William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency who later became a heroic figure for resisting President Richard Nixon’s attempts to cover up the Watergate scandal, has died. He was 87.
He died Wednesday at his home in Seattle, according to The New York Times, citing his daughter Mary Ruckelshaus.
Named by Time magazine as one of the 10 best cabinet officers of the 20th century, Ruckelshaus took charge of the newly created EPA in 1970 and made headlines for pushing through health-based standards for air pollutants and car emissions, and for banning the pesticide DDT.
In 1973, he became best known for defying Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had subpoenaed the White House for copies of tapes made of conversations in the Oval Office.
After Nixon had cleaned house in his administration following the resignations of his top aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Ruckelshaus became acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was probing charges of abuses of power at the heart of the Watergate matter. He quickly became deputy attorney general, the No. 2 post at the Justice Department, under the new attorney general, Elliot Richardson.
Following the 1973 ouster of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, based on evidence uncovered by the Justice Department, Richardson informed Ruckelshaus that Nixon wanted Cox fired in order to avoid turning over the incriminating tapes.
“I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry about it,'” Ruckelshaus said in a 2005 C-SPAN interview, recalling his response to his boss about the White House’s plan. “They’ll never do that. There would be too much of a public furor if they tried. Shows how little I knew.”
Richardson formally refused to fire Cox and resigned on Oct. 20, 1973. Ruckelshaus did the same, leaving the job to Robert Bork, the solicitor general. Nixon’s firing of Cox and the departures of Richardson and Ruckelshaus became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
“I couldn’t have done anything else,” Ruckelshaus said, according to a 1976 article in People magazine. “What the President was asking me to do was fundamentally wrong.”
Ruckelshaus, who had been a legislator in Indiana before his Washington jobs, returned to his home state to practice law until 1975, when he moved his family to Seattle to become senior vice president of Weyerhaeuser Co.
President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, persuaded Ruckelshaus in 1983 to return to the EPA, which was in disarray following the tenure of Anne Burford. He helped the agency impose controls on hazardous waste, restore and protect Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia and remove the pesticide ethylene dibromide, also known as EDB, from use on U.S. farms.
William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born July 24, 1932, in Indianapolis to John K. Ruckelshaus, a lawyer who was chairman of the Platform Committee at five Republican national conventions, and Marion Doyle Ruckelshaus. He had an older brother, John, and a younger sister, Bonney.
Ruckelshaus earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton University in 1957 and a law degree at Harvard Law School three years later.
He was deputy attorney general in Indiana from 1960 to 1965 and became a member of the state’s House of Representatives in 1967.
After leaving government in 1985, Ruckelshaus joined the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie before becoming chief executive officer of Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. in 1988. Then serving as its chairman for 11 years, he left to become a principal at Madrona Investment Group LLC, a private investment firm in Seattle, and also a partner in Madrona Venture Group.
Interested in the environment since his time in state government, “Ruck,” as his friends called him, was chairman of the World Resources Institute, a special envoy to the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, and a member of the President’s Council for Sustainable Development from 1993 to 1997.
His first wife died while giving birth, leaving him a widower with twin daughters, Cathy and Mary, to care for. In 1962, he married Jill Strickland, with whom he had three more children: Jennifer, William Jr. and Robin.
Jill Ruckelshaus was an adviser on women’s rights to President Nixon and later a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She resigned her White House post after Ruckelshaus’s resignation in the “Saturday Night Massacre.”