(Reuters) - William Ruckelshaus, picked by Richard Nixon as the first head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and as deputy attorney general before being fired for defying the president in the Watergate scandal, died on Wednesday at the age of 87, U.S. media reported.
Ruckelshaus, a moderate Republican highly regarded for his integrity and seen as a white knight by the environmental community, died at his home in Seattle, according to the New York Times, citing his daughter Mary Ruckelshaus.
In what was known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, Ruckelshaus, then deputy attorney general, and his boss, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was pursuing recordings of conversations that eventually brought down Nixon’s presidency.
Cox was fired by the solicitor general, Robert Bork, igniting an outcry over the Watergate scandal that eventually forced Nixon to resign in August 1974 rather than face removal from office by Congress.
“When you accept a presidential appointment, you must remind yourself there are lines over which you will not step — lines impossible to define in advance but nevertheless always present,” Ruckelshaus said in a 2012 speech in Seattle. “In this case, the line was bright and the decision was simple.”
Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, created in 1970. He later noted that 16 major pieces of environmental legislation were enacted during Nixon’s years in office, when visibly filthy air and water forced action.
“Citizens were demanding something be done and government was responding,” he said.
The White House shifted Ruckelshaus in 1973 to acting director of the FBI and then deputy attorney general, plugging gaps as the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon administration.
Ruckelshaus returned to private law practice after leaving the Justice Department but in 1983 the Reagan administration brought him back to run the embattled EPA after the then administrator Anne Gorsuch and a number of her top aides resigned amid allegations of mismanagement and conflicts of interest.
Ruckelshaus was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2015. Obama said Ruckelshaus “spent his life putting country before party or politics. He reminds us how noble public service can be. And our air and water is cleaner and our lives are brighter because of him.”
President Ronald Reagan - whose pro-business, anti-regulation administration was a bane of environmentalists - praised Ruckelshaus as “Mr. Clean” and said he would “mark a new beginning” at the downtrodden agency.
But the White House cut Ruckelshaus’ requests for more money for the agency, and sided with industry against his efforts for stronger enforcement of the Superfund law to clean up toxic waste dumps, tighter controls on pollution causing acid rain and other regulations business and industry opposed.
He resigned from the agency in 1985.
In an essay in 1995 on the EPA’s 25th anniversary, Ruckelshaus talked about the periodic beating the agency takes, with repeated attacks on its very existence.
“The anti-environmental push of the ‘90s is prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the late ‘80s, which was prompted by the anti-environmental excess of the early eighties, which was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the ‘70s,” he wrote.
Ruckelshaus, who lived in Seattle, stayed active on a number of boards and commissions, including the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington.
He served as chairman of the board of the World Resources Institute, special envoy to the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada and on the President’s Council for Sustainable Development.
William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born July 24, 1932 in Indianapolis, Indiana, and earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton University and his law degree at Harvard.
He practiced law in Indianapolis with the firm his family founded in 1895, then became Indiana’s deputy attorney general. He was elected to the state’s House of Representatives, where he was majority leader from 1967 to 1969. In 1968 he was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate but lost to Democrat Birch Bayh.
Nixon tapped him in 1969 as assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Division, before putting him in charge of the EPA.
Ruckelshaus’ wife, Jill, a director of Costco Wholesale Corp, was the White House special assistant on women’s rights in the Nixon administration but gave up the job after he resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order in the Watergate scandal.
Reporting by Vicki Allen; Editing by David Brunnstrom, Bill Trott and Diane Craft