I'm so disgusted I don't know what I can do. I'm going to tell you something--I resent it like hell. I resent that Jill Ruckelshaus is in the White House . . . with all her liberal ideas. --Martha Mitchell, 1973, wife of former attorney general John Mitchell
A DECADE AGO, Jill Ruckelshaus was none-too-charitably called the "Gloria Steinem of the Republican Party," a renegade Cabinet wife in the Nixon administration fighting for women's rights. It was a time when political compliance was the norm.
Several years later, it was reported that her pro-choice stand on abortion was one of the issues that cost her husband the vice presidential slot on Gerald Ford's ticket. She tweaked party conservatives at the last Republican convention as one of the leaders of a march against the GOP platform on the Equal Rights Amendment, her voice breaking with emotion as she cried out, "Give me back my party."
And only last year, in an early Reagan administration fiasco, the president attempted to fire her from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, nominating an evangelical minister who said he believed homosexuals and communists had "infiltrated" the government. Not only did she survive, but it looks as if Jill Ruckelshaus is coming back to town stronger than ever.
Yesterday, William D. Ruckelshaus, the "Mr. Clean" of the Nixon White House, was unanimously confirmed as the new administrator of the controversy-ridden Environmental Protection Agency, which he started under Nixon in 1970.
He is believed to be Reagan's best hope to rehabilitate the agency's image, although some have snidely referred to him as a "professional hero" since he resigned as deputy attorney general in 1973--in what is now known as the Saturday Night Massacre--rather than fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
The EPA job will cost him more than a $250,000 reduction in salary, and it means uprooting his wife, children, 14 rabbits, two dogs and two cats from his home outside Seattle, where he was a senior vice president at the Weyerhaeuser Co., a forest products company.
Jill Ruckelshaus, 46, calls herself a Ruckelshaus Republican, finding her roots, approximately, in the moderate wing of the party. She says she finds some aspects of the Reagan administration's policies "troublesome," but she is not concerned that her husband's job will stifle her.
She is not a company wife, but instead a classic insider's outsider, as well as the outsider's insider. Democrats love her. She has the career commitment of Elizabeth Dole, the spunk of Betty Ford and the image of a paragon of upper-middle-class assertiveness. She holds a master's degree in English literature from Harvard. And for fun, she prefers playing backyard basketball to chairing the obligatory charity ball.
The one condition she set before granting this interview was that specifics about the president's civil rights policies, as well as his attempt to fire her last year, not be discussed.
Does this mean she'll succumb to the political-wife pressures of Washington?
"I might think about it a little," she says, in a voice that barely rises above a whisper. "But I don't know what else I'd be if I wasn't what I was."
"I think that would be impossible for Jill to do--and unnecessary and inappropriate," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), an old friend of both Ruckelshauses. "Jill's own leadership abilities are well-known and well-respected . . . She has a sense of advocacy."
Jill Ruckelshaus did not want her husband to accept this job.
"My wife thinks I'm mad," he told the hundreds of EPA employes who gave him a hero's welcome in March. He said negotiations with his wife were tougher than those with the White House.
"I considered her reservations very seriously," said William Ruckelshaus during a telephone interview before his confirmation hearings. "The truth is that it's kind of unfair to her. We came out here to Washington state together kind of at my insistence. She fell in love with this part of the world. We established a life for ourselves. Now all of a sudden I say let's go back to Washington."
"It is a fishbowl," he said of life here, "and it will be difficult for her. It's something we both have to get used to."
Jill Ruckelshaus is the kind of woman some women envy: aggressive and articulate, always maintaining her femininity. She can easily be described as pretty. She has Windex-blue eyes. She speaks with a certain ethereal fragility during a recent interview at the Georgetown home of a friend.
As she talks, you almost forget what her friends describe, the mettle of a woman who: at 25, married a widower with infant twin daughters, raising them as her own; weathered her husband's nasty Indiana senatorial race in 1968 and a physical assault in her own home during that campaign; went through his resignation from the Nixon administration and then moved her five children across the country.
After that, she says, she found a niche in Washington state.
"I wasn't trying to talk him out of accepting the EPA job . I was trying to be as honest as I could be in saying the impact I thought it would have on Robin their 15-year-old daughter and on me. But I never said we wouldn't come . . . I'm not very good at separating. When we moved here nine years ago, I was very grumpy about that. I don't feel any particular pride in thinking about how grumpy I was, but I was."
It was, in fact, Jill Ruckelshaus who balked when her husband said it was time to leave Washington, three years after he left the Nixon administration, after he had started a law firm specializing in environmental law.
"There was a period in Washington," says a friend, "when they were both working so much, there was virtually no one at home with the kids. I think they came to the conclusion and recognition that things were not the way they should have been. It was time to leave . . ."
Jill Ruckelshaus was appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission by Jimmy Carter in 1980, after nearly 10 years as a ardent supporter of the feminist movement and the ERA.
As an assistant to Anne Armstrong, counselor to President Nixon, she set up the first liaison office with women's groups. A few years later, she was dispatched to Mexico as one of two U.S. delegates to the U.N. Conference on the International Women's Year.
"Jill Ruckelshaus is a fine mind," says Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, a Democrat on the Civil Rights Commission. "She's hard-working and practical and always does her homework. I really can't say enough glowing things about her. She's a liberal woman, but she has a practical understanding about what government can be."
An instinctive politician, Jill Ruckelshaus is cautious in the interview not to overstate, but rather offers opinions widely held by liberals.
Do you think the administration could be doing more for women and in the area of civil rights? she is asked.
"Yes, I do," she says flatly.
She is one of those people who is not uncomfortable with a moment of silence. She waits for the next question.
"I don't think that they have made women's issues a priority," she says. "And I sometimes wonder if they understand the issues. I'm not talking about how much money is being spent on programs. It's a lot more than a philosophical understanding of those kinds of statistics . . . I'd like to see more enforcement of Title IX. I'd like to see a vigorous commitment to affirmative action."
The night the White House asked William Ruckelshaus to come back to head the EPA, he had something more pressing on his mind: his son's high school awards dinner. The White House made its pitch, phones started ringing off the wall and Ruckelshaus calmly left for the dinner.
"That's the way they are--they're both very calm, never rattled," says Henry Diamond, William Ruckleshaus' former law partner, who happened to be in Washington State when the White House offer came. "And the family comes first."
"The one very impressive thing about them is their ability not to take themselves too seriously," says Diamond, who also was considered for the EPA job. "They kid each other pretty vigorously and keep themselves in perspective. If one of them starts to take themselves too seriously, the other brings them up pretty short."
Jill Ruckelshaus had just returned home to Indianapolis from teaching in Switzerland when she met her future husband. It was about a year after the death of William Ruckelshaus' first wife, the mother of the twins, Mary and Cathy. Jill, the daughter of an Indianapolis Lincoln-Mercury dealer, was waiting for Peace Corps clearance.
"I considered it such a gift to be getting three Ruckelshauses," she says. "On our honeymoon, he took a three-volume biography. I took Dr. Spock. People must have been thinking, 'Oh, there's a very organized woman, taking Dr. Spock on her honeymoon.' "
They appear to be the sort of family you see on television, a realistic Brady Bunch. The oldest children, the twins, recently graduated from college--Mary from Princeton and Cathy from Stanford. Their next child, Jennifer, is a sophomore at Stanford; William will enter Princeton this fall, and their youngest child, Robin, is still in high school.
The family owns a station wagon; there is a basketball hoop in the backyard; they take skiing and hiking trips together and everyone plays something or other: golf, baseball, tennis and so on.
"It's a much less impacted community Seattle ; there's a lot more physical freedom than they have in densely populated urban areas," says Jill Ruckelshaus. "They've all learned a lot about the mountains, the wilderness and backpacking and river running and rock climbing and skiing.
"I know people who do all those things who live here. I'm not trying to say that we're giving up something that we can't duplicate here, it's just that those were very happy times that we had there. I'm sure once I'm here I'll be delighted that I'm here. I'll get involved in other things, and I'm sure that'll be true of Robin, too."
She thinks for a minute as twilight drifts inside the vast townhouse.
"Yeats has a line in one of his poems about leaving. The refrain is 'another crack in the heart.' And it's not fatal and your heart isn't broken, there's a crack in the heart. When you're leaving people, places that you've loved, you'll be all right in time . . . there's just a little crack there."