There is news today that a “Watergate-era Republican” has climbed aboard Barack Obama’s bandwagon. That’s probably a fair way to describe 75-year-old William D. Ruckelshaus, who hasn’t been in the news regularly for about 30 years: His highest-profile moment came in 1973 when, as a deputy U.S. Attorney General, he and his boss, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than carry out Richard Nixon’s order that they fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.
That makes Ruckelshaus’ endorsement a small feather in Obama’s cap, a minor headline that might advance, ever so slightly, Obama’s bid to portray his candidacy as a unifying venture. That Ruckelshaus’ roots are in Indiana (he served in the state Legislature there in the 1960s and narrowly lost a 1968 U.S. Senate race to Birch Bayh) might be of some marginal assistance to Obama in that state’s upcoming primary.
But Ruckelshaus’ momentary return to the news also serves as a reminder of what could have been, because he was—very nearly—a much larger player in national politics. His near-miss came in 1976, three years after Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, when he was one of Gerald Ford’s running-mate finalists—the others were Senators Howard Baker of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas, and Anne Armstrong, the counselor to Presidents Ford and Nixon (whose stock had risen after the ’72 GOP convention, when she served as the first-ever female keynote speaker at a national convention).
That list was quickly pared to two when Ford assembled his top advisers the week of the Republican convention in Kansas City: Ruckelshaus and Dole. (Baker was scratched because he hadn’t polled as well as expected while Armstrong was too much of a wold card.) Ford and his team initially decided on Ruckelshaus. The president was facing a 33-point deficit against Jimmy Carter and, the consensus was, needed to make a bold choice. As one of the few heroes of the Watergate drama, Ruckelshaus seemed to fit the bill, with his mere presence on the ticket likely taking some of the sting out of Ford’s unpopular pardon of Nixon.
But then, the next morning, Ford reconvened his team and announced that he’d changed his mind: It would be Dole. He’d been scared away from Ruckelshaus by fear that the moderate Watergate renegade would turn off the conservative supporters of Ronald Reagan, who had nearly snatched the G.O.P. nomination from Ford. To pick Ruckelshaus would have risked a contentious convention and low conservative turnout in the fall. Dole, meanwhile, had received Reagan’s blessing when Reagan had spoken with Ford. And so Ford opted for party unity, and the Ruckelshaus plan was scrapped.
It is worth wondering whether the ’76 result would have been different had Ford stuck with his initial instinct. Dole proved more of a liability in the fall—in the first-ever vice-presidential debate, he famously dismissed the major conflicts of the 20th Century as “Democrat wars,” prompting Carter’s V.P. choice, Walter Mondale, to respond that “I think Mr. Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man”—but Ford still came within a whisker of an improbable comeback victory: 297-241 in the electoral college. A flip of a few thousand votes in Ohio and Hawaii would have changed the outcome.
In fact, Ford took the lead over Carter in the weekend before Election Day; it was lingering questions about Watergate and the Nixon pardon, most analysts concluded, that stalled his drive and undercut him at the last minute. Ruckelshaus might have made the difference.