William Doyle Ruckelshaus, who passed away Nov. 27, was a national treasure from Indiana who chose King County as his home shortly after he was forced out of office in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. His service to our country and the state of Washington, well known to many of us and chronicled in recent obituaries published in newspapers around the world, continued long after he left government. He was the director of the FBI, U.S. Deputy Attorney General, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator — twice, and led a campaign to save salmon here in the Pacific Northwest.
But only a few of us know of a 2009 speech he gave here in Seattle to the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys. I was the association’s president that year and asked Ruckelshaus to be the speaker on the last night of our annual conference. Former U.S. Attorneys from all over the country who served under Republican and Democratic presidents as far back as President Kennedy attended.
Weeks before his presentation, I reminded Ruckelshaus that his audience would include virtually all of the eight U.S. Attorneys who were fired in 2007, including my brother, John (U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, 2001-2007). None of us really know why they were terminated but subsequent assertions that they were derelict in their official duties were patently false. Some suspected that John was targeted because he did not adequately investigate alleged election irregularities in the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election (it was, in fact, thoroughly reviewed). Others thought that the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico was fired because he refused demands by a U.S. Senator to accelerate criminal indictments to aid one of his political allies. In any event, many of us thought that President George W. Bush was ill-served when these fine public servants were terminated.
I was hoping that Ruckelshaus’ role in Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre would be a thoughtful, gentle reminder that political firings have been, regrettably, part of our country’s history. It has happened to good people with integrity, but many have gone on to a wonderful life of service and joy. The firings took place in October 1973 as Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was closing in on President Nixon. The president refused to turn over audiotapes of certain Oval Office conversations, claiming executive privilege, and Cox was going to court to obtain an order requiring their release. After Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused Nixon’s order to fire Cox and resigned, Nixon ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to do it. Ruckelshaus could not in good conscience execute this command and resigned as well.
The speech was entertaining and informative and as Ruckelshaus put it, “the first time I have tried to put all this down for public consumption.” His remarks were later referenced in a recent Nixon biography.
We are grateful that, throughout our country’s history, we have had in public office those treasured few men and women who stood up for what was right, even under withering pressure.
Ruckelshaus told us he found the aftermath of “the visible act of public resignation difficult. There is no manual that tells you what to do.” It took him “nine months of concentrated effort to stabilize my family and personal existence” but that “in general, my life has been far richer as a result of my public service.” These were soothing, consoling words that night in 2009 for his Department of Justice colleagues, eight U.S. Attorneys, who were forced to resign their offices when they were also trying to perform their duties with integrity.
Sir Thomas More, the original Man for all Seasons, refused to compromise his principles in the face of a menacing mandate from King Henry VIII in 1535. For this, he was executed. Ruckelshaus did not lose his life when he followed the dictates of his conscience, but he was forced to leave one of the most prominent offices in the United States government. Happily, many of us continued to benefit from his service for the rest of his life.