Back when I was a Republican, the party included statesmen like Bill Hudnut, Dick Lugar and Bill Ruckelshaus, all of whom I was privileged to know. With the death of Ruckelshaus last week, all are now gone, along with the intelligent, ethical service they exemplified.
A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a column from Counterpunch, in which a reporter who had interviewed Ruckelshaus in 2006 reprinted the questions and answers from that interview.
“Ruck” is best known for his principled refusal as a Deputy A.G. to follow Nixon’s orders and dismiss the then-Special Prosecutor (in what has come to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”), but he was also the first administrator of Nixon’s EPA. (Yes, the EPA was established by a Republican President…How times have changed…)
For that reason, this particular interview focused upon environmental issues. From his answers, it was obvious that Ruckelshaus was scientifically knowledgable and passionate about the environment. He also displayed enormous insight into the policy process.
The first question asked by the reporter was “What is the greatest obstacle to implementing effective environmental policies?’
Ruckelshaus: Public distrust of the federal government. Unless the people can place some minimal degree of trust in their governmental institutions, free societies don’t work very well. To me, this is the central ugly fact confronting the government of the United States. The more mistrust by the public, the less effective government becomes at delivering what people want and need.
This is an important insight. The lack of public trust in governance is a significant reason for America’s current polarization. I’ve done some research on the trust issue–in 2009, I wrote a book, Distrust, American Style, in which I described some of the negative social consequences attributable to a pervasive lack of trust in government and other social institutions. (I also noted that “Fish rot from the head”…)
Particularly refreshing was Ruckelshaus’ answer to the question “What specifically do you think the U.S. should be doing in the area of environmental protection that it isn’t doing?”
I think we should adopt a Policy #1 that global warming is a real problem, and we are a major contributor to carbon in the atmosphere and we need to take serious steps to reduce it.
We should have some kind of Manhattan-style Project to find out how to a generate energy using less carbon and every form of energy should be open, including nuclear. Nuclear power is not economical right now and it also scares people to death, even though we have generated 20 percent of our electrical energy in this country using nuclear power for a long time and are likely to be generating something like that over the next 15 to 20 years when these plants are scheduled to phase out. But other alternative forms of energy, including really getting serious about conservation, can all be done within economic good sense.
Several other answers were notable both for their directness and Ruckelshaus’ obvious depth of knowledge. He described “politics” as the predictable reaction to regulations that threatened to diminish an existing benefit valued by a lawmaker’s “constituency.” (Constituency, in this case, is “special interest” i.e., clean air versus oil subsidies…)
In his last response, Ruckelshaus returned to the issue of trust. Asked whether he would consider a hypothetical offer to return to the top position at the EPA, he said probably not–that
in order to get constructive change in either our environmental laws or the way they’re administered, you have to have a fairly high degree of public trust. But if the public didn’t believe you and thought your decisions were favoring some constituency that the president had, it’s very hard to make any progress.
That, of course, is a perfectly accurate description of where we find ourselves today.
No one in his right mind believes that Trump gives a rat’s hindquarters about the environment–or, for that matter, that he knows anything at all about science or climate change or the government’s responsibility to safeguard the air and water. The EPA is currently being run by a former coal lobbyist, and there is plenty of reason to believe that, in this administration, rules are only being made–or more accurately, relaxed and repealed–to “favor some constituency.”
The contrast between Republicans like Ruckelshaus and today’s Trump sycophants is sobering. If you care about America, it’s heartbreaking.