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F.D.R.'S Truculent Optimist : RIGHTEOUS PILGRIM The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 By T.H. Watkins (Henry Holt: $35; 1,024 pp.; 0-8050-0917-5)

September 16, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times

So many careers in American politics leave behind only words. But when Harold L. Ickes stepped out of public life almost 45 years ago--as belligerent as the day he bulled his way in--he could touch and feel and smell his legacy: the national parks he preserved and expanded as Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, the hospitals and city halls, the schools and bridges, the dams and highways that he built in small towns and large cities and across the hard empty spaces in between as the hand at the helm of the New Deal's Public Works Administration. Though his name, like so many of the glittering New Deal names, has faded with time, few public officials have left such a lasting mark on America's physical landscape.

But as T.H. Watkins demonstrates in "Righteous Pilgrim," his elegant and exhaustive new biography of Ickes, nothing came easily to this stubborn and veiled man. As a child, he was forced to fill the place in his family left vacant by a distracted and irresponsible father; to support himself during high school and college, he was compelled to take on so many jobs that he barely had time to study. He did not marry his college sweetheart until he was in his late 30s--after she had divorced her first husband. By then, much of their own passion was extinguished.

For most of his life, political success proved as elusive as personal happiness. After a brief career as a journalist in turn-of-the-century Chicago, Ickes became a stalwart in local and national progressive politics, joining with Jane Addams, William Allen White and Hiram Johnson in epic struggles against the trusts, the slums and the reactionaries in his own Republican Party. But the reform mayoral candidates for whom he worked so hard almost always lost, and the Bull Moose presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt that he joined with such high hopes in 1912 ended in disappointment.

During the 1920s, it appeared that Ickes' time had already passed. He found himself increasingly isolated within a Republican Party that had reduced its mission to banal boosterism. As the progressives dispersed--some making peace with the GOP's reigning powers, others retiring from the fight--Ickes "remained throughout the decade as solidly, unquestionably progressive in his instincts as he had been when he had first discovered them a quarter of a century before," Watkins writes. "He refused to flex with the times."

That rigidity provided his political salvation. Ickes never moved, but the times rolled back toward him, like a returning tide. As early as 1924, he predicted to Hiram Johnson that American politics was destined to realign along ideological grounds--with the Democrats emerging as the liberal party and Republicans the conservative. It took eight more years for the Democrats to reach Ickes, but when Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for President in 1932, Ickes abandoned dreary Herbert Hoover to lead the Western Independent Republican Committee for Roosevelt.

With Roosevelt's victory, Ickes' luck finally changed. He decided to seek appointment as commissioner of Indian Affairs--largely to placate his wife, who had become passionately concerned with the plight of the Indians during trips to New Mexico. But gradually Ickes raised his sights--first to assistant secretary of the Interior, and then to the top job itself--secretary of the Interior. Improbably enough, after Roosevelt's first two choices had turned him down, the President-elect offered the job to Ickes. At age 58, Ickes finally found his stage.

Ickes remained in the Cabinet for the next 13 years--powerful, difficult, demanding and often intransigent. He gleefully accepted the description of curmudgeon and did his best to live up to it. A fierce partisan of the President, he had a gift for stiletto oratory and a taste for political combat; it was Ickes who tagged Roosevelt's estimable 1940 Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, as "a simple barefoot Wall Street lawyer." When Gifford Pinchot, his old ally in the progressive movement and the most respected name in forestry, opposed Ickes' efforts to transfer the Forest Service from the Agriculture to the Interior Department, the secretary uncharitably and inaccurately said Pinchot had spoken because the Administration had not backed him for a Senate seat.

Yet it is the great strength of Watkins' work that he shows the insecurity and loneliness behind that imposing facade. Using primary sources (such as the diary Ickes religiously maintained through most of his life) with great sensitivity, he provides an astonishingly intimate portrait of a public man--his pinched upbringing, unhappy marriage, unhappy affairs and the frequent depressions that he fought with demonic commitment to his causes.

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