'It's pretty hard to say no to a president'

Reprinted from E&E News.

Bill Reilly didn't want to lead George H.W. Bush's EPA.

Two former Republican EPA bosses — Bill Ruckelshaus and Russell Train — had been floating Reilly's name for the job when then-Vice President Bush was campaigning to succeed President Reagan. Train called Reilly, an environmentalist who headed the World Wildlife Fund, to ask him what he'd do if offered the job.

"I said I'd turn it down," Reilly recalled. Train asked why. "I said, 'Well, we've both seen Bush's performance under the Reagan administration, where he headed a major deregulation task force, and I just don't have enough confidence that he'll make good on some of the promises you're making.'"

Train and Ruckelshaus told Reilly not to make up his mind so quickly. Train told him: "It's pretty hard to say no to a president." Ruckelshaus advised: "Just make me a promise that if you get the invitation to meet with the president, for heaven's sakes, see him."

Reilly obliged. "I think Ruckelshaus knew that, once in front of him, I wasn't going to say no."

He took the job, serving as Bush's only Senate-confirmed EPA chief from February 1989 until the Clinton administration took over in 1993.

Reilly spoke to E&E News on Saturday about his decision to take the job, Bush's environmental legacy and how he said goodbye to his former boss, who died Friday night at 94.

When did you first meet President Bush?

I met with him sometime in the Reagan administration. ... I can't say I had a personal relationship when I was invited to come interview for EPA, but I remember being told by Russell Train, and also by [GOP strategist] Lee Atwater, both of them said the same thing, they said, "You're going to do fine with him, you're his kind of guy." Train particularly said, "You're going to have no allies in that White House." He said, "I know those people. You're only going to have one — it's going to be Bush. The rest of them are going to wonder why in heaven's name he ever declared he wanted to be the environmental president."

What was the job interview like?

When I went to the vice president's office, I was sitting in the outer office outside Manuel Lujan. ... I was struck, amused really, because here they were looking at a future Interior secretary and at the EPA administrator who had sued him. I hadn't exactly sued him, but he had supported some bill to allow the Cincinnati Zoo to import two giant pandas, and World Wildlife Fund sued to prevent that because it was an endangered species and you shouldn't trade in them. I thought, "Well, this is going to be fun, it's going to be a bit of a ride."

One of the first questions [Bush] asked at the interview for the job was, "How will you feel if the budget for the environment has to be cut? How will your supporters feel, because we are going to have to do some serious cutting?" I said, "Well, if it's proportionate to the rest of the budget cuts, I think everybody will understand that that's the situation we're in. I wouldn't worry about that."

What did you ask of Bush in that interview?

I asked him for three commitments. I said I wanted to be assured of access to him. I promised not to abuse it, but I said when I really need it, I have to have it, and he said, "Granted." And I said I'd like to appoint my own people, including some Democrats. He said, "Well, you can have some Democrats, not so many that you'll embarrass me." But he said, "I can't give you carte blanche for your own people, but I'll make a deal with you — nobody you don't want." ... And the Clean Air Act. I said, "Are you really committed to doing the Clean Air Act in each of its particulars: the acid rain, toxic substances and ground-level ozone?" He said, "I promised it, and I'm going to do it." I said that's really important to me; that'll be our signal first achievement, and he said, "We'll do it."

The next morning, I got a call from Bush who said, "I'd like you to run EPA for me." And I said, "I'll do everything I can to make you the environmental president."

What were Bush's personal views on the environment?

What he said to me in his office was, "I'm not in favor of rape-and-ruin development, but I'm not in favor of locking everything up, either." ... He was telling me he was a moderate, basically, and he meant the things he said in his campaign.

Was there something about the environment that really drove him?

I think he was chagrined that Reagan was so indifferent to the environment. [Bush adviser] Bob Teeter told me that as we were preparing in the years before the election for him to run for president ... he was so scrupulously careful not to differ from Reagan on anything, except the environment. If you really pressed him, he would say, "I would like to have a more forward-leaning position on the environment." And he said that was conviction, that came from him. And if you saw him hiking in the Grand Canyon ... or in Kennebunkport [Maine], he reveled in nature. He also reveled in action.

What was your biggest disagreement with him?

It was climate and stabilization of greenhouse gases, which was my position. He was pilloried in Paris at the G-7 meeting in June of '89. ... The environmentalists trashed us in the garden of the ambassador's house at the press conference. The reason was we hadn't agreed to or committed to stabilization of greenhouse gases. Some countries were willing to do it, but no country had done an extensive economic analysis of how you do it, and we certainly hadn't. We'd spent all of our energies on the Clean Air Act, the first six months or five months, so it was really unfair to beat up the president so fast like that.

That was kind of the beginning of Bush's disillusion about his likely winning popularity by things he did in the environment. From the point of view of the environmentalists, he was Reagan's vice president. And he did the Clean Air Act; he got really nothing for it. ... Bush decided finally and the people around him had decided long before — that the environment would not work for him politically.

How would you describe his climate legacy?

Bush did everything anyone could have asked of him on climate except commit to stabilization. He committed to ... major investments by NASA on upper atmospheric ozone monitoring and on climate monitoring. NOAA was well funded, and the whole structure of reporting and analysis that the National Climate Assessment — that was one of the things that we got going, and it's still there, and the point has been made that that's the reason we have it — it was required by law and that was a Bush proposal.

He really took it all seriously. On the stabilization issue, I guess he just became convinced by [chief of staff John] Sununu, [White House Office of Management and Budget Director Richard] Darman, that we didn't know enough about how that might affect the economy. And by the time he made the decision, the economy was paramount in everyone's mind and that's the thing he was getting beaten up on. I had argued, and OMB and EPA had come out with numbers suggesting that we could do it, that there would be no hit to the economy if we did — we could afford it in the '90s.

What was his best decision on the environment?

His best decision by far was to go forward with the Clean Air Act. And it was a brave bill, it would add — I think we calculated $19 [billion] to $21 billion of additional cost to the economy. When it came out of the Senate environment committee, we valued it at about $42 [billion] to $44 billion, and I remember saying to [Senate Majority Leader George] Mitchell, "We just can't do that, it's not going to work and the president will have to do what Nixon did on the first Clean Water Act, which is veto it. See if you can fix it." ... So Mitchell really repaired it.

 Bill Reilly and President George H.W. Bush posing at Camp David with Reilly's daughters, Megan and Katherine, and Reilly's wife, Libbie. Reilly/White House photo

Bill Reilly and President George H.W. Bush posing at Camp David with Reilly's daughters, Megan and Katherine, and Reilly's wife, Libbie. Reilly/White House photo

When was the last time you talked?

I wrote him a note about a month ago. I told [Bush's longtime chief of staff] Jean Becker that I would love to come up and see him. ... I wrote him a letter, a handwritten, nice letter about what he had meant to me and how much we in our family loved him. And she got back to me saying, "We read the letter to the president and he was very pleased and wished for you to be told that he reciprocates the sentiments." So that was that. I'm glad I did it.

If you had to describe President Bush in a word, what would it be?

I think it would be gallant. He had an unaffected gallantry that characterized a lot of what he did and said. His modesty when he spoke — you could sometimes even hear him listening to his mother's voice and not saying the things that a politician would ordinarily say about himself to prop himself up, and you just wished that he would.

Is there anything else you want to mention?

An interesting thing about Bush, I don't know how many bosses are regarded by the people around them as lovable, but he certainly was that. And our family loved him and felt that he reciprocated that. Thanksgiving morning, he called me up. Just wanted to wish me a happy turkey day. It was a brief conversation, and it was early in the morning. I was a little surprised — it's the president calling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

William Reilly