Naske, Claus-M. Ernest Gruening: Alaska’s Greatest Governor. University of Alaska Press. Softbound. 297 pages + bibliography + index. $24.95.
There might be some argument about Gruening being Alaska’s greatest governor, but he certainly was among the best. He was a reformer, fighter for minority rights and against monopolies, and very, very effective at everything he did. Like him or loathe him, you knew where he stood. Unlike most politicians of today, he truly placed the people of Alaska above personal power and monetary rewards.
Naske, recently retired professor of history at the university, is an expert on twentieth century Alaska, and this book demonstrates that. He is helped by Gruening’s own books and numerous letters and opinion pieces. After all, Gruening was a journalist himself.
He was also a physician who never practiced, but above all a consummate politician. Appointed governor of Alaska by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, he had not sought the position and was not sure he wanted to live in such a remote place. However, he was also a person of enormous energy who couldn’t resist identifying problems along with a surety he could solve them.
There were lots of problems in Alaska just before World War II. The fisheries and mines were dominated by Outside companies, medical care was spotty and disease, especially tuberculosis, stalked the territory. The whites were mostly a racist lot, education for Natives was poor, and not much better for anyone else.
Worst of all, and the one thing that united Alaskans, was its territorial status. Governors were appointed, not elected, and no laws could be passed unless Congress concurred. Alaska had one delegate to Congress, and that lone person had little power.
This was red meat for Gruening the lion. Formed by the New Deal, he bounded into action. By 1959 Alaska became a State at last and he and Bob Bartlett were the first U. S. Senators. Ernest served with distinction until 1968, when his principled opposition to the Vietnam War and an influx of unknowing newcomers, ironically, brought to Alaska by statehood, combined to his defeat.
He died in 1974, but it cannot be said he was forgotten. His likeness is in Statuary Hall , Washington, the greatest honor a state can give its great.
Naske has done a commendable work, although it’s definitely for policy wonks. Wading through the pages on tax reform alone can be rather trying , but if you need facts on the subject, they’re there.
Buy a copy for all your political friends. If they’ve been around Alaska a long time, they’re in it.