JEANNE NIENABER CLARKE, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 377 + pp. $39.95 cloth (0-8018-5094-0).
Harold Ickes is, thus far, the most important national figure to hail from Altoona, Pennsylvania. A self-styled curmudgeon, Ickes was virtually unknown when Franklin Roosevelt chose him for the job in 1933. His qualifications were simple: he had favored Roosevelt's candidacy before FDR won the nomination, was a midwesterner (he'd moved to Chicago) and he was a Progressive Republican. Even in 1933, the squire of Hyde Park was not finished exploiting the legacy of the Republican Roosevelt. As FDRs secretary of the interior for thirteen years, Ickes oversaw the transformation of his department from a scandal-plagued backwater to a modem, efficient organization. He picked able subordinates, including his inspired choice of John Collier to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ickes' responsibilities grew to include administering Public Works and oil administrator under the National Recovery Act. Ickes also served as the administration's hatchet man and "liberal lightning rod," swapping barbs with FDRs critics on any number of issues. Although Ickes virtually worshipped Roosevelt, he exercised considerable independence. He desegregated Interior's facilities in 1933 without asking the president's permission (which might never have come) and refused to sell helium to Nazi Germany in 1938, over Roosevelt's objections.
Ickes' most important, and controversial, responsibility was overseeing the Public Works Administration. From the beginning, Ickes battled charges that the recovery program was awash with political favoritism and graft. In fact, "Honest Harold" was largely true to his name. The two most egregious exceptions were aid to Louisiana and New York City: the former received almost nothing as long as Senator Huey Long was alive and the latter had its allotment suspended in a failed attempt to force FDRs old enemy Robert Moses to resign from the Triborough Bridge commission. The two other complaints voiced at the time, that certain states got more than their fair share of the pie and that Ickes moved at a glacial pace to distribute aid, were both well founded. Although Jeanne Clarke disputes both points, the evidence seems to indicate the contrary. Ickes' zeal to keep PWA honest and to get a sound return on its investments, made good business sense but did little to alleviate unemployment.
The most startling aspect of the book is...