Hickel's successes, ego and musings made him a legend

Michael Carey

Wally Hickel's place in Alaska history is assured. For half a century or more, his name has been on the front page as governor, secretary of the Interior, developer, civic leader and uninhibited champion of the Arctic. Long before Sarah Palin began dreaming of celebrity, Hickel -- the builder turned environmentalist who fought the aftermath of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill -- achieved national fame as a member of Richard Nixon's Cabinet. His fame grew after Nixon fired him, apparently for insubordination, in 1970.

Hickel arrived in Anchorage in 1940 with 37 cents, a complete unknown. He died last week at 90 a multimillionaire, his face recognized in every corner of the state and many places beyond.

Hickel was born in Kansas, and while he entered politics as a conservative Republican, he seems to have inherited -- like founder of the Alaskan Independence Party, Joe Vogler -- the combative temperament and disdain for politics as usual common to Kansas populists.

His business philosophy seems to have been, "Nothing can stop a man with a dream who applies enough will power." He was, as a young carpenter turned builder, a plunger who did nothing by half measures. His self-confidence, which some saw as arrogance, was legendary. He knew the shopping malls he built in Anchorage would succeed. He knew the Traveler's Inn in Fairbanks -- the city's first modern hotel -- would succeed. He knew the Hotel Captain Cook would succeed. How did he know? By God, he was Wally Hickel.

A lawyer who knew Hickel well told a story about his approach to personnel management. It's not what they teach at the Harvard Business School. Unhappy with a hotel manager, Hickel told the man, "You know something? See that guy washing windows outside? He knows what he's doing. I'll bet he can do a better job of running this hotel than you can." And Hickel fired the executive on the spot, replacing him with the window washer.

Hickel's political career was far more punctuated by failure than his business endeavors. He ran for governor five times -- like Democrat Bill Egan -- and won two and lost three. He never ran for the Alaska Legislature, and it's clear why: A legislator is one of 60, not the leader of a branch of government. Hickel told reporters, "The governor is the foreman of the ranch, the legislators are the ranch hands." Asked for their reaction, lawmakers snorted dismissively.

His victories came on his first and fifth tries. In 1966, he defeated Egan in a close election, promising, "There is a better way." His appointment of Ted Stevens to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in late 1968 had greater consequence than his policy initiatives during the two-plus years in Juneau before Nixon called him to Washington.

In 1990, running as an insurgent on Joe Vogler's Alaskan Independence Party ticket, he returned to the Governor's Mansion for four full years, accompanied by a team of frequently incompetent cronies. Attorney General Charlie Cole was an exception. Hickel by now had become a walking quote machine offering his constituents such Zen-like musings as, "The color of the environment is not just green. It's real." During this period, we also heard a lot about the "owner state."

Battles with the oil industry over taxes highlighted his second term. There were battles with the federal government too -- as in his failed statehood compact suit. Critics left and right were surprised by Hickel's willingness to war with the companies, but he told me, "What do those guys from Houston know about Prudhoe Bay oil? I found the damn stuff" -- then he launched into a story about how he told the oil companies where to drill in the 1960s. Wally Hickel didn't invent the term "giant ego" -- he just lived it. (Politicians never use the word "ego"; they talk about "vision.")

Hickel lost in 1974 and 1978, both times to Jay Hammond in Republican primaries. In those races, Hickel ran neither as an environmentalist -- the reputation he won in Washington -- or the Alaska visionary of old age, but as the classic Alaska boomer -- we're going to build it, pave it, develop it, make it pay. Like Hammond, he was a polarizing figure who made as many enemies as friends on the campaign trail. In 1978, Hickel ran a write-in during the general election -- signifying his bitterness at having lost the primary by a few votes -- but had no chance in November. He also lost the 1986 primary to Arliss Sturgulewski.

In their old age, Hammond and Hickel patched things up, and Jay went out of his way to be gracious to Wally.

Hickel's writing -- books, essays, opinion pieces -- divided people too. Many readers found inspiration in his autobiographical "Who Owns America." But after reading it, my dad, Fabian, said, "If you took out all the I's and me's you would have a pamphlet." Hickel the writer could be unintentionally funny, too, as when praising Mitch Abood's performance as the "Jewish lead" in "Fiddler on the Roof."

Hickel loved big public projects -- railroads, highways, a water pipeline to California. Most of these projects turned out to be pipe dreams.

Wally Hickel was fortunate to arrive in Alaska when he did: His mature years were decades of maximum opportunity as Alaska achieved statehood and entered the oil era. But if Alaska offered an unusual opportunity that literally came with the territory, Wally Hickel made the most of it -- perhaps more so than any man or woman of his generation.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.