Former EPA Chief Still Hopeful That U.S. Values Will Trump Politics

william reilly
William K. Reilly
Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush — who had vowed to be “the environmental president” — tapped William K. Reilly to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The appointment had immediate and lasting impacts — elevating U.S. awareness of wetlands issues, strengthening the role of science at EPA, enforcing existing environmental laws and crafting new ones, promoting market-driven trading systems for cutting acid rain pollution, and leading foreign dialogue on global environmental issues.
But despite these later achievements, Reilly told an audience during the 2013 F&ES reunion that it was gut decisions and the occasional failure — rather than a carefully considered plan — that shaped his career.

The first in his family to attend college, Reilly earned a BA in history at Yale. While spending his junior year in Paris, he gained an appreciation for a place the biologist and philosopher René Dubos called a “monotonous flat grey land” before humans remade it into the productive, verdant, and picturesque landscape that captured the imagination of impressionist painters. Dubos famously said, “Human beings can improve upon nature” — a philosophy Reilly embraced.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Reilly pursued a career as a criminal lawyer. But after losing a case in which he admits he had become too personally involved, his ambitions shifted toward international development, and he ultimately landed in Washington. After working on planning projects for Urban America, Inc., he joined the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Richard Nixon.
We’re on an upward trajectory... The culture, not just here, in other places is changing, too.
— William K. Reilly
This was an exciting time for environmentalists. In 1970 Nixon signed the EPA into existence. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts would soon follow. (Although Nixon, Reilly said, did not care much about environmental issues, but rather wanted to keep ahead of the era’s environmental groundswell.) After serving as president of the Conservation Foundation, which later merged with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Reilly assumed his role at EPA in 1989.
The “need to unify our culture and politics in constructive ways,” Reilly said, has been a persistent theme throughout his career. Emphasizing this point, he studded his talk with quotes from writers Graham Greene, John le Carré, Norman Mailer, the poet Robert Frost, as well as his political mentors. Among the latter, he cited the late U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York. The central conservative truth, Moynihan once said, is that culture, not politics, determines a society’s success. The central liberal truth is that politics can change culture and save it from itself.   
“In my own career,” Reilly said, “I have seen culture drive politics, as in the environment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and politics drive culture in the history of civil rights.” From experience, Reilly draws hope. “There are many…. promising measures of a culture undergoing a significant conversion to a new and greener future of greater efficiency and sustainability,” he said. “Something’s happening.”
He acknowledged that today’s political environment is not the one in which he operated. The current Congress, he jokes, more closely resembles Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” than a legislature. He remains confident, however, that humanity’s cultural progress will trump political paralysis, and that American politics will catch up with American values. “We’re on an upward trajectory,” he told the crowd. “The culture, not just here, in other places is changing, too.”