RIGHTEOUS PILGRIM

The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952

By T.H. Watkins

Henry Holt. 1,010 pp. $35

WHEN T.H. Watkins, editor of the prize-winning magazine Wilderness and biographer of John Muir, was asked in 1983 to write an article about a "good" secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, was the obvious choice. But once Watkins realized how little had been written about Ickes since his death in 1952, he was inspired to do a full-scale biography. Now, a thousand pages later, Righteous Pilgrim is Watkins's highly successful attempt to fill that void. Written in a delightful conversational style that disguises the impressive scholarly research that went into its preparation, this is an appreciative biography of a man who was so temperamental, thin-skinned and bluntly outspoken that he acknowledged these traits himself by calling his 1943 memoirs The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon. Righteous Pilgrim not only rescues one of the most important reform figures in the New Deal period, but one of the most significant Progressives in this century. For, unlike so many of his colleagues in that curious, ever-shifting group, Ickes kept the progressive faith until his death.

Harold LeClair Ickes was born into what he himself called "a curious and not a very pleasant family" in the grim railroad town of Altoona, Pa., in 1874. He adored his bright, Presbyterian, puritanical mother, who was mismatched in marriage to a sociable, hard-drinking father. When Clair -- as his family called him -- was 16, his mother died and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Chicago. That arrangement was not a happy one -- indeed, it was Ickes's fate for most of his life to have stormy relations with those closest to him. He and his first wife, Anna Wilmarth, a wealthy Chicagoan, fought constantly. Watkins gives us the most intimate details about this strange, ongoing psychodrama, based in part on family letters made available by the Ickes children. Not until Ickes was 64 and married to his second wife, Jane Dahlman, who was nearly 40 years younger than he, did he come to have a happy domestic life.

Ickes seems to have been born a reformer. He was an active independent Republican even while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Later he served as a reporter for the Chicago Record, a reform newspaper, and as campaign manager for a series of candidates running for the office of mayor of Chicago on a reform ticket. In the first third of Righteous Pilgrim, Ickes shares center stage with a political history of Chicago between 1890 and 1930, along with the story of an impressive circle of reformers that included his first wife, Jane Addams, Julius Rosenwald, Charles H. Merriam and a host of others. Ickes himself was an early supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, an admirer of Hiram Johnson, the Progressive governor of California, and a friend of Amos and Gifford Pinchot. But Ickes's candidates seldom won, and he had almost come to think of himself as a political failure when the 1929 crash came.

He was nearly 59 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeking to bring the old Progressives into the Democratic fold in 1933, named him secretary of the interior. Ickes's accomplishments during his 13 years at Interior fully justified Roosevelt's choice. In addition to controlling some 500 million acres of public land, he disbursed hundreds of million of dollars in Public Works Administration funds to build or repair thousands of public buildings, construct massive high-rise dams and support his special pet, the National Park Service. Under John Collier, his commissioner of Indian affairs, he inaugurated a revolutionary new policy towards Indian Americans that promised to protect both their lands and their culture.

The major theme of Righteous Pilgrim, however, is that Ickes was first and foremost a conservationist, both in the utilitarian sense that Gifford Pinchot advocated and as a wilderness preservationist who reflected Aldo Leopold's ideas. Watkins finds, in fact, that Ickes's great dream was to transform Interior into a Department of Conservation "devoted exclusively to the preservation and wise management of all the federal public lands of the United States. All of them." Ickes's dream was never realized because neither Roosevelt nor Congress fully subscribed to it. And when he tried to get the U.S. Forest Service, which he considered a pliant tool of the lumber interests, transferred from the Department of Agriculture to Interior as a first step, he ran into the implacable opposition of Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace, with whom he had a running fight throughout his years in Washington.

As much as Watkins admires Ickes, he would be the first to admit that, had it not been for Roosevelt's masterful handling of him, the crusty, pugnacious secretary would have failed. Roosevelt tactfully returned letters of resignation from a furious Ickes with charming, affectionate notes. He even managed to reassure him when Ickes knew the president had just undercut or lied to him.

In Ickes's defense the record is clear that no public servant ever tried harder to carry out his task in a fairer manner, although Interior's payrolls occasionally seemed to carry a number of relatives and old friends. Ickes was often frustrated by local resistance to much-needed reform laws or what seemed to be an extraordinary large number of incompetent and insubordinate political hacks administering the island territories of Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In fact, they seemed determined to resist all of the New Deal's plans for overcoming poverty in those possessions. In telling this depressing story, Watkins is careful to distinguish intelligent reform ideas proposed by the New Dealers, and the failure to execute them, due, he suggests, to the capacity of the democratic process -- meaning Congress and local interests, to compromise or destroy them.

Although Ickes was seen as interested in expanding the National Park Service, Watkins finds that he was not in favor of making parks more accessible or orienting them towards commercial tourism. He declared that he did not want Coney Islands but "as much wilderness, as much nature preserved and maintained as possible . . . I think the parks ought to be for people who love to camp and love to hike and who like to ride horseback and wander about and have . . . a renewed communion with nature . . ." IF ICKES was ahead of his time with regard to conservation, he was generations ahead in his belief in civil rights for all. During his Chicago years he defended a frightened young Jewish girl from a virulently anti-Semitic press, and served briefly as president of the local NAACP; while there he even defended the rights of a local pro-abortion group. Once in Washington he soon found himself at loggerheads with the anti-black policies of Robert Fechner, a Southerner in charge of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Ickes's finest movement, however, came when he rescheduled a concert for singer Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall.

When war broke out in 1941, Roosevelt made Ickes his petroleum administrator, but circumstances changed so rapidly that he had to share responsibilities with other agencies, which meant that he was often frustrated. The mutual hatred between him and John L. Lewis of the CIO was so great that Ickes was not good as an arbitrator of wartime coal strikes. But even in wartime he and his superb staff of talented assistants continued to fight loggers who wanted to open up the Olympic National Park to cutting and California corporate farmers who wanted to change irrigation laws to their own benefit. After Roosevelt's death in 1945, Ickes stayed on as a member of Truman's cabinet, but when he refused to support Truman's nomination of oil man Edwin A. Pauley for secretary of the navy, he resigned before Truman could fire him.

As fully as Harold Ickes's life has been detailed in Righteous Pilgrim, the resurrection of Ickes as a major figure in the history of conservation policy will remain the book's most significant contribution -- significant also because Ickes was trying to tackle the very crises we face today: conservation of lands, forests and oil, defense of civil and minority rights, and the maintenance of honesty and integrity in government. This thoughtful, readable, and yet gripping book is so persuasive it may well force a more positive reassessment of the New Deal, which does not have that many defenders these days. But even if this does not happen, Righteous Pilgrim is likely to be one of the most significant histories of the Progressive and New Deal reform impulse to appear in a decade.

Howard R. Lamar, the editor of "The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West," is Sterling Professor of History at Yale University.