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A New Deal Hero

Harold Ickes of the New Deal by Graham White and John Maze (Harvard University Press, 263 pp., $20)

The title of this book gives the reader hope that the authors will open a window on the idealism, the accomplishments, and the significance of the people who made up the Roosevelt administration. But that hope quickly dims. The book presents only a minuscule part of the story of the New Deal that transformed the stark capitalism of the 1920s into the welfare state of the 1930s. A crusade that brought stars to the eyes of so many who had the inimitable opportunity to participate in some small way in the greatest political venture of the 20th century loses all its luster in this telling.

I have so much admiration for those with the self-discipline to forsake daily routines and concentrate their lives on a subject of historical or sociological importance that I have never panned a book in my life. But historian Graham White and psychologist John Maze have managed to break the mold with a "psycho-biography" that is tedious in its psychological analysis and haphazard as historical biography.

In the notes he was preparing for his autobiography at the time of his death, Tom Corcoran wrote that Harold Ickes was "the most New Deal of all the New Dealers." Tom's partner, Ben Cohen, always had the same suggestion when the president or some other high administration official refused to lead a Corcoran-Cohen foray (against business greed or corruption, racists, Wendell Wilkie, Adolph Hitler): "Let's put it up to Harold; he never says no." My only meeting alone with Secretary Ickes was in 1935, when he interviewed me before I went on the Department of Interior's payroll to work for Ben Cohen. Few people I have ever talked to gave liberalism so much meaning in so short a time. For a great number of New Dealers, Ickes made the terms "knee-jerk liberal" and "bleeding heart" expressions of nobility. A book explaining the historical significance of this great man is still to be written, for Maze's psychology paralyzes White's history.

The authors have little difficulty documenting the unhappiness of Ickes's boyhood in Altoona, Pennsylvania—a wastrel father, a bullying older brother, a repressive mother who wouldn't let Harold whistle or read on Sundays but whom he nevertheless idolized. (At 13 he hid a pistol under his pillow, determined to kill his father if he once more assaulted his mother.) From this the authors argue that Ickes's "protective attitudes towards minorities can be traced in a continuous line back to his attempts to protect his exploited mother." Maybe so, but in spending their energies on why Ickes did something, the authors lose sight of the magnitude of what he did. Thus they mention, more or less in passing, that Interior Department contracts under Ickes regularly contained a clause that the contractors "were required to pay a certain percentage of their total wages bill to blacks." A reader, even one only moderately interested in civil rights, yearns for more details on this early expression of affirmative action. But the authors get themselves so worked up about why Ickes devoted himself to minority protection that they overlook the important fact that he was light-years ahead of his time on what remains, 50 years later, an issue of the first magnitude.

On his mother's death, when Harold was 16, he was taken to live with an aunt in Chicago. Although an impoverished and not particularly happy young man, Ickes soon began distinguishing himself—senior class president at his high school, a big man on campus while working his way through the University of Chicago, a law degree cum laude in 1907. Yet the authors are quite stinting in their praise for these successes, referring to Ickes's "tendency to exaggerate the difficulties he faced in obtaining a college education," which represents for them "the playing out on a larger stage of his childhood role as a member of an embattled moral minority." It's just possible, of course, that here was an unusual combination of grit and brains.

Ickes soon became Chicago's "people's counsel," rivaling the role Louis Brandeis had played in Boston before his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1916. Ickes worked against juvenile delinquency and child labor, and for school reform and the Illinois ten-hour law. He defended workers' rights, particularly the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strikers. He became president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP, championed the rights of Indians, and took the Jewish side in two highly charged civil liberties struggles. This intervention on behalf of the two persecuted Jews was totally consistent with Ickes's overall record right down through the days of the Holocaust. Yet the authors attribute the intervention to the fact that at the time "he, too, was an indigent outsider in one of the homes of the rich. . . ."

All the while Ickes was also playing the underdog role of a Republican political reformer. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Teddy Roosevelt-Hiram Johnson Progressive on both the national and local scenes. His bellicose attitude toward Germany in World War I gives the authors a chance to state the book's underlying premise: "The question is not about the soundness of Ickes' view of Germany's aggressiveness, but of the source of his powerful feelings. . . ." This is the psychohistorical obsession that makes this book such a historical failure.

In this instance the authors find the why of Ickes's bellicosity in his "struggling to defend himself against his own conviction of being weak and pusillanimous in his relationship with Anna [his wife]," and in his "desperate need of repairing his self-esteem and feelings of potency." This constant harping upon Ickes's "underlying doubt of his male potency" and the unhappiness of life with Anna (he himself indicates he went into World War I in 1918 to get away from her and "fervently hoped he would never return") obscures the authors' account of his role as Chicago's Louis Brandeis and his transformation from Progressive Republican to FDR Democrat. Thus, for example, one will search the index in vain for a reference to Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic candidate against Hoover in 1928, or for a clue to what position Ickes took in that race.

At any rate, only four years later Ickes helped organize the Midwest Independent Republican vote for Roosevelt. After Hiram Johnson and Bronson Cutting declined the position of interior secretary, Ickes's campaign for the job proved successful. In his 13 years as secretary, during which he also served as Public Works administrator and petroleum coordinator, Ickes was not only the cabinet's foremost spokesman for liberal values, but he gave his immense energy and competence to the highly successful administration of those agencies. Ickes quite rightly prided himself on his scandal-free stewardship of the agencies over which he presided. As he worked assiduously himself, so he drove his staff mercilessly. Once he circulated a portion of Alice in Wonderland as a Public Works application and caught his top people napping.

The authors find more interest, however, in Ickes's unsuccessful turf battles with Harry Hopkins for control of relief works, and with Henry Wallace for control of the Forest Service. They seem to be poking fun at him for repeatedly resigning his positions (FDR always found an affectionate way to talk him out of quitting), but they never consider the importance of the political tactic of resignation as an instrument of pressure. If even half of the high Johnson administration officials who now claim that they had been against the Vietnam War had handed in their resignations to the president, the list of the dead on Washington's Vietnam Memorial would have been far shorter.

The authors make no effort, furthermore, to explain the contrast between the high-mindedness of Ickes's Interior Department and FDR's other New Deal agencies and the sleazy deportment of more recent administrations. Those who deeply believe in affirmative government as a noble calling for the benefit of all are very careful not to sully the venture in which they are participating. It is precisely when those who hold office denigrate government as part of the problem that the sleaze factor begins to take its toll.

Still, one can ask, why did Ickes risk possible scandal in a passionate extramarital love affair right after he came to office in the New Deal, and continue that liaison even after his wife's appearance on the Washington scene? For me, this is the most un-lckes-like act of his lifetime. The authors suggest "that politics was for him in part a substitute sexual activity, one in which he felt more confident than in the actual physical encounter." Yet Ickes's most intense sexual encounter in the early days of the New Deal came at the very time of his most intense political activity.

As war clouds came in the late 1930s, Ickes quite naturally sought a piece of the action. He had been the first cabinet officer to denounce fascism, and in 1938 he even defied Roosevelt and Hull by refusing to sign a contract to sell helium to Germany. In 1939 he let FDR know he would like to be secretary of war. When that post didn't come his way, he sought the vice presidential nomination at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (Henry Wallace got it.) Here, too, the authors overlook the historical significance of what they are describing—how many American and Allied lives could have been saved in World War II had Ickes been successful in either attempt. For the period from Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 to Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was a troubled and confusing one; American business was permitted to go its greedy way of building autos, refrigerators, radios, and other consumer goods, while Hitler's threat of world domination cried out for the conversion of our factories to planes, tanks, and all the munitions of war.

Ickes understood what was needed. Supporting a strong excess profit tax bill at a cabinet meeting in August 1940, Ickes argued that the administration should go ahead "even if it means new factories of our own and taking over old ones and running them ourselves." Brilliant anti-Hitler New Dealers—Ben Cohen, Oscar Cox, Wayne Coy, Abe Feller, Phil Graham, Ed Prichard, Bob Nathan, David Ginsburg, Edward Rhetts, to name only a few—were desperately seeking to break the bottlenecks holding up conversion to war production in the interest of getting aid to Britain and then to Russia, and to arm our own expanding forces. With a leader of Ickes's dynamism, conversion of American industry to war production would have been much further along when the inevitable war reached our shores.

In the end. White and Maze give a high assessment of Ickes's work: "He had restored the reputation of a great department and administered it better than any of his predecessors. He had attempted to protect the weak from their oppressors. He had fought tenaciously to conserve what remained of the nation's resources." In sorrow, and not in anger, I must suggest that the authors' (or at least Maze's) insistence on total psychological immersion has prevented them from demonstrating just how right their conclusions were.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.