan advancement.
Nationally, Ruckelshaus is best remembered for resigning as deputy attorney general rather than signing off on illegal firings ordered by President Richard Nixon to thwart the Watergate investigation. It was a crisis that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre and was a factor in Nixon’s eventual resignation.
John Dean, who was the White House counsel during Watergate, wrote last week: “I think everyone who knew Ruckelshaus thought he was an honest, fair individual who would do the right thing in virtually any situation.”
In the Northwest, however, Ruckelshaus is best known for his work on behalf of environmental causes. When the EPA was established, America’s landscape was overrun by industrial pollution, and the administration developed and enforced regulations that have resulted in cleaner air and cleaner water.
Former Columbian reporter Erik Robinson interviewed Ruckelshaus several times and wrote in an email that the former EPA head saw the environment as “something that united people in common interest irrespective of tribalistic party identity.”
While working to reduce pollution in the Northwest, Ruckelshaus told Robinson, “The truth is, there are not enough lawyers in Puget Sound to force all these people. You need to get all the people together who live in that watershed, acquaint them with the problem, and get them to make the commitment necessary to reduce those causes.”
Ruckelshaus also understood the valid role of regulation.
“The people upstream will always pooh-pooh what the downstream people think,” he told Robinson. “That’s why you need rules so as to assure that health and environmental protection is enjoyed by everybody.”
Ruckelshaus used that philosophy as a foundation for cleaning up waterways through the Clean Water Act, instituting air-pollution limits and creating a national ban on the insecticide DDT. Locally, after relocating to the Northwest, he focused on restoring salmon and halting the spread of pollution in Puget Sound. He was the first leader of the William Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of the University of Washington and Washington State University to craft solutions for urgent public issues.
As he said during an interview about the Columbia River, “I don’t think … these problems are so large or so daunting that there’s nothing we can do about it.”
That belief is all too infrequent in today’s political landscape, where principle typically gives way to partisanship.
Ruckelshaus will be missed for his role in advancing public benefits in Washington and beyond. His death serves as a reminder that government should be about serving the common good and clinging to principles rather than power.