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The Wartime Cabinet
Cordell Hull’s feud with a brilliant subordinate; a trick cigar for General de Gaulle; how a Supreme Court justice is chosen; the silencing of Father Coughlin; the rage of Harold Ickes—in his autobiography, the former Attorney General describes calm and crisis among F.D. R.’s lieutenants
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
By tradition, the Postmaster General was the political representative in the Cabinet of the party in power and usually chairman of the National Committee at the same time. Although Frank Walker became Postmaster General in 1940, he was not chairman of the National Committee until 1943, and served for a year only. He disliked his political job, but always did what the President wanted him to do, and just then the President wanted the politicians off his back so that he could get on with the war. Frank was never a professional politician in the sense that Jim Parley was, or Ed Flynn (who succeeded Jim as chairman) or Bob Hannegan, who followed Walker. Frank was too mild, too decent, too gentle, to fill that toughest of all political jobs. But he could and did protect his friend, the President.
Harold Le Claire Ickes was a very different type. If Frank Walker was not a professional politician by temperament, there was nothing amateurish about him. People instinctively understood and liked him. Harold Ickes, on the contrary, was the opposite of the politician—a reformer, a liberal (few politicians on either side are liberal by conviction), and an independent (witness his activity as a Progressive from 1912 to 1916). A good cabinet minister should be a competent administrator, and there was none better than Ickes, who sat all through the Roosevelt Cabinet and for a year under President Truman, until he resigned in 1946 with a clarion blast against that President who was no unworthy opponent himself. He spent another six years wasting his talents on a syndicated newspaper column that gave him narrow scope for his fierce invective and occasionally lending his now-mild influence to some liberal measure. Harold Ickes was not a man who, having tasted the satisfactions of public office on a high level, could bear the narrower existence of a critic and gadfly.
I had not fully realized what a suspicious and thwarted human being he was until his secret diaries were published after his death. He had no heroes, and his friends—Tom Corcoran, Ben Cohen, and I were among the closest—remained so only as long as they did not oppose him. Obversely, his enemies were those who stood against his strong urges toward increased official dominion.
In spite of his faults I liked Ickes. Occasionally I lunched with him in his office in the Interior Department, where, looking like an angry and belligerent Donald Duck, he would let go as much at the Democrats as at the Republicans. I can still see him on a particular occasion when he was wartime petroleum and solid-fuels administrator. Striding up and down, his hands clasped behind his back, his lower lip protruding, he announced that he had won a terrific victory over some oil barons whom he had persuaded to cooperate with him, and that under such circumstances one must either kiss a woman or have a drink: would I join him in a Martini? …
I had first come into personal contact with him in 1938, when I was counsel for the committee investigating the Tennessee Valley Authority. He called me in Knoxville to ask if I would give him professional advice about whether a political speech he was going to make in Philadelphia was libelous. I flew from Knoxville to Washington—I had some T.V.A. business in the capital—and read the speech, the Secretary’s gimlet eyes watching me from behind his desk. The speech was libelous, and I told him so. “Very well, then,” he quacked, “I’ll make it.” I remember his last sentence. After denouncing two Republican stalwarts in the city, Moe Annenberg, the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer , and one of the Pews, he ended: “Pew! Annenberg! Annenberg, phew!”
A striking characteristic of Harold’s was his ability to fire a subordinate without the slightest qualm or hesitation if he thought him disloyal or incompetent there was no beating around the bush or trying to place the man elsewhere. Once, after a row in which an undersecretary of the Interior was involved, the Secretary had decided to get rid of him promptly; Ickes gave instructions that after the incumbent had left for the day, the lock on his office door was to be changed—he was not to be admitted to his office or given access to his personal files.
Ickes was combative, shrewd, belligerent. He was a very effective radio speaker—he did not ad lib—and he had a genius for what Justice Holmes called hitting the jugular. He was disliked by many of his subordinates, feared by members of Congress, and highly respected by the public, who regarded him with a mixture of amusement and admiration. He could not have been a happy man. He took too much and gave too little to have understood what love or friendship could mean. Yet the grains of suspicion and malice in his nature, mixed with fearlessness, gave him a sharpness of character which was a relief after so much that was soft and sentimental floating on the placid surface of American life. Harold was never a bore.