William Ruckelshaus, Who Quit in ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ Dies at 87

William D. Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy attorney general rather than carry out President Richard M. Nixon’s illegal order to fire the independent special Watergate prosecutor in the constitutional crisis of 1973 known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” died on Wednesday at his home in Seattle. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Mary Ruckelshaus.

A lawyer and political troubleshooter, Mr. Ruckelshaus twice headed the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as its founding administrator from 1970 to 1973 under Nixon, and from 1983 to 1985 under President Ronald Reagan. He won praise for laying the new agency’s foundations, and later for salvaging an E.P.A. that had strayed from its mission and lost the confidence of the public and Congress.

Mr. Ruckelshaus was a champion of America’s natural resources in his home state of Indiana; in Washington State, where he lived; and while serving on presidential commissions and conservation groups. But he also worked for big business, was not an environmentalist of the Greenpeace and Sierra Club stripe, and in 50 years of public and private service was hailed and vilified by partisans on both sides as he tried to balance economic and ecological interests.

For many Americans, however, the deeds of Mr. Ruckelshaus’s varied career were all but eclipsed by his role in the events of a single night in the autumn of 1973, as the political dirty tricks and cover-up conspiracies of the Watergate scandal closed in on his boss, the beleaguered President Nixon.

The scandal had already forced some of Nixon’s closest associates to resign and face criminal charges, and Mr. Ruckelshaus, with his E.P.A. successes and reputation for integrity, was named acting head of the F.B.I. in April 1973, replacing L. Patrick Gray III, who had allowed Nixon aides to examine Watergate files and had even destroyed evidence in the case.

Mr. Ruckelshaus was soon named the top deputy to Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson. And on a night of high drama, as the nation held its breath and constitutional government appeared to hang in the balance, Nixon ordered his top three Justice Department officials, one after another, to fire the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, rather than comply with his subpoena for nine incriminating Oval Office tape recordings.

Mr. Cox’s complete independence had been guaranteed by Nixon and the attorney general during the prosecutor’s Senate confirmation hearings the previous May. He could be removed only for “cause” — some gross malfeasance in office. But none was even alleged. Nixon’s order to summarily dismiss Mr. Cox thus raised a most profound question: Was the president above the law?

Mr. Richardson and Mr. Ruckelshaus refused to fire Mr. Cox and resigned even as orders for their own dismissals were being issued by the White House. But Robert H. Bork, the United States solicitor general and the acting attorney general after the dismissal of his two superiors, carried out the presidential order, not only firing Mr. Cox but also abolishing the office of the special Watergate prosecutor.

The dismissals, all on Saturday, Oct. 20, labeled the “Saturday Night Massacre” by news media, set off a firestorm of protest across the country. Some 300,000 telegrams inundated Congress and the White House, mostly calling for Nixon’s resignation. The outcry was so ferocious that the White House said within days that it had decided to surrender the tape recordings after all.

Less than a month later, a federal judge ruled that Mr. Cox’s dismissal had been illegal and ordered him reinstated, but Mr. Cox indicated that he did not want the job back. After a protracted legal struggle, scores of tapes were eventually turned over to Mr. Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, and Mr. Nixon, facing certain impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, resigned in August 1974.

Vice President Gerald R. Ford assumed the presidency, Mr. Cox returned to teaching at Harvard, Mr. Richardson was named Mr. Ford’s commerce secretary in 1976, and Mr. Bork became a federal judge whose nomination to the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1987 was defeated in the Senate. Mr. Ruckelshaus, who joined a Washington law firm and soon moved to Seattle, said he had no regrets.

“I thought what the president was doing was fundamentally wrong,” he told The New York Times years later. “I was convinced that Cox had only been doing what he had the authority to do; what was really of concern to the president and the White House was that he was too close. He hadn’t engaged in any extraordinary improprieties, quite the contrary.”

William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born on July 24, 1932, in Indianapolis, the second of three children of John K. and Marion (Doyle) Ruckelshaus. His father was a lawyer and Republican Party official who drowned at 60 in a fishing accident in Michigan. Mr. Ruckelshaus remembered him as deeply religious and called him “far and away the biggest influence” on his life.

“He not only was religious in the sense of being a regular churchgoer; he went to church every morning for the last 25 years of his life and took communion,” Mr. Ruckelshaus said in an interview for an E.P.A. publication. “But he lived it.”

William went to Roman Catholic parochial schools in Indianapolis and, midway through high school, transferred to Portsmouth Abbey, a school run by Benedictine monks in Portsmouth, R.I. After two years in the Army, he attended Princeton University and graduated with honors in 1957, then earned a law degree from Harvard in 1960.

In 1960 he married Ellen Urban, who died of complications of giving birth to twin girls in 1961. In 1962 he married Jill Elizabeth Strickland, who survives him along with their children, Jennifer and William Ruckelshaus and Robin Kellogg; his twin daughters, Catherine and Mary Ruckelshaus; a sister, Marion Ruckelshaus Bitzer; and 12 grandchildren.

As a deputy attorney general in Indiana in the early 1960s, Mr. Ruckelshaus helped write the state’s first air pollution control laws. A leader of the Young Republican organization, he won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1966 and became the first freshman legislator to be elected majority leader. In 1968 he lost a United States Senate race to the Democratic incumbent, Birch Bayh.

But he caught the eye of Attorney General John N. Mitchell and was brought to Washington in 1969 as an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil division. He displayed exceptional finesse cooling anti-Vietnam War protests, civil rights confrontations and unrest on college campuses.

Nixon was impressed. In 1970 he appointed Mr. Ruckelshaus to lead the new E.P.A. He proceeded to consolidate 15 federal agencies with environmental duties into an organization with 8,800 employees and a $2.5 billion budget (about $15.6 billion in today’s money), hired new leaders, defined priorities, proposed laws and organized a national enforcement structure. He also ordered cities to curtail sewage discharges into rivers; demanded more air-pollution controls; accused paper and steel companies of water-quality violations; and banned the domestic use of DDT.

Environmental advocates were generally pleased, although Mr. Ruckelshaus was not a consistent ally. He permitted states to write business-friendly air quality plans and allowed increased emissions in areas where the air was relatively clean, a stand that federal courts later called a violation of the Clean Air Act of 1970.

By 1973, Mr. Ruckelshaus was needed back at the Justice Department. After his interim appointment at the F.B.I., he pursued charges that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew had taken kickbacks from contractors while governor of Maryland. The case led to Mr. Agnew’s no-contest plea on a tax-evasion charge and his resignation on Oct. 10, 1973.

After his own resignation in the Saturday Night Massacre 10 days later, Mr. Ruckelshaus returned to private law practice. He moved to Seattle in 1976 and became a senior vice president of Weyerhaeuser, one of the nation’s largest lumber companies. He explored a run for the presidency in 1980 but did not return to public life until 1983, when President Reagan asked him to take over the troubled E.P.A.

After 22 months under Anne Gorsuch Burford, who had resigned in a scandal over mismanagement of a $1.6 billion program to clean up hazardous waste sites, the agency was demoralized and its programs riddled with corruption. Its budget had been heavily cut, and critics said it had openly favored polluters and abandoned its mission to protect the nation’s air, water and land resources.

Mr. Ruckelshaus stabilized the agency, restored professional management and subdued the scandals. But he was unable to rebuild the budget, and many E.P.A. initiatives were mired in court or stifled by Congress or business interests supported by the administration. After Reagan’s second term began, Mr. Ruckelshaus resigned, returned to Seattle, joined a law firm and set up an environmental consulting business.

From 1988 to 1995, Mr. Ruckelshaus was chief executive of Browning-Ferris Industries, one of the nation’s largest waste-removal firms, whose rapid expansion had led to civil and criminal complaints and fines in the disposal of toxic substances. Mr. Ruckelshaus took the company out of hazardous wastes and built up its recycling operations. The company also expanded into New York City, where Mr. Ruckelshaus helped investigators infiltrate a Mafia-dominated carting conspiracy, leading prosecutors to obtain indictments.

President George W. Bush named Mr. Ruckelshaus to the United States Commission on Ocean Policy, which produced a 2004 report, “An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century.” In 2008, Mr. Ruckelshaus was named to the Washington State Puget Sound Partnership.

Late in life, Mr. Ruckelshaus brought his Watergate experience to bear on another president under investigation. This time it was President Donald J. Trump, who at the time was furious over the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.

“Not only was that Saturday night the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency,” Mr. Ruckelshaus wrote in The Washington Post in August 2018, referring to the “massacre,” “but it also accelerated the growing wave of political cynicism and distrust in our government we are still living with today. One manifestation of that legacy: a president who will never admit he uttered a falsehood and a Congress too often pursuing only a partisan version of the truth.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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