Bill Ruckelshaus

“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.”

- Bill Ruckelshaus

bill ruckelshaus and richard nixon

As the first administrator of a new federal agency, Ruckelshaus is dubbed Mr. Clean. “The first few weeks I have been in the Environmental Protection Agency have underscored for me the simple truth that as a society we know very little about what we are doing to ourselves.” Above: Swearing-in ceremony, December 1970. Associated Press/Charles Tasnadi

Left: Nobody influenced Ruckelshaus like his father. John Kiley Ruckelshaus was a prominent Indiana Republican, a respected attorney and a devout Catholic who led by example. Ruckelshaus family collection

Middle: In 2015, Ruckelshaus receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Olivier Douliery, TNS

Right: It’s been 45 years since Ruckelshaus took the helm of the EPA. “We had rivers catching on fire and the oil spill in Santa Barbara. It was a terrible situation. And now that’s ancient history. A lot of pollutants today are invisible.” Laura Mott

Who is he?

William Doyle Ruckelshaus built America’s Environmental Protection Agency against a backdrop of smog. He took on automakers and slashed car emissions. He banned DDT, a contentious decision to this day. President Nixon convinced him to head the FBI where Ruckelshaus oversaw the Watergate investigation. As Deputy Attorney General, he refused to carry out the President’s order to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor. His resignation triggered nearly 2,000 letters, telegrams and cards from admirers applauding his character and courage.

Ruckelshaus later returned to a broken EPA and energized demoralized employees. When the agency called for new emissions standards threatening the future of a Tacoma smelter in 1983, Ruckelshaus made national news for allowing the public to weigh in on its fate.

The Weyerhaeuser Company made him a senior vice president in 1976. The now longtime Washingtonian chaired the Salmon Recovery Board and co-chaired the Puget Sound Partnership. In 1997, President Clinton named Ruckelshaus as U.S. envoy in the implementation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. In 2001, President Bush appointed Ruckelshaus to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

In our state, Ruckelshaus leaves a strong legacy of civility in problem solving. He is the inspiration behind the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a UW-WSU collaboration, that focuses on complex public policy.


The government upheaval known as the Saturday Night Massacre was billed at the time as the country’s “most serious constitutional crisis.” On October 20, 1973, President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor. Both refused. Ruckelshaus tendered his resignation with a clear conscience. He said it was the “easiest decision I’ve ever had to make.” Cartoon: Steve Brodner/Los Angeles Times