From Watergate to Womankind, Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus Fight for Their Ideas
If Hollywood ever shoots a sequel to All the President’s Men, two of the good guys will be named Ruckelshaus. Bill, one of Watergate’s martyrs when he resigned as deputy attorney general during the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, stole the headlines. Yet it was his feminist wife, Jill, who perhaps sacrificed as much—she was White House special assistant on women’s rights and was emerging as one of the most influential women in the Nixon administration when she reluctantly also quit. She found herself “much less effective doing what I cared about” because of her husband’s stand on principle. So that left the Ruckelshauses with no jobs, five kids and a dog they named Elliot Richardson (in honor of his boss who resigned, as did Bill, rather than carry out President Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox).
In the backwash of Watergate, the Ruckelshauses are now among the notable survivors. Bill is practicing private law in a firm he founded, while Jill, as national presiding officer of the U.N.-sponsored International Women’s Year, has expanded her mission to the 2 billion women of the world. The turnabout in the Ruckelshauses’ public prominence is a natural result of Jill’s personal evolution. In her earlier incarnation, she was a driven homemaker who “had this obsession to be the best housecleaner, to have the best parties, and to have the cleanest, best-dressed children.” When she arrived in Washington in 1969, Jill was “married with small children and wondering what had happened to all the interesting people I had known. I had a lovely family,” she continues, “but I was terribly unhappy. I didn’t identify what was wrong with my feelings until I began meeting women who were doing things and were using their minds.”
Bill is supportive of Jill’s emancipation from the kitchen. “It’s time for her to have her own life and her own career,” he agrees. “In this country we educate men and women up to a level precisely equal, but then send men off to do interesting things and send women off to do things that aren’t very interesting. That’s always struck me as very wrong.” (Though, he adds, “if some women would prefer to do housework, that’s fine.”)
Around their $95,000 home in suburban Rockville, Md., the Ruckelshaus family divvies up household chores like an army platoon. Bill, an athletic 6’4″ gardening enthusiast, is Mr. Outside; Jill pulls indoor duty, or at least its supervision; and the kids share odd jobs on a complicated point-system basis (e.g., cleaning out the parakeet’s cage is worth one point, a week’s dinner dishes, five). Of course, it helps to be able to afford a maid three times a week and to have a college girl living in. “Jill doesn’t like housework, and neither do I,” Bill admits. “No matter how much time she spends there, if she’s unhappy, then our children are going to be unhappy.”
Bill and Jill grew up two miles apart in Indianapolis, but because of their age difference—he’s 43, she’s 38—they didn’t meet until after college. He’s the product of an Indiana Republican dynasty active in politics and law since the 1890s. Bill went to Princeton and Harvard Law School before returning to Indianapolis and a law practice. Jill’s dad, auto dealer James Strickland, was an All-America basketball player at Indiana University who sent her to IU and then to Harvard, where she got her master’s in English.
She met “Ruck” (as friends call him) when his aunt paired them at dinner. He was then a widower with twin infant daughters whose first wife of less than one year had died in childbirth. As Bill remembers it, “Jill fell in love with my father.” She concedes, “His father was charming. Billy was there in a tweed suit and was stuffy.” “I was dynamite,” he interrupts. Then when he asked her to his place, she discovered “I’d completely misjudged Bill. He was sensational.” Jill remembers, “I got the willies at the idea of being married—I had a career without marriage planned.” But then Bill “took me upstairs to meet the two most important ladies in his life, and there they were in their little cribs.” The couple married five months later.
While Jill mothered their growing family (which now consists of twins Cathy and Mary, 14, Jennifer, 12, Billy Jr., 11, and Robin, 7), Bill worked five years in the Indiana attorney general’s office and in 1966 became the first freshman state legislator to be elected majority leader. After he nearly unseated incumbent U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh in 1968, the party rewarded Ruckelshaus with the consolation prize of Assistant U.S. Attorney General. He moved on to be the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and acting director of the FBI before returning to his Armageddon at the Justice Department.
“I couldn’t have done anything else,” he explains now. “What the President was asking me to do was fundamentally wrong.” Ruckelshaus attributes his sense of morality to his Catholic upbringing and still worries that “the example my father set as a deeply religious man is not one that I am setting for my children. I don’t make them go to church. I leave it up to them.” (Jill is an Episcopalian.)
To some critics, Ruckelshaus has of late tarnished his Mr. Clean image in his law practice by representing the polyvinyl chloride industry before the EPA, his old agency, and advising Britain on its Concorde SST interests. “The only thing I can say,” he shrugs, “is as long as I’m personally comfortable with what I’m doing, there’s no way in which I can live up to other people’s expectations of what I ought to do.” Bill similarly dismisses bids to go back home to Indiana for another run at the Senate. “Political ambition is essentially selfish in terms of the family,” Ruckelshaus believes. “Uprooting them for my own personal ambition would be very disruptive. And if you look at the Senate, when they first get in there they either start to run for President or take to drink. I can conceive of being President, but I can’t conceive of doing what’s necessary to get there.”
Besides, Jill might be the happier warrior in the family. She led the successful fight for a women’s rights plank in the 1972 GOP platform, serves on the board of the National Women’s Political Caucus and will be championing feminist causes at both political conventions this summer. Bill jokes that “to be successful in American politics you have to have an infinite capacity to be bored.” He possibly has already crossed his tedium threshold. But to Jill, who thinks that “if Washington wives are victims, it’s because that’s what they accept,” such boredom is the smallest price to pay for liberation.