The Forgotten Ethics Hero: William Ruckelshaus (1932-2019)

I’m supposed to be student of American Presidential history, and even I had virtually forgotten about William Ruckelshaus, who just died. It was Ruckelshaus who, along with Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson,  rejected Ethics Rationalization #15, The Futility Illusion or  “If I don’t do it, somebody else will” when the United States of America needed a hero, and got two.

His moment of courage arrived on an October night in 1973 destined to be known in the annals of American history as  the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Ruckelshaus was then Assistant Attorney General, and President Richard Nixon, was panicked that the ongoing investigation by Special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox was closing in on his blatant obstruction of justice. A White House-triggered burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the now-famous Foggy Bottom condo complex and hotel in Washington, D.C., seemed about to bring Nixon down, so Nixon resolved to have cripple the investigation by having Cox removed.  Ruckelshaus was the second of three officials the beleaguered POTUS ordered to fire the Harvard law professor. For some reason Nixon thought this might relieve him from having to produce the  nine incriminating Oval Office tape recordings that Cox had subpoenaed.

Ruckelshaus, under Nixon the first head of the new Environmental Protection Agency,  had been named acting head of the FBI in April of 1973, replacing L. Patrick Gray III. He was soon named the top deputy to Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson. When Nixon ordered the mild-mannered Richardson to fire Cox that fateful night, Richardson shocked Nixon by refusing, and resigning immediately. That made Ruckelshaus the Acting Attorney General, and he was suddenly on the hot seat, tasked with carrying out Nixon’s legally and ethically questionable orders.

Cox had been guaranteed complete independence by Nixon and Attorney General Richardson during the prosecutor’s Senate confirmation hearings in May of 1972.  Congress directed that he could be  be removed only for “gross malfeasance” in office, and by October 20, 1973, there had been none. “I thought what the president was doing was fundamentally wrong,” Ruckelshaus said  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.”

Thus Ruckelshaus also refused to fire Cox and resigned, following Richardson out the door. Next in line was Robert H. Bork, the United States solicitor general who became  the acting attorney general by default, and he finally carried out Nixon’s orders,  firing  Cox and abolishing the office of the special Watergate prosecutor.

I had forgotten about the man in the middle, Ruckelshaus, but remember the night vividly. This really was a Constitutional crisis, and became the moment most of us were convinced that Nixon was guilty, and likely to be impeached. Over 300,000 telegrams—remember those?— poured in to Congress and the White House, many demanding Nixon’s resignation. Nixon lost his nerve, and  surrendered the tapes anyway. As we know, the tapes eventually ended his Presidency.

A federal judge later ruled that Cox’s dismissal was illegal and ordered him reinstated, but Cox had had enough, and returned to Cambridge. His successor, Leon Jaworski, proved more than equal to the challenge, however, and produced sufficient evidence to make Nixon’s eventual impeachment all but certain.

Ruckelshaus went back to practicing law.

The text to Rationalization #15 reads,

It is a famous and time-honored rationalization that sidesteps doing the right thing because the wrong thing is certain to occur anyway. Thus journalists rush to be the first to turn rumors into front page “scoops,” and middle managers go along with corporate shenanigans ordered by their bosses, making the calculation that their refusal will only hurt them without preventing the damage they have been asked to cause. The logic is faulty and self-serving, of course. Sometimes someone else won’t do it. The soldiers asked to fire on their own people when the Iron Curtain governments were crumbling all refused, one after another. Sometimes someone else does it, but the impact of the refusal leads to a good result anyway. When Elliot Richardson was ordered by President Richard Nixon to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, he refused and resigned. Cox ended up being fired anyway, but Richardson’s protest helped turn public opinion against the White House. Even if neither of these are the final result, the individual’s determination to do right is always desirable in itself. The Futility Illusion is just a sad alternative to courage.

I left William Ruckelshaus’s act of courage and principle out of the description.

I better fix that.

7 thoughts on “The Forgotten Ethics Hero: William Ruckelshaus (1932-2019)

  1. The first guy is always a hero, and the second is almost always…who? Having lived through this…episode…I remember it well. Ruckelshaus didn’t even pause to take a breath. He just said “No” and “I quit” in the same breath. It’s too bad we don’t have many people in D.C. with his spine these days..

    Hope everyone had as great a Thanksgiving as I had.

      • Actually, it was lawful, as Cox was under Nixon’s authority. Alan M. Dershowitz had pointed it out.

        It hardly needs to be said that lawful and ethical are not synonyms. Plenty of unethical actions are nonetheless lawful.

        • I haven’t read AD’s analysis, but a judge ruled that it wasn’t lawful, which is why Cox was told he could return. If the judge says it’s not lawful, that’s how the record stands, right? Meanwhile, the order Yates refused to carry out was lawful,based on precedent.


            A president cannot be found guilty for exercising his constitutional authority, he argues, and his constitutional authority includes the right to fire anyone in the executive branch, even if that person is investigating him. In his view, President Richard Nixon did not obstruct justice by ordering the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Rather, Dershowitz says, Nixon obstructed justice by telling subordinates to lie to the FBI, by paying hush money to potential witnesses against him, and by destroying evidence. By this logic, Trump could fire Mueller or Rod Rosenstein for any reason without criminally obstructing justice.

            I agree with Dershowitz.

            The power to prosecute is perhaps the mosat dangerous power the government has. An important check against a prosecutor is the plenary power to fire a prosecutor for any reason whatsoever, or none at all. This plenary power must reside in one of the three branches of government- prosecutors are not a fourth branch of government.

            Regarding the instant case, i deduce that Nixon wanted more than merely to avoid punishment for himself and his senior staff- merely ordering the investigation shut down, let alone pardoning the whole lot of them- would have accomplished that. I deduce that Nixon wanted a fraudulent exoneration of his staffers and himself.

            • Except that Cox was different: he was confirmed by Congress with the condition that he could not be fired except for misconduct. AD is right about Mueller and the rest. But they are no analogous.

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