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Hamilton, Ruckelshaus receive Medal of Freedom for public service

December 16, 2015
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President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 24, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo)

They are both attorneys with roots in Indiana and a taste for public service.

As young men, Lee Hamilton and William Ruckelshaus followed their passion for public life to Washington, D.C., where they left their imprint on the legislative and executive branches at a time the country and its attitudes were changing.

Hamilton served in the House of Representatives for 34 years. Ruckelshaus served as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and returned several years later to be its fifth administrator, earning the nickname “Mr. Clean” along the way.

medal-hamilton-quote.gifAlthough they have since retired, the two have continued to work in the public’s interest. Hamilton has helped lead special commissions examining homeland security and immigration while Ruckelshaus has remained a strong champion of protecting the environment.

In mid-November, they received the nation’s highest civilian honor for their service and accomplishments. Alongside musicians, baseball players, a mathematician and public advocates, Hamilton and Ruckelshaus were among the recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar has personal and professional relationships with both men. As a teenager, he lived about a half-mile from Ruckelshaus and on Sunday mornings he attended services at the Methodist church where Hamilton’s brother was the pastor.

Upon his election to the Senate in 1977, Lugar finally met Hamilton. Then through the 1980s, he and his Hoosier colleague worked closely hammering out conference bills regarding foreign relations and national intelligence. Also in the early 1980s, Lugar saw Ruckelshaus deftly lead the EPA as more and more in Congress argued the agency’s regulations were hampering local businesses and farmers.

medal-hamilton-box.gifHe found Hamilton and Ruckelshaus intelligent, well-studied and personable. Lugar, who received a Medal of Freedom in 2013, is proud the pair also has been honored.

Public optimism

Longtime friends Hamilton and Ruckelshaus both started their public careers in the 1960s, when the country believed that government could and should address society’s problems.

Ruckelshaus returned to his hometown of Indianapolis in 1960 after completing his law degree at Harvard University. The son and brother of prominent attorneys in the city, he was drawn to the public sector and took a job as deputy state attorney general where he was assigned to the Indiana State Board of Health.

He quickly realized how polluted the environment was. Emissions from cars and factories fouled the air and discharge of raw sewage from cities and towns across the state choked the rivers.

medal-ap-ruckelshaus-william-15col.jpg The president shakes hands with former Nixon Administration official William Ruckelshaus, an Indianapolis native, after presenting him with the honor. (AP Photo)

The pollution could be seen, felt and touched, Ruckelshaus remembered.

A few years after Ruckelshaus started in the Indiana attorney general’s office, Hamilton began to get restless. He had graduated from Indiana University Maurer School of Law and moved to Chicago where he was an associate at a silk-stockings law firm. He learned a lot, but the work in estates, trusts and corporate law did not excite him.

Hamilton then relocated to Columbus, Indiana, and joined a county-seat law practice. Although he enjoyed handling the legal matters that walked in off the street, his interest in public policy was growing and he decided to enter politics.

He threw his hat into the 9th District congressional race in 1964 and campaigned across southern Indiana, advocating for Medicare and federal funding for state education. These were hotly contested issues, yet Hamilton maintained lives could be improved through access to health care and better schools.

The young Democrat was carried to Capitol Hill as part of the landslide election that kept President Lyndon Johnson in the White House. With a sizable majority in Congress, Hamilton was ready to help steamroll Medicare through when he got an unexpected lesson in compromise.

medal-ruckelshaus-quote.gifWilbur Mills, a Democrat from Arkansas and then chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, recommended his colleagues make some significant concessions to the Republicans. This would bring bipartisan support and ease the implementation of the program.

“I was doubtful about that but he was a very great legislative leader,” Hamilton said. “I accepted it and he was dead right.”

Meanwhile, Ruckelshaus was driving around Indiana in a panel truck and wading into streams to collect water samples with his co-worker Gerald Hansler, who would go on to become a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. In those days, the crafting and enforcement of environmental laws were functions of the states but the competition for jobs often trumped the problems of pollution.

Ruckelshaus was undeterred. He used the federal Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 to haul the worst offenders before the Indiana Stream Pollution Control Board. He also had a hand in writing the state’s clean air and clear water acts.

His work in Indiana taught him that pollution was a problem because people were not paying attention to environmental and public health laws. Ruckelshaus carried that lesson to Washington when President Richard Nixon tapped him in 1970 to lead the newly formed EPA. He believed the agency needed to enforce the existing standards and create new ones where needed.

medal-ruckelshaus-box.gifRuckelshaus had the advantage of strong public support. Smog and air pollution were making people sick and waterways were contaminated.

“The first priority had to be to show the American people the EPA took their concerns seriously and was going to enforce these laws,” Ruckelshaus said.

In almost three years of leading the young EPA, Ruckelshaus brought actions against companies and sued municipalities. He also made the decision to ban the pesticide DDT. He eventually was moved to the U.S. Department of Justice. However, his tenure there ended when he refused Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, Archibald Cox. Ruckelshaus resigned.

Public attitude changes

Ruckelshaus returned to the EPA in 1983 after the election of President Ronald Reagan.

From his seat in the House, Hamilton saw the election of Reagan as a sign that the country had become more conservative and less confident that government could deal with the country’s problems. Supply-side economics became the prevailing philosophy and criticism of social programs intensified.

Hamilton quickly learned that for all Reagan’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, the Californian was a pragmatist. Negotiations between Reagan and the congressional leaders would veer into robust arguments but no one quit because they all knew they had to reach an agreement.

Looking at Capitol Hill now, Hamilton does not see the same commitment. Instead politicians are maligning their adversaries and walking away from the table if their ideological views are not accepted.

“Today, members of Congress are very good at making the speech and getting out of the room, going to the television cameras, but they’re not good at legislating,” Hamilton said.

Likewise, the public attitude toward the environment has shifted. The problems with pollution have become much more subtle, Ruckelshaus said, and people are more concerned about the price of doing something today when the payoff won’t come until many years later.

Economics is central to the argument over climate change but Ruckelshaus believes public attitude is turning. Initially members in the opposition denied the climate was changing, then they disputed man was the cause. Now they say addressing the issue is too expensive.

“That means there is a recognition that there’s a problem and that man is the only controllable source of these pollutants that needs to be corrected,” Ruckelshaus said. “So the question is what do we do about it?”

Hamilton and Ruckelshaus remain focused on public issues and trying to help answer the question of what do we do next.•

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