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Delegate James Wickersham tried taking forceful approach in Congress

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Posted: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 3:45 am | Updated: 12:50 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - If there is a single story about James Wickersham that should help you see him as a real person and not a bland figure from the distant past, it concerns the exchange he had with Rep. Frank Mondell on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 23, 1911.

Wickersham, serving as Alaska’s non-voting delegate to Congress, got into an argument with Mondell about the leasing potential of coal lands in Alaska. He opposed Mondell’s bill and said the Wyoming representative knew nothing about Alaska.

“He is a liar, that is all,” said Mondell, who was setting a precedent that would be followed by Rep. Joe Wilson nearly 100 years later.

Wickersham, once described as someone more likely to “present the other fist than the other cheek,” responded to Mondell in kind.

“You are the liar, if you say that,” Wickersham said.

Enraged, the Alaska delegate lunged at Mondell and grabbed him by the throat.

“Mr. Wickersham, his fingers around Mr. Mondell’s neck, was seized in a similar fashion by Representative Foster of Vermont,” the Washington Post said of the hostilities.

Mondell tried to get free of Wickersham and battled to break his chair over Wickersham’s head.

“Let me at him. Don’t hold me back,” Wickersham yelled, according to the New York Times.

Several members of Congress moved in to break up the fight. They separated the combatants and order returned to the House in a couple of minutes.

“I attempted to strike him but was prevented,” Wickersham wrote in his diary that night. “The row was unseemly and I am very sorry that it occurred, but when a man calls another a liar, without smiling, it means a blow.”

This episode represents just one facet of the complicated character known as Judge James Wickersham.

I mention this today because the University of Alaska Press has just released a new edition of one of the best books about Alaska, Wickersham’s “Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials.”

Born in 1857, Wickersham had little formal schooling, but he became one of the most accomplished and dogged scholars in his adopted home territory.

His 1938 memoir was an attempt to describe life in Alaska, as he lived it, in the early years of the 20th Century.

My brother Terrence edited the new edition of Wickersham’s memoir and planned to speak about it Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Pioneer Hall at Pioneer Park.

But he can’t make the meeting and has asked me to speak in his place. I plan to talk about Wickersham’s leading role in the development of Alaska. In addition, actor Steve Mitchell will portray Wickersham, quoting portions of his diary.

In keeping with the Tanana Yukon Historical Society practices, the program will be canceled if the temperature at 4 p.m. Wednesday is 20 below or colder.

Copies of the book will be available for purchase.

•••

PALIN’S BOOK: Speaking of books, former Gov. Sarah Palin’s book states that Fairbanksan John Reeves called her out of the blue one day and urged her to run for governor. She said he told her, “corruption in Juneau is disgusting and we gotta clean it up or Alaska will get left behind.”

Palin praises her allies in Alaska in the book and does not hesitate to settle scores with those she clashed with before and during her time as governor.

She has kind words for Tom Irwin, Marty Rutherford, Pat Galvin, Kurt Gibson, Meg Stapleton, Kris Perry and others.

She has harsh words for Andrew Halcro, referring to him as a “wealthy effete young chap” and claims that a false report by him “would ultimately blossom” into Troopergate. She has not-so-nice things to say about former Sen. Lyda Green, former Gov. Frank Murkowski, former Murkowski Chief of Staff Jim Clark and GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich.

Of her first meeting with Murkowski, she said he was “reminiscent of a large, gruff, but relatively friendly insurance salesman.” Elsewhere, she complains about the jet, how he didn’t do enough to cut the budget and that his oil tax plan was too favorable to the industry.

Palin doesn’t name her former legislative director, John Bitney, but some of the harshest criticism of the book is about him. “He turned out to be a BlackBerry games addict who couldn’t seem to keep his lunch off his tie. He relished the perception that he was a ‘player’ in Juneau politics, but we were never sure which team he was on.”

Palin said the controversy following her vetoes in 2007 occurred partly because Bitney did not tell legislators that vetoes were coming.

She refers to Sen. Hollis French as “Gunny,” Andree McLeod as “Andree the Gadfly,” and repeats charges that Walt Monegan, as public safety director, was “insubordinate.”

She says former Rep. Ralph Samuels, the only legislator to vote against the Alaska Gas Line Inducement Act, had shocked Stapleton by saying that getting bills passed in Juneau is “based upon one thing: relationships — and who is sleeping with whom.”

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