Gizzi on Politics, Jan. 4, 2010

Still A Fighter At 90

“I’m going out with an arrow in my heart and not a bullet in my back.”

That’s what then-Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel told an interviewer on CBS-TV the evening of Nov. 24, 1970. Throughout Washington and in the national press, there had been rumors that President Nixon wanted to fire Hickel from his Cabinet. The former Alaska governor made too many comments at Cabinet meetings, Nixon and his top White House aides felt. More importantly, he had committed what they believed was the unpardonable sin of making his disagreements with the administration public. That May, Hickel wrote Nixon a letter criticizing the President’s hard-line position toward anti-Vietnam War college students and admonishing him that “history … clearly shows that youth in its protest must be heard.” The letter found its way into the headlines.  

In November of that year, Atty. Gen. John Mitchell tried twice to persuade Cabinet colleague Hickel to resign, only to have the Interior secretary insist the President himself must make the request.

On Thanksgiving Eve, Nixon did just that. In a half-hour meeting in the Oval Office, Hickel told him to come to the point. The President asked for the Interior secretary’s resignation — the first time since 1952 that a Cabinet member was publicly fired.  

“And he had every right to do that,” Hickel recalled to me recently, “I believe it was my responsibility to speak up in the Cabinet and I did so about the concerns of America’s young people about the Vietnam War, and the awakening of America to the needs of the environment. But the President was in the right to fire me if he didn’t like that. After all, he hired me.”  

That was vintage Wally Hickel. He said what he meant, accepted the responsibility, and went back to business and Republican politics in Alaska without any grudges. In 1972, he seconded Nixon’s renomination at the Republican National Convention. When the former President stopped in Alaska on his trips to Moscow in the 1980s, Hickel warmly welcomed the man who had driven him from the Cabinet.  

As he turned 90 this year, Hickel recounted this and other episodes in his significant, but stormy political career.

North to Alaska

Wally Hickel left the family farm in Kansas, fought his way west with the Golden Gloves, and arrived in Alaska with 37 cents in his pocket. For someone who would play a major role in the politics of the Land of the Midnight Sun, he had an unlikely beginning: Hickel never went to college, served as an aircraft inspector in World War II, and became a carpenter. Widowed at 24, he remarried at 25 and became the father of six sons.  

In the 1950s, Hickel parlayed his carpentry trade into real estate development and quickly became a millionaire. Active in Republican politics as a conservative, he backed Ohio Sen. Robert Taft for President over Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and, as Alaska’s Republican National Committeeman, was a Barry Goldwater enthusiast in ‘64.  

Backed by fellow conservatives, first-time candidate Hickel won an upset victory in the Republican primary for governor in 1966 and went on to unseat two-term Democratic Gov. William Egan.  

After less than two years in the statehouse, Hickel was named secretary of the Interior. His nomination was initially opposed by environmentalists because of his background in business, and his remark that he opposed conservation “for conservation’s sake.” But the Alaskan became an unlikely hero to the conservation establishment by cracking down on polluters of national waterways and, following the Santa Barbara oil disaster, shutting down all offshore drilling until the government upgraded its rules and regulations.  

Following his celebrated sacking, Hickel went home to oversee investments such as the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage that he had built. Three times he sought the GOP nomination for his old job as governor, and was defeated each time. Hickel finally made it back to the governor’s mansion in 1990, but as the candidate of the Alaskan Independence Party, whose platform plank calling for secession from the U.S. Hickel repudiated.

In fact, he proclaimed himself a Republican soon after his election on the AIP line.

Hickel retired from politics after his second non-consecutive term as governor ended, but he remains active in public policy debates. The issue that most provokes him to write op-eds, hold press conferences, and jet to Washington is one Hickel has long been associated with: the need for drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR).  

Hickel: ‘Do the Math’ on ANWR

“HUMAN EVENTS supported me when I was appointed Interior secretary in 1969 and under fire from the environmental community,” Hickel once reminded me with a laugh, “and then when I started getting good reviews from [environmentalists], you weren’t so supportive.” (I shared this with an HE editor, who shot back: “And we were right both times”).

As Interior secretary, Hickel’s embrace of certain environmentalist causes made him a hero to that community. But one issue that did not endear him to the green high command is oil exploration in his native state. While in the Cabinet, Hickel forced the major North Slope oil producers to reorganize, without which the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline (TAPS) would never have been built. (TAPS was built in 1974-77). More recently, he has been one of the most vociferous advocates of extending oil drilling to ANWR. In ’06, he took to the pages of HUMAN EVENTS to write a rebuttal to former President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed in the Washington Post claiming ANWR would yield little.  

“When it comes to ANWR, do the math!” Hickel told me. “President Clinton vetoed the ANWR legislation in 1995. At full capacity, TAPS delivered 2.2 million barrels of oil a day to the South 48. Today it carries only 650,000 barrels.

“With additional oil from the desolate, Northwest corner of ANWR, the TAPS could have run at capacity for at least the last ten years, with more to come. Multiply an average of that additional one million barrels of oil per day times the average cost of oil — roughly $50 per barrel — times ten years, and you’ll understand the impact it could have had on the U.S. balance of payments worldwide. During that period, we sent billions of dollars overseas for foreign oil.”

As to the charge by environmentalists of possible violation of “pristine” territory, Hickel simply says:  “Our God-given resources are meant to be used, carefully and responsibly, by our people.”

On Palin and Politics

Hickel has known some controversial figures in his day, including Bob Taft and Charles Lindbergh, whom he hosted at the governor’s mansion in 1967 when the aviator made his first public address since the 1930s (when “Lucky Lindy” became unpopular for his isolationist position).

“Mrs. Hickel ironed Col. Lindbergh’s suit before he addressed the state legislature,” recalled Hickel. “I think he was nervous about the response he would get, but after [Sen.-to-be] Ted Stevens, who was speaker of the house, introduced him and the legislators cheered, he gave a fine speech.”  

The controversial figure he is most often asked about these days is Sarah Palin, who, with husband Todd, got her political start by working in Hickel’s 1990 campaign on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket.  

“And I co-chaired her winning bid for governor in ’06,” Hickel told me. “When she returned to Alaska [after her run for Vice President with John McCain last year], she had no answer for the state’s problems, so she solved her own. She has many talents, but she has discovered a taste for stardom.”

Like so much else of what Wally Hickel has said, his assessment of fellow conservative Palin is sure to spark controversy. But this opinion is an offshoot of Hickel’s background: a proud Alaskan who puts his state first. As he put it, “I have been a Republican and an Independent, but I am really neither. I am an Alaskan.”