Bill Ruckelshaus
Bill Ruckelshaus with wife Jill in 1970 at swearing in as EPA Administrator by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, as President Nixon looks on.

What exactly would Bill Ruckelshaus do?

It’s a question every EPA Administrator since him, and perhaps every serious environmental professional, should be asking.

The first and twice-serving EPA administrator, now deceased at age 87, would make few lists of most influential climate change savants. Would that he had been in his prime, and in office, during the rise of that issue as the seminal and existential environmental issue of our lifetimes.

In Memory

So it is, in fact, impossible to know, just what exactly the formidable “Ruck” would have done.

'What would Bill do?' It's a question all #EPA administrators should ask. Click To Tweet

But some things he would do would differ not a twit from what he did during his two times serving at EPA, both in Republican administrations, first that of Richard Nixon and then that of Ronald Reagan. We know, for instance, that he would adhere to his binding allegiance to the rule of law. We know too that he would not forsake his strong commitment to the principles of sound and responsible science, whether its findings reinforced or shattered his own personal convictions. Or those of anyone else, including the president he served.

Speak even fleetingly to any of those whose environmental career paths crossed that of William Doyle Ruckelshaus: the term “giant” often arises. Not only for his time as EPA’s first administrator, in the 70s, when he brought forth essential restrictions on DDT, pressures on localities to clean up contaminated water supplies, and groundbreaking introductions of motor vehicle emission standards, controls on lead in gasoline, and the introduction of catalytic converters on our cars.

And not solely either for his second curtain call as EPA administrator, under President Reagan, when he returned to the scandal-scarred, battered, and downtrodden agency. He returned to EPA not solely to serve it, but in effect to also save it; save it from the rampant scandals that had damaged the agency and its professional staff under the early Reagan administration and the tenure of the “do more with less” Anne Gorsuch as EPA head.

Modestly brilliant yet soothingly modest in his dealings with those around him, Ruckelshaus had a way of making fun of himself: Upon returning in the early 80s to the same position he had held in the early 70s, he would wonder out loud how proud his mom must be that he had re-assumed the same job he had held 10 years earlier – and at the same pay grade.

Forever, untouchable or, ironically, “teflon” after resigning as deputy attorney general from the Justice Department rather than execute Nixon’s directive to fire Watergate investigator Archibald Cox (just after Attorney General Elliot Richardson had done the same), Ruckelshaus forever secured his standing as a public servant and official of impeccable integrity and sound judgment.

But as for his reputation for self-deprecation, he would comment that: “Retire as EPA Administrator in a Republican administration before you are indicted, and everyone thinks you’re a hero.” In his case, he was indeed.

As the first head of the soon-to-be half-century-old EPA, Ruckelshaus set a high bar for all those who have followed him. Many have come nowhere close.

An early Republican would-be elected officeholder from Indiana, Ruckelshaus leaves a legacy any cabinet member, EPA administrator, or civil servant can only admire. Reason enough for Time magazine’s long ago having acknowledged him as one of the most effective and widely admired cabinet heads in the nation’s history.

What, indeed, would Ruckelshaus have done, and what would he be doing, if he’d been able to address the daunting challenges posed by the warming of our atmosphere?

Truth is, we’ll never know.

What we do know, however, is that he wouldn’t have stood idly by as decades of  delayed actions passed. Ruckelshaus would not have endlessly pondered one after another “skeptical” rejection of the established body of science.

At this point, one cannot say that the nation’s progress – and accordingly that too of much of the Western world’s? – in confronting the climate challenge would have put us miles ahead of the snail’s pace we now find ourselves in. But it’s not a stretch to hold that our collective steps toward making such progress likely would be far better than what we’re seeing currently.

What Ruckelshaus would have done is something our environmental leaders at the federal level, Democratic and Republican, should have been doing all along, to the maximum extent of their capabilities. It’s never too late to start doing the right thing.

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