Ickes to Go Before Senate PanelBy Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 1997; Page A04
Harold Ickes is the custodian of the secrets, a man of unswerving loyalty and towering rage who served for more than 2¾ years as the gatekeeper for President Clintonís reelection campaign. His name is on thousands of pieces of paper and thousands of pages of testimony.
When witnesses tell Senate investigators about questionable campaign practices, they invariably point to Ickes as the mastermind, and today the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee will finally hear from Ickes himself. The witnessís wit and intellect forecast an entertaining day, but not necessarily an informative one.
"Do I know things that are highly sensitive to the president?" Ickes, Clintonís former deputy chief of staff, asked rhetorically in a recent interview for the New York Times Magazine. "Yes. I most certainly do. Am I going to tell you about them? No."
Committee sources said senators will ask Ickes about most of the questionable administration fund-raising activities for the 1996 campaign, including coffees on the White House lawn, urging Clinton and Vice President Gore to telephone rich contributors from the White House, and the hiring of John Huang as a Democratic fund-raiser.
As chief fund-raising strategist for the Clinton-Gore campaign, Ickes was by his own admission a central figure in virtually every aspect of the reelection effort, even appearing in several of the recently released videotapes of White House coffees.
But "heís a very difficult guy to get a glove on, because thereís no proof he ever knew about" improprieties, one committee source said yesterday. "He will say he doesnít remember, and I think weíll just have to let everybody see that this is what he says."
Democrats have long wondered why the committee waited until now to call Ickes, speculating that he might be too much to handle too smart, too clever, too combative and too experienced to sit still for a Republican roasting.
"I think they decided to call him reluctantly," said Alan I. Baron, chief counsel for the committeeís Democratic minority. "He isnít going to make them feel good."
But one Republican committee source said "there was always an intention to call him," because "he was involved in the financial side of the reelection campaign and, according to some people, running the Democratic National Committee out of the White House." The delay came about, the source continued, because the White House was slow to produce relevant documents, and because Ickesí lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, was out of the country.
Also, the source added, prosecutors working on the Teamsters election case in New York asked the committee to wait before calling prominent Democrats with ties to organized labor. Ickes was a labor lawyer in New York before joining the Clinton administration in early 1994.
Still, the source said, "Ickes does not have any smoking-gun answers" and, indeed, in three confidential depositions taken by Senate investigators in June and September, Ickes presented himself as unable to add much to already available information.
Investigators also have stopped hoping that Ickes wants vengeance on Clinton for dismissing him two days after the president was reelected. This view flourished when Ickes voluntarily turned over thousands of pages of his personal White House documents to Senate investigators early in the year.
Ickes, 58, the son of Franklin D. Rooseveltís interior secretary of the same name, has known Clinton for 25 years. He described his job in depositions as "point man" in shoring up the administrationís faltering health care initiative, containing the damage from the Whitewater scandal and, beginning in late 1994, supervising campaign fund-raising.
Ickes quickly became renowned in the White House as much for his profane, ear-burning tirades as for his political savvy. One eight-hour donnybrook with the Senate Whitewater committee featured a 20-minute exchange between Ickes and Chairman Alfonse M. DíAmato (R-N.Y.) over whether Ickes, using a crude depiction of a sex act, had described a Justice Department lawyer as "[expletive] us blue."
"Did you say it or didnít you?" DíAmato yelled at one point.
"Mr. Chairman, if you think what Iím saying is so funny . . ." Ickes replied.
"I think itís laughable. Your explanation to this committee is a joke. It is disingenuous," DíAmato said.
"Well, my explanation is my explanation," answered Ickes.
Whether todayís hearing will descend to this level probably will depend on the style of the committee questioning. During the Whitewater testimony and in his Governmental Affairs depositions, Ickes seldom rose to the bait unless provoked.
"Some witnesses will be very meek and apologetic thatís the witness that eats crow," said Robert J. Giuffra Jr., who was the Whitewater committeeís chief counsel. "Then you have the witness who will dodge and weave, and the ĎI donít recallí witness. Then, finally, you have the Jake LaMotta witness thatís Harold Ickes. Ickes is clearly a battler."
And, Giuffra cautioned, "the toughest witnesses are those who know more than the people asking the questions." Ickes "probably knows more about the funding of the 1996 campaign than anyone on Earth."
In contrast to the Whitewater vitriol, Ickesí depositions before the campaign finance investigators have proceeded courteously, with the participants getting fed up with each other only rarely.
"Iím not going to sit here answering the same damn question time after time," Ickes replied when investigators in September could not remember a previous answer and asked him to repeat what he had said minutes earlier.
And in June, Governmental Affairs majority counsel Michael J. Madigan began to lose patience when Bennett raised a series of procedural objections about questions put to Ickes regarding White House coffees.
Ickes can answer for himself, Madigan maintained. "He is smarter than either one of us."
"He is," Bennett agreed. "But heís not as devious or treacherous."
"Iím glad I didnít bring my wallet," Ickes said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company