This has been a year in which the nation lost three great leaders with Indiana roots. Former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh died in March. Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar died a little more than a month later. Both Bayh, a Democrat, and Lugar, a Republican, were lionized as lawmakers willing to transcend politics for the greater good of the country.
William D. Ruckelshaus, who died last week at 81, also deserves to be remembered as a giant from an era when consensus and statesmanship kept America moving forward no matter which political party was ascendant. Many would say that era is behind us. If so, that makes Ruckelshaus' remarkable odyssey as a public servant all the more inspiring.
Ruckelshaus probably would have preferred to be remembered as a pioneer in state and national efforts to fight pollution. An Indianapolis native whose family had deep Republican roots, Ruckelshaus first took up the cause of environmental justice as an assistant state attorney general, teaming with the Indiana State Department of Health to take action against corporate water polluters. As the Associated Press recounted, Ruckelshaus also served in the Indiana House as the chamber's youngest majority leader and made an unsuccessful run to unseat Bayh in 1968. President Richard Nixon asked Ruckelshaus to take charge of the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
A growing national awareness had spawned tough new anti-pollution laws, but it fell to Ruckelshaus to find a way to effectively enforce them. He quickly consolidated the 15 federal departments overseeing portions of environmental policy, then set and enforced new standards to protect the nation's air and water. When polluters protested that such rules would wreck the economy, Ruckelshaus stood firm with evidence that the benefits of the cleanups the agency advocated would far outweigh the costs.
By 1973, when he left to become acting director of the FBI as the Watergate crisis grew, the EPA had a clear and necessary role in charting the nation's future.
At the request of President Ronald Reagan, Ruckelshaus later returned to help lead the EPA after budget cuts had weakened the agency during the 1980s, and he spoke out on behalf of environmental concerns for the rest of his life.
But it was the challenge that Ruckelshaus faced in October 1973 that guaranteed him a place in the history books. By then, Ruckelshaus had been appointed deputy attorney general and Attorney General Elliot Richardson had appointed a special prosecutor named Archibald Cox to look into the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and related offenses.
When the special prosecutor demanded the White House turn over secretly recorded tapes that could shed light on the scandals, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. It was an extraordinarily perilous moment for American democracy. Could a president simply shut down a duly appointed investigation of his office?
On Saturday, Oct. 20, Richardson refused and informed the president he was resigning, leaving Ruckelshaus in charge. Late that afternoon, Gen. Alexander Haig, the president's chief of staff, phoned the Justice Department to demand that Ruckelshaus fire Cox, telling Ruckelshaus: “You have no alternative.”
According to author J. Anthony Lukas' account of what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Ruckelshaus, who, like Richardson, had promised Congress not to interfere with the special prosecutor, told Haig he did have an alternative – he would also resign.
Cox was subsequently fired that night by the next official in line at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork. But the White House ultimately turned over the tapes, which revealed compromising conversations, and Nixon became the only president to resign his office.
Four and a half decades later, Richardson's and Ruckelshaus' stands remain a shining example of political courage. With the importance of environmental protection again being debated, Ruckelshaus' common-sense approach to weighing costs and benefits still offers a way forward. The principles this Hoosier Republican espoused apply to those of all political persuasions who aspire to public service.