As mourning began following the death of Bill Ruckelshaus on Wednesday evening at age 87, the Indiana politician's service in a string of federal positions dominated the flow of obituaries and tributes.
His resume was gilt-edged: first head of the Environmental Protection Administration after it was created in 1970 (and back for another stint from 1981-84); acting head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in July 1973 and, later that year, No. 2 under U.S. Attorney General Eliot L. Richardson; and — most dramatically — his role in "the Saturday Night Massacre," in which he resigned as deputy attorney general in October of '73 rather than obey President Nixon's order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Given barely a line or two in the published features on William Doyle Ruckelshaus was, a year before he came to Washington in 1969, he was nearly elected Senator from the Hoosier State.
Many who were there for the race still believe, in a Republican state that went heavily for presidential nominee Richard Nixon and gubernatorial candidate Edgar Whitcomb, Ruckelshaus should have turned a heartbreakingly close (51.4% to 48%) defeat to an easy victory over Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh.
"There had been a split in the Marion County [Indianapolis] Republican leadership in 1968 — internecine local power structures — and the party wasn't as united as it should have been on an Indianapolis basis," Ed Feigenbaum, editor of the much-read Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, recalled to Newsmax. "The Marion County Republican leadership battle — of which Ruckelshaus was a part — meant a fractured local party."
The son and grandson of Republican Party leaders in Indianapolis, the young Ruckelshaus always seemed destined for politics. Following a stint in the U.S. Army and graduation from Princeton and Harvard Law School, Ruckelshaus briefly practiced law and was deputy attorney general of Indiana.
In 1964, he sought the Republican nomination for an open, Indianapolis-based U.S. House seat as an unabashed moderate. In May of that year, his supporters took out a full-paged ad in the "Indianapolis Recorder" imploring voters to "Vote Against Enemies of Civil Rights Now!"
What made the ad controversial was it named front-running GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., as one of those "enemies" and declared, "the Goldwater philosophy of states rights or the racism of [Alabama's arch-segregationist Democratic Gov. George] Wallace can only be met with the force of votes."
Ruckelshaus refused to endorse Goldwater or any other Republican for president. His conservative opponent, former U.S. Attorney Don Tabbert, was for Goldwater from the start. Tabbert won the House nomination handily, but lost in November by less than 1% of the vote.
Undaunted, Ruckelshaus was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1966 and became majority leader in his freshman term. Two years later, he wrapped up the Republican Senate nomination.
Running as a "law and order" candidate with Richard Nixon leading the Republican ticket in an historically GOP state, the young (38) GOP hopeful grew "more relaxed, showing more humor, and [was] banking heavily on the 11 one-hour television coffees which Ruckelshaus started Oct. 23 in Fort Wayne . . . [Ruckelshaus would] answer telephoned questions live on the air." ("Indianapolis Star," Oct. 6, 1968).
The candidate's wife Jill Ruckelshaus won much admiration for her strength after she was raped at their home while her husband was away. She campaigned hard, and was joined by Kathryn (Mrs. Bing) Crosby.
"Bill would have won had he not been associated with the moderates in the Republican Party, who were at war with the conservatives — us guys," the late M. Stanton Evans, then editor of the "Indianapolis News," once told this reporter.
In 1966, a group known as the Republican Action Committee (RAC) sought to take over the powerful Marion County GOP Committee and install as chairman L. Keith Bulen — a sworn enemy of conservatives. Ruckelshaus aligned himself with the RAC and Bulen, thus reviving the distrust from four years before among conservatives.
Ruckelshaus beat Bayh in Marion County by only 10,873 votes, while conservative gubernatorial nominee Whitcomb carried it by a whopping 34,119. In other counties considered conservative bailiwicks, the story was similar: Ruckelshaus edged Bayh in Allen County by only 1,044 votes and, according to the "Star," "his margin should have been 5,000-to-8,000"; Whitcomb swept Vanderburgh County by 3,846 votes, but Ruckelshaus actually lost to Bayh there by 8,160 votes.
Ruckelshaus also clearly stumbled in the campaign when he voiced his support for a paramutuel horseracing referendum but then backtracked to say he was not really for it but only wanted it brought before the legislature to clarify statutes on gambling.
Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell, tapped to be U.S. attorney general, had taken a liking to Ruckelshaus and named the Hoosier as assistant attorney general for the Lands Division. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bill Ruckelshaus had an illustrious career in several high appointed positions in the federal government. That career was a result of his losing a very close race for the office he wanted most — U.S. Senator from Indiana.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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