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Aggressive Progressive

Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874–1952

by T.H. Watkins
Holt, 1,010 pp., $35.00

In most countries the minister of the interior is the official in charge of the state police and internal security, a frightening figure. The American secretary of the interior, by contrast, is a presumably benign fellow, guardian, or at least custodian, of the nation’s natural resources—public lands, national parks, mines, waterways, and fisheries. He is in charge of hydro-electric power and Indian reservations and the overseas territories.

Few secretaries of the interior have made much of a mark on the country: in recent times, Stewart Udall (Kennedy) and Cecil Andrus (Carter) a mark for good, because they understood the vital importance of wilderness preservation for the future; for bad, Albert B. Fall (Harding) and James Watt (Reagan), because they regarded the public domain as an occasion for private enrichment. But of all the men who have held the post, certainly the most curious, forceful, irascible, and memorable was Franklin Roosevelt’s Harold L. Ickes.

Ickes was born in 1874 in Altoona, in central Pennsylvania, a town he later referred to as “mean and sordid and narrow.” He had a Dreiserian childhood. His father was an alcoholic who could not hold a job; his mother, a bitter and somewhat hysterical woman, was rigid in her devotion to the Presbyterian church and the Republican party. Harold, the second of seven, was the most responsible of the children, and the burden of sustaining the chaotic family fell on him at an early age. A scene from childhood: one night, when his father staggered home even more drunk than usual, young Harold stole the old man’s gun and stayed awake all night prepared to defend his mother against physical assault.

In 1921 the Kansas editor William Allen White sent Ickes Victor Murdock’s Folks, a novel about growing up in Wichita. Folks, White told Ickes, gave a much fairer picture of small-town life than Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. “There isn’t any doubt that Folks is more wholesome than Winesburg,” Ickes replied, but “…I wish I might be able to say that my hometown, as I remember it in the days of my youth, was more like Wichita than like Winesburg, but the sorry fact is it more nearly approximated Winesburg.”

His mother died when he was sixteen, and Harold was packed off to relatives in Chicago. Determined to get an education, he worked his way through the University of Chicago with immense self-discipline and self-denial. His intelligence, energy, and ambition impressed his professors. He fell in love with Anna Wilmarth, the richest girl in college, and suffered grievously when she threw him over and married James Westfall Thompson, later to become a distinguished medieval historian.

After graduation, he started out as a reporter but found his vocation when he plunged into the murk of Chicago politics. Here he learned much about the importance of machine politics; perhaps not enough about the self-righteousness of reformers. The traction magnate Charles T. Yerkes, who was the inspiration for Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood, had most of the aldermen on his payroll; and Ickes enthusiastically joined the doughty group determined to clean up the city. Jane Addams was the spiritual leader for Ickes and for the other young reformers, who included Charles H. Merriam, later an eminent political scientist; Donald Richberg, who was to become an influential labor lawyer and early New Dealer; and the colorful radical couple Raymond and Margaret Dreier Robins. In national politics Ickes adored Theodore Roosevelt and joined the Bull Moose bolt from the Republican party in the election of 1912.

Along the way Ickes picked up a law degree, though practice of law never especially engaged him. Then one day James Westfall Thompson oddly suggested that Ickes come and live with him and Anna. A ménage à trois evolved. In time Anna divorced Thompson and married Ickes.

His personal life, as T.H. Watkins Iaconically observes in this excellent and abundant biography, was “baroque.” It remained baroque throughout most of Ickes’s life. Anna was strong, stern, humorless; her husband was willful, arbitrary, righteous, and inconstant. We know about his driven private life because he was an incorrigible self-documenter. He never threw anything away, and his papers in the Library of Congress, Mr. Watkins writes, make “one of the richest and most complete records of a single human life that exists anywhere.”

When Franklin Roosevelt brought Ickes to Washington in 1933, a young friend from Chicago, later the senator from Illinois, Paul H. Douglas, urged him to follow the example of Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s secretary of the navy, and keep a diary. Ickes did so from 1933 until his death—five million words long, of which 800,000 have been published in somewhat expurgated form in the three volumes of Ickes’s Secret Diary. It is compulsive reading. Reviewing the second volume in 1954, Richard Rovere was reminded of another “narcissistic bureaucrat,” Samuel Pepys, whose feverish energy generated an interest in whatever he was writing about, no matter how forgotten the subject.

In addition to the diary Ickes left four sets of unfinished memoirs—two dealing with his personal and emotional life, two with his political and professional career. Mr. Watkins can think of nothing “in the archives of anyone, anywhere…that compares with the length, candor, and obsessively revelatory quality of these four extraordinary documents.” How Ickes ever wrote all this and did all the other things he did, suffering in the meantime from insomnia, migraine, and intermittent depression, is a mystery.

The first fifty-eight years of his life were active but disappointing. The fate of a Chicago reformer, then as now, was one of frustration. Ickes’s hope for a Progressive Republican revival was another frustration. Like most Progressive Republicans, he detested Herbert Hoover (a fact that has not prevented a school of historians from making the insupportable argument that Hoover was a progressive himself), and he backed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

Ickes’s initial ambition was to become commissioner of Indian affairs in the new administration’s Department of the Interior. Then he decided to try for the top job in the department. Roosevelt wanted some sort of coalition cabinet in face of the country’s economic collapse; he appointed one Progressive Republican, Henry Wallace, as secretary of agriculture and was looking for another for interior. He met Ickes for the first time two weeks before the inauguration and offered him the post. “You and I have been speaking the same language for the last twenty years,” he told Ickes. “I particularly want a western man. Above all other things, I want a man who is honest and who knows how to say ‘No.’ I have about come to the conclusion that the man I want is Harold L. Ickes of Chicago.” Raymond Moley later called it “one of the most casual appointments to a Cabinet position in American history.” Explaining the quick choice to an incredulous Moley, FDR said with delight (in a story Mr. Watkins omits), “I liked the cut of his jib.”

Ickes went to work at once, taking greedy hold of interior’s sprawling responsibilities, from land management and parks to wildlife to hydroelectric dams and mines and oil fields, from Indians to Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands. He wanted to transform the Department of the Interior into a Department of Conservation charged with the preservation of land, wilderness, wildlife, and natural beauty. To realize this dream he started a campaign to have the Forest Service transferred from agriculture to interior, an effort that embroiled him in a long-running feud with Henry Wallace.

Then Roosevelt, aware of the dangers of corruption in public works programs, added the new Public Works Administration to Ickes’s department. Here Ickes began to rebuild the country—to create parks, seashores, dams, bridges, waterways, airports, hospitals, schools, post offices; not to mention aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. His insistence on honesty meant that PWA disbursed its funds cautiously and was disappointing as a provider of jobs. Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration, spent and reemployed with dash and speed; the competition for public funds embroiled Ickes and Hopkins in another long-running New Deal feud. FDR did not mind feuds, since jurisdictional quarrels assured him the last word.

Ickes’s boundless energy overflowed his assignments. He had been active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he became the New Deal’s leading advocate of civil rights. He denounced anti-Semitism, tried to help Jewish refugees from Germany, and he refused to sell helium to Hitler. He dissented from the administration’s hands-off policy during the Spanish Civil War. He meddled in anything that piqued his interest. As he modestly observed in one of his private memoirs, “I was the spider at the center of the web, the dynamo running the machine, and there seemed to be no limit to my energy or to my capacity for work.”

Mr. Watkins has made splendid use of this cascade of documentation. He writes well, if at times a little ornately; and his set pieces on Altoona, Chicago, the Interior Department, and other backdrops give atmosphere and context to Ickes’s life. Of the two earlier Ickes biographies, Mr. Watkins expresses his indebtedness to Linda Lear’s Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive (1981), a careful work that ends with Ickes’s arrival in Washington.* Mr. Watkins brings to his subject not only thorough scholarship, critical detachment, and affectionate understanding, but the expertise of a professional conservationist, editor of Wilderness, and vice-president of the Wilderness Society.

Ickes is a hard man to puzzle out. He was at once idealistic and vindictive, righteous and ruthless, compassionate and paranoid, an urban reformer who found fulfillment in protecting the wilderness, a man from the isolationist heartland who became the most ardent of interventionists. Some people were devoted to him; others hated him. Ernest Gruening, the crusading newspaper editor, was for a time Ickes’s head of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions. In the 1960s, now senator from Alaska, Gruening had me to luncheon one day in order to disabuse me of illusions about Ickes he thought he detected in the first three volumes of The Age of Roosevelt. Gruening had suffered under what he regarded as Ickes’s arbitrariness, deceitfulness, and vindictiveness, “Ickes,” Ernest Gruening cried passionately, “was the biggest son of a bitch I have ever known.”

Ickes must be understood as a product of the political culture of the Progressive era. His first hero was Theodore Roosevelt, and he emulated not only TR’s faith in affirmative government but his righteous explosions of wrath against malefactors and scoundrels and his unbridled rhetoric. Ickes was an artist of invective in the Progressive style. On Warren G. Harding:

a platitudinous jellyfish…a man upon whom the Lord conferred a bunch of wet spaghetti instead of a backbone.

On Henry Wallace in a meeting with Wallace’s protégé, Milo Perkins, then head of the Board of Economic Warfare:

I went out of my way to make some harsh remarks about Wallace in the hope that Perkins would carry them back to him. This was on the theory that Wallace would avoid an open fight with me if he could…. When Perkins remarked, “You do not like Wallace, but I do,” my reply was, “No, I do not. I do not like any man whose path in Washington is strewn with the maimed bodies of men who were his friends.” I also remarked that it was characteristic of Wallace to sneak up on a man in the dark and stick a knife into his back.

On McCarthyism:

a putrescent and scabious object that is obnoxious to the senses of sight, smell and hearing—a thing obscene and loathsome, and not to be touched, except with sterilized fire tongs.

Sterilized” is an especially nice touch.

He personalized everything. As a young TR Progressive, he had been outraged when President William Howard Taft installed Richard A. Ballinger as secretary of the interior, fired Louis Glavis, an investigator in the Land Office, for raising questions about Ballinger’s role in the disposal of Alaskan land claims, and then fired Glavis’s defender, Gifford Pinchot, whom he had inherited from Roosevelt as chief forester. On becoming secretary of the interior, Ickes, in a gesture of reconciliation, made Glavis, head of the Division of Investigations. But presently he fell out with Glavis, whose inquisitorial methods he abhorred, and then quarreled with Pinchot, who denounced Ickes’s campaign to have the Forest Service transferred from agriculture to interior.

Pinchot argued that interior had historically been the more vulnerable to corruption. Ickes’s attempt to annex the Forest Service, Pinchot said, was “the most dangerous attack upon the National Conversation policy since it was first laid before the people of the United States by Theodore Roosevelt…. The ambition of one man is behind it…. The man who has been my friend for more than a quarter of a century has allowed his ambition to get away with his judgment.” Ickes replied by calling Pinchot a “piscatorial politician,…a persistent fisherman in political waters, [who] exemplifies more than anyone else in American public life how the itch for public office can break down one’s intellectual integrity.”

Soon it began to occur to Ickes that Ballinger had found Pinchot and Glavis as intolerable in 1910 as he was finding them in 1939. Stimulated by Henry Pringle’s account of the affair in his biography of Taft published at that time, Ickes dug up the records in the department’s files and wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post describing Ballinger as “an American Dreyfus,” the victim of Pinchot’s “sadistic hate” and “overweening and ruthless ambition.”

Yet the two friends were later reconciled, Ickes even proposing to offer Pinchot Ernest Gruening’s job. It was all typical Progressive infighting, in which rough words signified high spirits as much as irreversible judgment, and one marvels at how much more literate their invective was than what passes for political denunciation today. Ickes rejoiced in battle and liked to refer to himself as the old curmudgeon. FDR called him, behind his back, Donald Duck.

Ickes’s private life continued for many years in its baroque pattern. A passionate affair with an unnamed woman employed at interior, which included much necking in the back seat of his official limousine, became Washington gossip. Ickes’s stepson tried to sell the Hearst papers a packet of letters written by his stepfather’s mistress’s boyfriend, but the great William Randolph himself, according to Ickes, “said there were many things that he did not like about me, but that this would be hitting below the belt.” How much have press manners changed!

To Ickes’s relief, his wife, after twenty-four joyless years of marriage, died in an automobile accident in 1935. His stepson killed himself a year later, on the anniversary of his mother’s death. The love affair petered out. But Ickes’s unhappy private life had a tranquil denouement. He fell in love with Jane Dahlman, his step-son’s sister-in-law, a pretty girl of twenty-three, just out of Smith college. Despite an age difference of nearly forty years, Jane fell in love too, and in 1938 they went quietly abroad and, to everyone’s surprise, were married in Dublin. Roosevelt cabled the happy pair: AFFECTIONATE GREETINGS AND CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU BOTH ABILITY OF AMERICAN GOVERNMENT TO KEEP A SECRET FIRMLY ESTABLISHED FOR FIRST TIME IN HISTORY.

This fine book leaves one more aware than ever of FDR’s skill in managing the talented and strong-minded people with whom he surrounded himself. He indulged their idiosyncrasies, listened to their complaints, gave them his shoulder to weep upon, misled them, deceived them, teased them, charmed them—all in order that he could use their ideas and energies as he wished to use them.

Ickes with his perennial letters of resignation must have been a particular nuisance, but FDR valued him as an administrator, polemicist, nag, and friend, and would not let him go. “We—you & I,” FDR wrote Ickes in response to a 1940 threat to resign, “were married ‘for better, for worse’—and it’s too late to get a divorce & too late for you to walk out of the home—anyway. I need you! Nuff said.” When FDR died, Ickes, according to Mr. Watkins, cried for the first and last time in his public life.

Disappointed in his hopes of acquiring the Forest Service, of establishing a department of conservation, of becoming secretary of war, Ickes stayed on during the war to serve, among a dozen other things, as petroleum administrator, where he accomplished the prodigious task of meeting global military needs for oil and gasoline. He also initiated an effort to reserve access to the then untapped oil resources of the Middle East for the government rather than for the oil companies, although after the war and after Ickes’s departure from government the private companies won out.

Ickes continued at interior for a while under Truman, the last of FDR’s cabinet to leave office, and when he resigned he did so noisily. But then, confronted by the alternative of Henry Wallace, who was running as a Progressive in the presidential campaign of 1948, he reversed ground and campaigned for Truman. When the old curmudgeon died in 1952, his honorary pallbearers included a variety of distinguished public figures—three Supreme Court justices, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, Frances Perkins, Henry Morgenthau, Henry Wallace, Sam Rayburn, Bernard Baruch, Paul Douglas, Robert Taft, Walter Lippmann, Drew Pearson.

Righteous Pilgrim evokes the vitality and inventiveness of the Roosevelt years. The New Dealers were men and women who deeply believed that democratic government could be used for great purposes. Roosevelt, the country squire, was animated by a grand passion to improve the national estate. He found in Ickes a bold, tireless, resourceful, and incorruptible lieutenant. Not all New Deal dreams were, or could be, realized. Ickes was in a state of permanent frustration, always wanting more national parks, more national seashores, more wilderness protection. Yet between interior and the PWA, he left monuments to his vision and energy that changed the face of the republic.

I love nature,” the tough old man once said.

I love it in practically every form—flowers, birds, wild animals, running streams, gem-like lakes, and towering, snow-clad mountains…. We ought to keep as much wilderness area in this country as we can. It is easy to destroy a wilderness; it can be done very quickly, but it takes nature a long time, even if we let nature alone, to restore for our children what we have ruthlessly destroyed…. Nature is preeminently the master artist.

Not a bad message for the 1990s.

  1. *

    He merely lists Harold Ickes of the New Deal (1985) by Graham White and John Maze, who were unable to resist the temptation of psychoanalytic speculation.

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