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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Harold Ickes

Harold LeClair Ickes was a progressive Midwestern Republican politician who became the United States secretary of the interior during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Ickes served in that position for almost 13 years, from the early days of FDR’s presidency until the early days of the Truman administration, making him the second longest serving cabinet official in history, behind only James Wilson, agriculture secretary under presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

Ickes was a staunch New Dealer, and he helped Roosevelt enact many relief programs during the 1930s. Aside from his work in the Interior Department, Ickes took charge of the Public Works Administration (PWA), an agency created by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 to construct large-scale projects such as dams, bridges, schools, and hospitals. A lifelong Republican with a famously prickly personality, Ickes initially seemed to be an odd choice for a job in FDR’s administration. Nonetheless, he proved to be an able administrator and a hard-nosed realist who refused to be cowed or back away from a difficult problem. He was exactly the kind of man Roosevelt needed to charge ahead with the New Deal.

Ickes was born on March 15, 1874, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to Jesse Boone Williams Ickes and Matilda McCune Ickes. His mother died when he was 16 years old. Afterward, Ickes moved to Chicago, where he finished high school. He later earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from the University of Chicago.

He declined to practice law, preferring instead to become a newspaperman. Always devoted to progressive causes, Ickes devoted his life to reforming government and rooting out corruption as well as ensuring that workers enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of their employers. He supported Theodore Roosevelt when the former president unsuccessfully campaigned for a third term in 1912.

After a stint serving in the armed forces during the Great War of 1917 and 1918, Ickes threw himself into electoral politics during the 1920s. He remained a member of the Republican Party, but he was known as a progressive. When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, he was searching for a progressive Republican to join the administration, and Ickes fit the bill. FDR tapped him to serve as secretary of the Interior Department. Ickes was not well known nationally, but his obscurity soon disappeared.

The selection of a Republican to serve in a Democratic administration might have seemed odd. Yet those who knew Ickes recognized him as something of an iconoclast, willing to step beyond his party in the service of ideals he deemed important. FDR believed that the man’s gruff exterior and willingness to buck authority was exactly the sort of champion the Interior Department desperately needed.

The department was tasked with overseeing the use of public lands as well as managing and conserving natural resources. For decades before Franklin Roosevelt became president, the department had been rocked by scandals and had developed a well-deserved reputation for profligacy. The most infamous episode occurred during the 1920s when Albert Fall, secretary of the Interior under President Warren G. Harding, leased navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to private oil companies in exchange for bribes. Since that time, the Interior Department had improved its image only marginally. Ickes was determined to change the image as well as the reality of a department in crisis. Despite his Republican Party bona fides, Ickes was a progressive who successfully fought entrenched interests on behalf of common citizens, including Native Americans, during a rough-and-tumble career on the margins of politics. As a cabinet member, he would now be in the thick of the battle.

The new interior secretary liked nothing so much as being in the middle of things. He reveled in controversy, calling himself “America’s No. 1 Curmudgeon, or Sour Puss.” Observers agreed that the man could be prickly and difficult to fathom. One member of Congress expressed disgust with this “prodigious bureaucrat with the soul of a meat ax and the mind of a commissar.” Walter Lippmann, the famous mid-twentieth century newspaper reporter and syndicated columnist, characterized Ickes as the “greatest living master of the art of quarreling.” Horace M. Albright, National Park Service director during Ickes’ opening months at the Interior Department, bluntly called his former boss “the meanest man who ever sat in the Cabinet office in Washington.” One contemporary, reviewing Ickes’ career, charitably concluded that the secretary was “a remarkably complex and profoundly suspicious man who thrived on rancorous debate and unending controversy.”

Although he supported civil liberties and was a champion of progressive causes, Ickes realized that desperate times call for desperate measures. If he wanted to turn the agency around, he believed he must institute draconian policies and instill fear into the hearts of slackers everywhere. He was known to prowl the halls of the agency in search of sloths and shirkers. Famous for his explosive tirades and insistence on perfection, Ickes cleaned house. In time, his efforts improved the agency’s reputation and ensured that the Interior Department and the National Park Service, an agency within DOI, focused on the core mission by improving efficiency and environmental quality.

Ickes not only assumed the mantle of leadership at the Interior Department, but he headed up the Public Works Administration (PWA), an alphabet-soup agency that, among other things, initiated large public works projects in areas devastated by the economic downturn. Ickes’ masterful management of both organizations assured him a place in the pantheon of effective public administrators. Long after his time in office, he is remembered as the curmudgeonly department secretary who championed some of the country’s most cherished national parks, including Kings Canyon in California, Shenandoah in Virginia, and Olympic in Washington state. Never satisfied to rest on his laurels, Ickes pushed the government to acquire land that became the Grand Teton National Park. On Ickes’ watch, in 1940 the federal government established the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to aid in “conserving the nature of America” by establishing wildlife refuges and sanctuaries.

Ickes strongly supported civil rights in an era where segregation was commonplace. After the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow black singer Marian Anderson to perform at the DAR Constitution Hall, Ickes organized a concert at the Lincoln Memorial and served as master of ceremonies. As interior secretary, he ended segregation in the cafeteria and restrooms within his department, which included national parks. He encouraged PWA contractors to hire black workers. Ickes also served as president of the Chicago National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1937, Ickes purchased land, which he called Headwaters Farm, near Olney, Maryland. President Roosevelt occasionally visited before the creation of the presidential retreat, Shangri-La, which eventually came to be known as Camp David. Ickes retired to the farm in 1946. He became a syndicated columnist commenting on the political scene before his death on February 3, 1952.

Today Ickes is seldom remembered except among historians of the New Deal. His son, Harold M. Ickes, became an adviser to President Bill Clinton, and so the Ickes name retains some political currency. Despite his faded reputation, the elder Ickes was an important public servant who should be remembered for his ability to achieve great public works projects.

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