Wally Hickel invented Alaska and told me he regretted it. He also invented Sarah Palin, and I was hoping, when I travel to Alaska next month, to ask him whether he also regretted that second creation.
Hickel wanted to be President; of what nation, well, that changed. First, he wanted to be President of the United States. That required that his home, Alaska, become united with the States, a task he accomplished in 1959 with the help of his buddy, and later enemy, Richard Nixon.
“That was a mistake,” he said, referring to US Statehood. “We should have been our own nation,” which, I pointed out, would have made him President instead of Governor.
Hickel grinned and took me over to a globe. As he massaged and caressed the planet’s crown, he talked about his long-held dream to create a circumpolar resource cartel linking Siberia, Alaska, sub-polar Scandinavia and northern Japan, tied together by a rail tunnel under the Bering Sea. Alaska was too small; his plan was for a Confederation of the North, an Arctic Empire that circled the top of the planet. Benevolently ruled, he made clear, by Emperor Wally.
Mad, yes, but all of Hickel’s plans were nuts, and usually successful. When I met with him in 1997, he had already prodded the Governor of Sakhalin Island, Alaska’s twin in population and minerals, to declare its independence from Russia. (That didn’t last.)
Walter Hickel, elected Governor of Alaska twice over twenty-five years, was one strange Republican. Nixon expelled him from the Cabinet in 1970 for publicly opposing the invasion of Cambodia. Hickel was a Huey Long-style populist socialist. “Private property,” he told me, “is an artifact of the temperate zone; it just won’t work for most of the planet.”
But for a man averse to private property, he owned lots of it and hungered for more. He was undoubtedly Alaska’s richest man and how he got it, and how he maneuvered to get more, with Nixon’s help, and later, Palin’s, was the reason I have been investigating him.