Later, after a Newt Gingrich-led backlash against the Clinton administration ushered in a Republican-controlled House with anti-regulatory sentiments in the 1994 mid-term elections, Ruckelshaus expressed concern that "violent swings" in power were having a "devastating effect on EPA."
His warnings, in a 1995 essay published on the agency's 25th birthday, are highly reminiscent of where we are today:
"We should be able to recognize certain repeating patterns. And so we do. We recognize, as perhaps the newer members of Congress do not, that the current rhetorical excess is yet another phase in a dismaying pattern. The anti-environmental push of the nineties is prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the late eighties, which was prompted by the anti-environmental excess of the early eighties, which was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the seventies, which was prompted.... But why go on. The pattern is quite clear. The new Congress may believe that it is the vanguard of a permanent change in attitude toward regulation, but unless the past is no longer prologue, the pendulum will swing back, and we will see a new era of pro-environmental movement in the future."
As he said then, the constant pendulum swings take their toll: "The impact of all this on the agency is devastating. EPA suffers from battered agency syndrome.... Why is EPA now the agency everyone loves to hate?"
In his talk Friday, Ruckelshaus recalled the environmental fervor of 1970, when "we had the smell, touch, and feel type of pollution" with visibly dirty air and water that compelled both the Nixon administration and Congress to act. He noted that Nixon talked about "making peace with nature" in his 1970 State of the Union address, adding, "Can you imagine a conservative Republican saying that today?"
Sixteen major pieces of environmental legislation to clean up the air, water, solid waste, protect endangered species, and so forth, were enacted during the Nixon administration, said Ruckelshaus, all with strong bipartisan support. EPA was created to carry them out. "Citizens were demanding something be done, and the government was responding," he said.
But Nixon himself was hardly an environmentalist. In fact, Ruckelshaus said, Nixon became increasingly disillusioned with his own environmental initiatives as the 1972 election neared and felt Congress was going too far. At a celebration of Earth Day's 40th anniversary last spring at the Nixon library, Ruckelshaus saw some of the presidential papers from that era, including a Clean Water Act document on which Nixon had handwritten "bullshit" in a marginal note. Nonetheless, Nixon "had the most extraordinary record any President has ever had," he said.
It is Ruckelshaus himself, however, who has gained rock star status in the environmental world for his steady and constant leadership over the past four decades and his record of high integrity and bipartisanship in times of crisis. At the end of the Nixon presidency, as the Watergate scandal engulfed Washington, Ruckelshaus took over as acting director of the FBI and then moved to the Justice Department, where he famously resigned during the "Saturday Night Massacre" rather than carry out Nixon's orders to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. In 1983, after Reagan Administration EPA head Anne Gorsuch resigned amidst controversy, Ruckelshaus rode back into Washington to become the agency's 5th Administrator.