You are here: American University School of Public Affairs News 'It's Pretty Hard to Say No to a President'

Contact Us

Kerwin Hall on a map

AU School of Public Affairs 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

Back to top


'It's Pretty Hard to Say No to a President'

By  | 

President H. W. Bush with Bill Reilly

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."

To read the entire interview with Bill Reilly, who has been instrumental to the direction of the SPA Center for Environmental Policy and its William K. Reilly Endowment, please visit E&E News.