On the morning of Jan. 20, when most of official Washington paused for the inauguration of Bill Clinton, feverish activity continued in a lone office at the Environmental Protection Agency.
With only minutes remaining in his term of office, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, who had been up most of the night, raced to finish signing a series of last-minute regulations and directives.
At 20 minutes before noon, he bundled the papers into three shopping bags and rushed downstairs to hand them to his driver. “He could certify that it was all done when I was in office,” Reilly said.
With a few strokes of his pen, Reilly had pushed through dozens of new environmental orders and programs that had been stalled by a hostile White House. The election had changed the political climate and weakened opposition to many of the things Reilly wanted to do.
“We had an agenda for the post-election period,” he said, recalling that final day. “We saw it as a moment to do a lot of things--maybe a last chance.”
After years of being frozen out by the George Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations, environmentalists greeted Clinton’s election with near hysteria. Many of Bush’s and Reagan’s environmental critics now are insiders, holding key posts in the Interior Department, the State Department and the White House.
President Bush’s promise to be “the environmental President” is remembered with derision. But Bush, too, drew from the environmental community in staffing his Administration: Reilly, recruited from heading the U.S. World Wildlife Fund, was the first environmentalist to lead the EPA.
It was a tempestuous four years for Reilly, who found himself at odds with other Administration officials. But it wasn’t always that way.
In July, 1989, at his first economic summit, Bush called the environment an international issue coming on like “a freight train.” And when he greeted foreign leaders in Paris, he had Reilly at his side.
Reilly quickly became a key adviser, the highest-profile administrator in the EPA’s history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, grew close to the Bushes. They regularly received coveted invitations to state dinners.
“We went to five,” he said. “An EPA administrator had never been to one.”
Reilly, only 49 when he joined the Administration, was younger than most Bush advisers. And he was one of few outsiders; most of Bush’s aides were friends or longtime Washington associates.
In a short time, inevitably, he became the object of envy. Mostly it was because he had the President’s ear. But it also had a lot to do with his Yale pedigree, his youthful good looks, and a self-assurance some called arrogance. A few White House rivals acidly dubbed him “the global rock star.”
Though the friendship between Reilly and Bush endured four years, their political alliance did not. By the end of his term, Bush had turned his back on the environment--and on Reilly’s advice.
Reilly’s troubles at the White House were matched by hostility on another flank. Forced to defend positions he sometimes privately opposed, he received increasingly harsh criticism from his former colleagues in the environmental movement.
“We deserved it,” he now says ruefully. “I knew that.”
In a recent interview at the World Wildlife Fund, where he returned as a consultant after Bush’s defeat, Reilly portrayed himself as a man in the middle, struggling to find common ground between the warring parties on either side of him--and often succeeding.
His tenure at the EPA had begun much the way it ended, he recalled: in a frenzy.
In his first 90 days, he vetoed the Two Forks Dam project in Colorado, angering the state’s Republicans. He proposed a ban on the use of the pesticide Alar on apples, causing near panic among Washington state apple growers. And he advised Bush as the President broke with conservative supporters to propose a tough, new Clean Air Act.
The politically expensive steps marked a sharp departure from the anti-environment policies of the Reagan Administration. For a time, it seemed that Bush was making good on his self-imposed mantle of environmental President.
But environmentalists didn’t see it that way. Bush got one day’s good press for the Clean Air Act proposal, and then was hammered by them, Reilly said.
“What we got was about 18 months of steady, debilitating attacks in the press for this phrase, or that clause--when the substance of that bill was very strong,” he said.
Reilly pointed to the act’s acid rain provision, which required a 10-million-ton annual reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions by the year 2000.
One of the bill’s critics, David Hawkins, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, agrees that provision was strong. But he labels the bill a mixed bag, deserving much of its criticism.
“We were pretty objective about our reaction,” Hawkins said. “I don’t think any of my colleagues came in and said, ‘We have to trash this guy.’ In fact, we sat down right away with him and started working with him.”
Bush was criticized for failing to respond adequately to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But in Reilly’s view, there was little the President--or the EPA--could have done that wasn’t already being done.
“All the President ever did wrong on that thing,” he said, “was not go up there.”
Bush took a courageous step, Reilly said, when he proposed a moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration off the California coast. Again, he said, environmentalists failed to rally to his support.
“He did not want to ban offshore oil and gas development in California,” Reilly said. “He’s an oil man.”
Bush consulted Reilly before taking action. “He turned to me at one point when there were a lot of people around the Cabinet room and said, ‘Are there any environmentalists who are going to say that this is a partial decision, a wimpish decision, that we’re not doing anything really significant?’ ”
“I said, ‘Mr. President, this is a sophisticated community. They’re going to understand exactly.’ We got blasted by the Sierra Club on just the basis that he had surmised.”
The Sierra Club may have criticized Bush, but the environmental community in general supported him overwhelmingly. The directors of a dozen groups wrote to him, saying, “We congratulate you on your decision . . . which represents a very important recognition of the need to protect sensitive coastal and marine areas.”
Still, Bush complained to Reilly that the groups “are treating me like Reagan.” In Reilly’s view, it was the beginning of the end of the environmental President.
Reacting to the shift, the White House staff began to try to block his access to the President, Reilly said.
The Council on Competitiveness was formed, charged with diluting or blocking any regulation that could be perceived as detrimental to industry. The council’s staff frequently intervened directly with Reilly to try to thwart forthcoming regulations, he said.
Some environmentalists began to say Reilly should resign, and he considered the possibility. But one reason he rejected it, he said, is that it might have meant an environmentalist never again would land the job.
“The environmental movement is a mature movement now,” Reilly said. “That entails a responsibility to get serious about science and politics and get involved. And you don’t just walk away when the going gets rough.”
This month Reilly is to join the faculty of Stanford University, where he will deliver a series of environmental lectures and perhaps write a book.
He has joined the board of directors of the DuPont chemical company, and is campaigning for the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated by Bush and opposed by some environmentalists.
Looking back these months later, he is pleased with his achievements as EPA administrator.
“It went better than I thought it would go,” Reilly said. “I didn’t go into that job with any illusions.”
In the end, he said, “We made a lot of difference.”