At first glance, it is unremarkable that an officer of the Wilderness Society who is also its journal's editor should compose a tribute to one of wild America's most notable political friends. But Harold Ickes was much bigger and certainly far more interesting than his unarguable contribution to conservation.
They don't make them any more the way they made the indefatigable Ickes, stalwart Progressive and righteous New Dealer, and we are a damned sight the less for it. T. H. Watkins was drawn to penetrate beyond Ickes' memorable days as Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, and get it all down: The thousand pages of "Righteous Pilgrim" brings Ickes vividly to life as a man for a time so few decades past and yet increasingly, depressingly estranged from our own. Watkins had no shortage of primary materials upon which to draw: Harold Ickes not only wrote an autobiography but also kept a variety of notes and journals throughout his life. The result, in "Righteous Pilgrim," is a satisfying depth of biographical scholarship.
In that generous space there is room to understand how the man who had to struggle fiercely as a youth to overcome familial disintegration and support himself from a very early age, whose marriage--long and painfully delayed--to the girl of his dreams would turn to ashes, could yet mature into an archetype of the stubborn optimist and passionate reformer who so characterized F.D.R.'s New Dealers . . . and who is so absent from contemporary political life.
Ickes worked his way through the new, idealistic University of Chicago in the last decade of the 19th Century. He was already instinctively attracted to politics: a Republican with a deep concern for social injustice and an attraction from the start to evolving Progressivism. Chicago's struggle to break free of the plutocratically inspired graft that engulfed that city fired his imagination. Upon graduating, Ickes found work for a time as a newspaper reporter at the opening of what Watkins calls "the golden age of American newspaper journalism." His work led him to the position of assistant political editor of the Chicago Weekly. Watkins remarks that while Ickes had entered "the very homeland of his soul," the quality of his writing left much to be desired.
That kind of reporting is an education in its own right. Ickes followed it up by taking a law degree at the University of Chicago, financed by the woman who would eventually become his mother-in-law. The years that followed were ones in which Ickes' commitment to Republican Progressivism solidified while the party and the nation moved in a more conservative direction. As Watkins elucidates, Ickes revealed his spine--or stubborn streak--during those years.
Harold Ickes' pinnacle of political achievement was intimately tied to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat. Ickes had had enough of Hoover's unimaginative and penurious response to the nation's crisis, and offered his not-insubstantial political support to the New Dealers. He had wanted, as his compensation, appointment as Commissioner of Indian Affairs to accommodate his wife's concern for the deteriorating status of Native Americans. But in the end he held out for more, and at the age of 58 found an unlikely platform upon which to work his peculiar magic: He was secretary of the interior.
Watkins, author of a plethora of books and articles revealing his broad knowledge of natural history, dubs Ickes' political coup the "Department of Conservation." Indeed, the Department of the Interior post was in 1932, as it largely remains in the 1990s, the mundane, the unloved cabinet slot. Ickes will be remembered by historians as Roosevelt's bellicose bulldog, but he will be remembered by conservationists as the man who--at least for his 13-year tenure--wrought the world's finest public agency for protection of the natural world.
Ickes also was Roosevelt's administrator of public works. Among the vast infrastructure of bridges and schools and dams he left, the Interior Building he contrived shortly after his appointment even today radiates Ickes' New Deal optimism, and a passion for nature that emerged from some hidden quarter of his being.
As a contemporary and fellow traveler of Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, Ickes was understandably steeped in their utilitarian conservation. Somehow, Ickes grew beyond them into the philosophical realm of Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and John Muir. And it was more than philosophy: Ickes had in his 40s discovered the personal pleasures of packing into the wilderness. He used his potent political skills to further his conservation beliefs. Important new national parks like Olympic, Kings Canyon, Isle Royale, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore were added to the system against fierce opposition (more than doubling its size), while development within the parks was dramatically curtailed. Under his guidance, the National Park Service reached its political maturity.
Ickes incessantly struggled, and ultimately failed, to move the Forest Service from Agriculture to Interior. He did shepherd the creation of the Bureau of Land Management to supervise the nation's public rangelands at a time of fearsome overgrazing. Encouraged by his wife, Ickes worked to bring Native Americans under the protective umbrella of the New Deal. Interior would not again know such stewardship until Morris Udall in the 1960s.
Watkins portrays Ickes as a man who found his life in his devotion to the public weal. It is plain his personal life was far from ideal; yet that cannot diminish his contributions. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall, it was Secretary Ickes who opened the Lincoln Memorial, and eloquently introduced her to the crowd. She, in turn, would sing at his funeral. In the present age of political midgets, Ickes looms as a true giant.
RIGHTEOUS PILGRIM: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952, by T.H. Watkins (Henry Holt)
BENEDICT ARNOLD: Patriot and Traitor, by Willard Sterne Randall (William Morrow)
A LIFE OF PICASSO: VOL I: 1881-1906, by John Richardson (Random House)
O'KEEFE & STEIGLITZ: An American Romance, by Benita Eisler (Doubleday)
ROAD SONG, by Natalie Kusz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)