There are moments in Washington that cry out for the talents of Tom Lehrer, the musical satirist. It was Lehrer who years ago penned a nasty ditty in tribute to the pragmatism of Werner von Braun, the rocket scientist who worked first for the Nazis and then for the Americans: "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down. That's not my department, says Werner von Braun."
It is, of course, a long way from Werner von Braun to William Ruckelshaus, the likely administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, but it seems that the pragmatism of the late rocket scientist infects him. In the course of introducing himself to EPA employes and saying he loved both Ronald Reagan and the environment, Ruckelshaus outlined what could be called his philosophy of life:
"My job as a lawyer was to represent my clients. My job at Weyerhaeuser was to represent all the stakeholders in that enterprise. My job as EPA administrator is the same today as it was when I held that job before, and that is to represent the public interest to the best of my ability." The newspaper said this was followed by applause.
The newspaper did not say that anyone yelled out, "But what do you believe, Bill?" since this would have been a most un-Washington question. It does not ever get asked of a man like Ruckelshaus who was keeper and defender of the environment while at EPA, then a lawyer who took clients in trouble with EPA and then senior vice president of a corporation known for making both paper and a mess of the environment.
In a way, it's a shame that Ruckelshaus had to say what he did. He is an admirable man, one of the few to have worked high up in the Nixon administration and come out of it with more esteem than when he went in. What made him different was that he stood for something in an administration that stood for nothing but its own survival. It would be a shame if his EPA speech meant he now stands for the cause of those who pay his bills.
That, of course, is the lawyer's ethic and a wonderfully utilitarian one it is. It enables the indefensible to be defended, but it has crept into just about every endeavor. We are, in fact, surrounded by Ruckelshauses (Ruckelshomes?). Everyone is a hired specialist with nothing but a narrow interest.
In Alabama, television cameramen film a man setting fire to himself because their job is to take pictures, not put out fires. In New Bedford, some gorillas watch a woman repeatedly raped and members of the community excuse them because what was going on was not their business. Lawyers can be told of a crime and their code of ethics tells them to keep their mouth shut. Everyone is a specialist, specializing, of course, in his own self-interest.
But it should not be. When it comes to Ruckelshaus, the man has to have some principles and we ought to know what they are. He cannot, after all, swear allegiance both to Smokey the Bear and the president as if there is not an inherent contradiction there. He cannot be at one and the same time the anti-Burford and a disciple of Ronald Reagan. Burford, after all, was doing what Reagan wanted. She said so and so did the president.
Somewhere deep in his lobbyist's ethic, Ruckelshaus has to have some loyalties, some ideology. And while it is wonderful that Anne Burford et al. are gone, it is not so wonderful that Ruckelshaus deserves a free ride--that he should be uncritically welcomed, a la George Shultz, just because he is not his predecessor. He has worked, after all, for precisely the people he is now supposed to regulate. And the fact of the matter is that they, and not the government, have made him a prosperous man.
The chances are, though, that no one will be tough on Ruckelshaus. He is the sort of fellow Washington is comfortable with, the type who brings down the house for confessing to be bereft of ideology. First he works for one side and then the other and then for the first side again--beating von Braun by a third. As soon as the applause dies down, though, it would be nice if someone would ask Ruckelshaus one question: Where does he intend to work next?