Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24, 1969:

Walter J. Hickel Becomes Secretary of the Interior

Walter Hickel wasn't president and he isn't dead, but he does show that presidents and their cabinets are only human, with that human propensity to quarrel. Relations between chief executives and their cabinets can be downright testy sometimes, with the most extreme case of that being the resignation of John Tyler's entire cabinet in September 1841 over the issue of a National Bank, with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was in the middle of treaty negotiations with Great Britain over the border of Maine and New Brunswick.

That might sound like an en masse walkout, but in those days the cabinet had only five members -- State, Treasury, War, Navy and Attorney General, enough for a decent round of poker. Interestingly, the Secretary of War who quit on President Tyler was none other than Joel Robert Poinsett, also an amateur botanist for whom the poinsettia is named. The Secretary of the Treasury who quit was Thomas Ewing Sr., who in 1849 became the first Secretary of the Interior and gave the department an energetic start as a honeypot of patronage. The Department of the Interior had been created in the wake of the war with Mexico, when suddenly the United States had a lot of land in the west, and Ewing didn't see any reason that couldn't mean opportunity back east as well.

Hickel was the 38th Secretary of the Interior, appointed by Richard Nixon, and sworn in on this day 38 years ago. It seems that Nixon thought he was getting a solidly Republican minion, but Hickel, a longstanding Alaskan politician who gave up the governorship of that state to join Nixon's cabinet, was as independent-minded as Alaskans are reputed to be. Before long, Hickel came to loggerheads with Nixon not over land use or resource policy as much as the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, and the day before Thanksgiving that year, Nixon gave Hickel the bum's rush out of Interior.

A long but interesting interview with Hickel is posted here, and includes this quote: "As Hickel said sometime after his dismissal from the Nixon administration, 'Just because I crawled out of a snake pit doesn't mean I'm a snake.' "

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