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Opinion: Bill Ruckelshaus, Conservationist Who Also Protected The Rule Of Law

Washington, D.C.: William D. Ruckelshaus, director of the Environmental Protection Agency.
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Washington, D.C.: William D. Ruckelshaus, director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

William Ruckelshaus was a conservationist, an Indiana Republican conservative who believed in conserving balanced budgets, limited government powers, constitutional checks and balances, and clean air and water.

"Nature provides a free lunch," he said, "but only if we control our appetites."

He helped write Indiana's first air pollution laws as a state deputy attorney general in the 1960s, and was appointed the first head of the Environment Protection Agency by President Nixon in 1970.

As the first director of the EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus banned DDT from U.S. agriculture, went after steel and paper companies for water pollution, and told major cities to reduce the sewage they sent into water systems.

"He reminds us how noble public service can be," President Obama said when he awarded Mr. Ruckelshaus the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, then added, "And our air and water is cleaner and our lives are brighter because of him."

President Nixon called on Bill Ruckelshaus again in 1973 to make him Deputy Attorney General. The Justice Department needed to burnish its image of integrity during the Watergate investigation.

Archibald Cox, the independent special prosecutor, had subpoenaed President Nixon for recordings of conversations he had made in the Oval Office. As we know now, Nixon had recorded himself authorizing the payment of hush money to cover up criminal conduct.

In the events that became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the special prosecutor. Mr. Richardson refused, and resigned.

President Nixon then ordered Bill Ruckelshaus, the next in line, to fire Archibald Cox.

Bill Ruckelshaus had promised to uphold the independence of the independent prosecutor. So when he was ordered by the president to fire the prosecutor for trying to obtain evidence, Bill Ruckelshaus didn't make a series of excuses with his own conscience to stay close to power.

He refused the president's order and resigned.

"When you accept a presidential appointment, you must remind yourself there are lines over which you will not step," he recalled in 2012. "In this case, the line was bright and the decision was simple."

Bill Ruckelshaus died this week, at the age of 87--a conservative and a conservationist who conserved and protected the rule of law.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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