Aggressive Progressive

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

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

Harold Ickes
Harold Ickes; drawing by David Levine

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…

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