Sunday, November 29, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`A Great Country' -- Too Big For An Ordinary Governor -- Welcome To The `Owner-State' Of Alaska, Also Known As Wally's World

ALASKA'S governor is in the news again, at the center - as usual - of strange reports from up north.

First, 73-year-old Gov. Walter Hickel called the press to deny persistent rumors he is mentally ill; then, his administration announced plans to shoot wolves from aircraft to boost tourism.

It's enough to make people in the Lower 48 ask, "Who is that guy?"

The question doesn't escape Alaskans, either. And whether they laugh at him or with him, follow him or fight him, people in the last frontier state are never bored with their governor.

Hickel likes to think big, about himself and Alaska, which he calls "a great country." Alaska and Hickel are so big that there's plenty of room for contradictions in both. The self-made multimillionaire developer considers himself an environmentalist, for instance, while environmentalists believe he too often considers development first and his state's ecology last.

Only vast, glorious, brutal, figure-it-out-as-you-go-along Alaska could have produced Wally Hickel. And Hickel is one of only a handful of people who produced Alaska - at least, the modern, Westernized side that includes highways, hotels, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants.

I spent about 18 months covering Hickel, from his November 1990 election to last summer. In that time, it always amazed me that so many people, often perfect strangers, would gleefully and expectantly ask me, "Is he really crazy?"

Alaskans know Wally Hickel is not like most politicians. Hickel - who wants to build, among other things, a water pipeline to California and heeds the advice of an imaginary "Little Man" inside his head - is an offbeat, eccentric man and those qualities, along with his age, give plenty of room for doubt and chatter about his mental state.

Unusual? Sure. Maybe even quixotic. But crazy? Without more evidence or compassion than I've heard or seen, that's just not fair.

In recent months, the speculation grew into statewide rumors alleging Hickel suffers from Alzheimer's disease and plans imminent resignation. Though geographically immense, Alaska is socially the size of Mayberry and the tales, spread by members of a Hickel recall campaign, became so common they brought the media-leery governor out from behind his guard.

Hickel's longtime physician pronounced the governor is in excellent physical and mental condition. And Hickel, who hasn't consented to a press conference in months, gave a newspaper reporter a lengthy interview and called the charges "a lot of bulls---."

They are also among the latest in the odd developments clouding his two-year-old second term in office. (His first, begun in 1966, was odd enough: He quit midway to become Richard Nixon's interior secretary, but Nixon fired him after two years over "a mutual lack of confidence.")

Nasty rumors about Hickel's faculties are just part of his struggle to lead. Most often it's his unblinking determination to exploit Alaska's natural resources that's getting him into trouble.

Hickel's views were vividly displayed in the evolving balance of commerce and nature with his administration's wolf plan. State officials - who are appointed by Hickel but confirmed by the legislature - voted to allow aerial wolf-shooting to create a bounty for moose and caribou hunters - and tourists.

As usual, there was opposition. Environmentalists and scientists criticized the idea as barbaric at worst and ineffective wildlife management at least.

But Hickel's administration said that, by slaughtering hundreds of predatory wolves, they aim to create world-class, big game migrations whose grandeur would rival those in East Africa - and which could be seen, conveniently enough for visitors, from Alaska's few major roads.

Vintage Wally Hickel.

"Civilization can grow with big projects," he likes to say. And he has pursued many of them zealously, often despite a high political and personal price. His ideas, like the giant garden hose of water to California, define the scope of Hickel's ambition: contradictory, controversial and costly.

Among his largest schemes was a plan to build another trans-Alaska pipeline, this time to move North Slope natural gas south, where it can be shipped to Asian markets. Before taking office, Hickel spent years chasing that one and formed the company that would build the pipeline and profit hugely from the gas shipments.

After Hickel took a highly publicized trip to Japan and South Korea last year to solicit buyers, an ethics complaint forced him to give up his remaining interest in the company while serving as governor.

Hickel swore he saw no conflict. And, within his cherished "owner-state" view of Alaska, one could argue there was nothing wrong with his gas-line work on the state dime. And those wolves, Hickel supporters might say, are just a part of nature that man - as government cooperating with industry - must develop to his own ends.

The "owner-state" of Alaska is Hickel's view that resources belong to the people and should be managed by the government. "The state must not just regulate," he says, "it must advocate" development.

Hickel filled his Cabinet with successful businessmen who had no government experience, including a grocer to run the state's jails and a longtime ARCO executive to oversee the Department of Natural Resources.

Most of Alaska's resources are hard to reach. So one of Hickel's first ideas was to lay train tracks throughout the state. He wanted a railroad to Nome, among other destinations, and that left a lot of people scratching their heads.

Nome is, almost literally, at the end of the Earth, the finish line of the famous 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage. Existing train lines reach a bit closer, as far as Fairbanks. But, while the Nome area's mining potential might be historic, so was the estimated cost of extending the railroad: something like a million dollars a mile.

Still, Hickel isn't always tilting windmills. Some people call him a visionary. He would like that tag.

"If nobody cares, nothing happens," he says.

His first big success in office was helping to forge the billion-dollar settlement with Exxon and the federal government over the Valdez oil spill. Leaving lawmakers during his crucial first legislative session, Hickel repeatedly jetted back and forth between Juneau and Washington, D.C., grabbing national headlines when the deal was done.

And Hickel's urging of better relations across the Bering Sea (and with other Arctic-region governments worldwide) now seems prescient rather than foolhardy.

Politically combative - he was a boxer in his youth - Hickel remains compact, surprisingly fit and energetic through daily workouts. It's not uncommon to hear a man or woman describe him as "cute" and genial, like a favorite great-uncle. He is direct and open, speaking freely of his Catholic convictions and his lofty ideals. He can be statesmanlike when he wants to be and yet make it clear when he's in no mood to play governor. He is impatient for everyone to see his point of view, agree and come along, yet legislators say he refuses to compromise, play necessary political games or hire people who can represent his views.

Hickel can be gracious at times, show his anger at others and be genuinely hurt by criticism or defeat. He is sometimes forgetful and can send out mixed messages, usually through an ever-changing coterie of advisers to whom he delegates details; Hickel doesn't like to be bothered with the small tasks of governing.

As do many senior citizens and politicians, Hickel relies on a stable of old-time stories he loves to tell - and are often told about him second-hand.

-- How he came to Alaska as a young man with just pocket change but built his fortune through hard work, good fortune and savvy.

-- How he traveled to Washington, D.C., and lobbied Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower for statehood and other territorial interests.

-- How he decided to erect his luxury Hotel Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage after the devastating 1964 Good Friday earthquake partly to help the town overcome fear in rebuilding.

-- How he helped open Prudhoe Bay to the oil drilling that still bankrolls the state.

Hickel was already part of Alaska lore when he began his current chapter. Just a few weeks before the 1990 election, the lifelong Republican jumped to the small, fringe Alaskan Independence Party, taking the GOP's lieutenant governor candidate with him. He claimed the White House called to warn a third-party candidacy would hurt Republican chances - and boasted that the presumptuous, big-boys intrusion helped clinch his decision to run.

He stormed the governor's mansion in a self-financed media blitz that decried politics as usual and offered a no-nonsense, "can-do" approach to cutting the state budget.

Wally Hickel not only presaged Ross Perot, he also won the election.

Supporters celebrated with a half-dozen "inaugural balls" across the state. All kinds of people showed up, and it wasn't unusual to see big-haired women in sequined dresses dancing with tuxedoed fishermen as a rock band played "Lara's Theme," the favorite song of Hickel's wife, Ermalee.

We called it "Wally World" almost immediately and Hickel was big enough to laugh along. Still, his was a fractious victory, with less than 40 percent of the vote. And Hickel's popularity was shaky from the start.

He discussed that the first time we talked at length, my breakfast with Wally. I had interviewed him briefly a half-dozen times and introduced myself pointedly on each occasion, but every time was like starting over; he had no idea who I was. Finally, I determined this man would know me and cajoled him into a meal at the Captain Cook's cafe. It was just me and Wally and one of his aides for 45 minutes before his wife and a colleague showed up for another 15 minutes of talk.

Several times during the interview, which I taped but agreed not to use in a story, he leaned over the breakfast table and, his face almost in mine, swore like a sailor as he told me, in tremendous anatomical detail, what he'd do to opponents who might try to stop him. He was so exceedingly direct and forthright, I thought he had to be testing me, to see whether I was worth his time or if I'd cower away at his braggadocio display.

Many months, stories and interviews later came the final time I saw Hickel. It was after the last legislative session and he was, according to aides, still fuming about something I'd written the week before. I needed a quote, though, and waited outside his office to get it. Hickel came out with an assistant, who reminded me I remained in disfavor, and we all got on the elevator and rode two floors down, my questions going ignored. They all headed outside for his car, but Hickel turned around and came back in alone, offered a response and said softly, "Does that give you what you need? Good."

It was an unceremonious ending to what for me was an important acquaintance and I longed for a more graceful coda that never came, something more unusual and even, yes, bigger.

See, Alaska is bigger than most people, but Wally Hickel has never been most people. The lengths he sometimes goes to, the distance in his eyes. Even so, many Alaskans wonder whether he is of this time or only an earlier, easier one.

It's hard to think about another term as Governor Hickel. His election was such a fluke, so many who voted for him have given up and even an old fighter like Hickel must tire of the constant barrage. He has said he doesn't need it. And in that sense at least, he really is bigger than the office.

But times change, even last frontiers change - with or without their remaining pioneers.

Jay Croft is a writer living in Seattle. He covered Gov. Hickel for The Anchorage Times in Juneau and Anchorage.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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