BY JUDY BACHRACH
Young Harold "is a quiet baby,"
the late Harold LeClair Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt's secretary
of the interior, once wrote approvingly of his son. "Apparently
he is not going to develop into a person who wears his heart on
his sleeve."The senior Ickes, famously hard-bitten, was prescient
about his son, and he knew his town. Washington is full of guys
who hide their hearts or lose them in the service of the powerful.
Harold Ickes, Clinton's White House warrior, was somewhere between
the two. He was an old-school liberal with unbending beliefs.
Until recently, he never lost sight of them.
The newest chapter in the tale of Ickes the
Younger begins with Mr. William R. Morgan of Richardson, Texas,
a mysterious character whose stories don't always quite add up.
Morgan, who wears blue jeans and $4,000 handmade alligator boots,
says he has amassed a considerable fortune in real estate and
through; the selling of old bonds. Like so many men of his type,
he apparently believes in the value of friends in high places.
To him, the Democratic and Republican Parties are "money
machines." He has a broad, unnuanced view of how Washington
Morgan's dialogue sounds as inflated as his
income. "You can add a few more multis to that," he
advises when asked if he can accurately be described as a multimillionaire.
On other subjects, he is equally colorful.
Last October, Morgan found himself facing
an enviable situation. A bond deal he was closing could, he anticipated,
leave him as much as $300 million richer. His worry, premature
as it turns out, was taxes.
"I had a heck of a tax problem,"
he says proudly. "So what would you do? You'd do what I did.
What any good American would do." By which the Texan means
that he decided to make a huge tax-deductible contribution, a
$55 million write-off. And he wanted to lay that money where he
thought it would do him the most good - on the steps of the Clinton
White House. In return, Morgan wanted access to the members of
the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, who he believes
regulate some of his bond transactions. "Now do you see why
I was interested in trying to help the current White House out?
Who do you think appoints the governors of the Federal Reserve?"
"The president of the United States,"
"I think you're right," says Bill
Morgan. "I wanted to meet some of these Federal Reserve people.
That was my motivation, pure and simple." Later he adds,
"Why not try to endear yourself to the parties involved?
"It's a marvelous thing to be able to
pick where your tax dollars go." That's what Bill Morgan
believes. But on at least one point, he is confused. Two experts,
including one at the Fed, say it has little or no influence over
the kind of specialty bonds that Morgan was trying to sell. On
other matters, as we will see, Morgan is better informed
At the time of Morgan's entry onto the scene,
Harold Ickes was President Clinton's controversial deputy chief
of staff. An old-school Wasp, he wore rumpled shirts and cheap
suits and although he controlled the flow of huge sums, had never
cared much about personal financial gain.
He was flinty and notoriously crude, but
he had remained impassioned, an idealist. By the time Ickes got
wind of Morgan's generosity, he had weathered three years of fastidious,
but often disastrous, service to the president. With in the White
House he was admired, loathed, lusted after, denounced, and feared.
That was the way he liked it. But now he was also tired. Ickes
had been beleaguered by the administration's troubles and his
battles with his rival, master strategist Dick Morris, who had
shifted Clinton toward the right and toward re-election. Now Morris
was vanquished, and Ickes expected to be named chief of staff.
No one doubted his loyalty. He seemed to truly believe in Bill
Clinton, or at least in his political skills. "Harold made
a fatal mistake with Bill Clinton-he fell in love with him,"
says a friend who watched it all.
The decline of Ickes began just days before
the presidential election. On the night of October 22, 1996, at
a campaign fund-raising dinner in Miami, the president was approached
by a man he had never heard of, R. Warren Meddoff, a colleague
of Morgan's. "My associate has $5 million he is prepared
to donate to your campaign," Meddoff had written on a business
card he handed to Bill Clinton. The president was far from affronted,
according to Meddoff. "Let me have another one of those cards
for my staff," he requested.
It was apparently Ickes that Clinton had
in mind. Meddoff says that in the days that followed the Miami
contact he made repeated calls to Ickes in his White House office
about the proposed contribution. "Ickes and I spoke between
10 and 20 times, and some of those calls lasted maybe 10 to 15
minutes," Meddoff explains from his Florida home.
"The reality is that this $5 million
donation was just the first installment of what we had to offer,"
Ickes' own meticulous notes verify the fact
that the two men were discussing a contribution of $55 million,
the amount Morgan needed to write off. "Even more than Liggett
& Myers gives," boasts Morgan, referring to the embattled
tobacco company. In fact, in its entire history, the Democratic
National Committee has never received a single gift as large as
$5 milllion - much less 10 times that amount.
The problem was that contributions made to
the obviously partisan D.N.C. are not tax-deductible. And Morgan
wasn't willing to sacrifice his tax write-off even if it earned
him presidential favor. "I told Meddoff I don't give a flip
about the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. I couldn't
give a flip about Ickes. All I care about is getting a tax deduction,
as any good citizen should." He stops. "My goal is Bill
Morgan, and Bill Morgan had a tax problem."
Meddoff says he explained to Ickes "the
concerns of Mr. Morgan for a tax-favorable basis." After
two days, the easy tempo of the talks grew more animated. "Ickes
suddenly said he had immediate needs for money," says Meddoff.
"That the Democratic campaign had immediate needs in Texas.
It was incredible, the rush they demanded. Harold's the one who
kept hitting the button. He said, 'We need it now, now, now!"'
Ickes had gone into overdrive.
On the morning of October 31, Meddoff received
a fax sent by Ickes from the White House. The three-page missive
began: "If possible, it would be greatly appreciated if the
following amounts can be wired to the designated banks."
Included was a list provided by Ickes of five bank accounts-complete
with their numbers into which, it was suggested, more than a million
dollars of Morgan's money should be transferred.
Two D.N.C. bank accounts were among those
listed. The others belonged to liberal, but not openly partisan,
political groups to which contributions are tax-deductible. One
of the organizations, Vote Now '96, was a group closely tied to the White House; its mandate was to get
out the minority vote. Gary A. Barron, its executive director,
was deputy treasurer of the D.N.C. for three years under the late
Ron Brown, who served as Clinton's secretary of commerce during
the president's first term.
Meddoff promptly sent a copy of the fax to
Within hours of sending that fax, Ickes seems
to have realized that he made a major error. A seasoned attorney,
he ought to have been aware that a top White House official should
not be counseling citizens on tax breaks or how to circumnavigate
laws governing campaign contributions. He would also receive word
from Donald Fowler, who then headed the D.N.C., that the millions
would not be accepted by his organization. Fowler and another
top D.N.C. official had talked to Meddoff and attempted, unsuccessfully,
to investigate their would-be benefactors. "I don't think
any of us trusted Meddoff," says a knowledgeable source.
"No one knew who he was." At the time, the D.N.C. was
under attack for some of its fund-raising practices. Certain officials
wondered if they were being set up.
"Five hours later [after the original
transmission], Ickes calls, tells me I should shred the memorandum,"
says Meddoff. He recalls that the deputy chief of staff's voice
was low and carefully modulated. Meddoff says that he greeted
the suggestion to shred with sarcasm. "Right, Harold. I'm
going right over to my shredder and destroy it right now. He believed
me! He said, 'Fine."'
Ickes has claimed that he never ordered the
document destroyed, but Morgan reports that Meddoff told him of
the shredding order within "30 minutes." Morgan knew
that trouble was brewing. He worried that a law had been broken.
"If I shredded, I would be an accessory after the fact."
"Well, Warren, we know what we gotta
do now," said Morgan.
"Right! We put that fax in our files,"
"I remember the Watergate hearings,"
Meddoff says now.
"I remember Iran-contra. Let me put
it to you this way After that conversation with Ickes, I thought
I'd just witnessed someone taping the door to the D.N.C."
In the meantime, Morgan was still waiting
for payment on his bond sale. In an attempt to push the deal through,
he faxed Ickes' memo to the prospective buyers of his bonds. "Look,"
he told them in an effort to expedite a first payment, "I
got the White House calling." Later he adds, "If Ickes
could have just made one phone call to the Federal Reserve, saying,
'What can we do to help?,' that would have made the deal."
Because of Harold Ickes' fax, the Office
of Special Counsel is now investigating the former deputy chief
Of staff's possible violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids
federal officials on government premises to solicit money. A criminal
violation is punishable by up to three years in prison.
In March, both Meddoff and Morgan testified
about Ickes' actions before a grand jury convened by the Justice
Department. Two legislative-committee chairmen, Representative
Dan Burton and Senator Fred Thompson, are currently reviewing
Ickes' files. The Thompson committee is even interested in the
operative's pre-White House past. And Vote Now '96, its charitable
status impugned, has recently had its files subpoenaed by the
Justice Department. When asked whether the committee is investigating
activities of Vote Now '96, a knowledgeable Senate-committee source
replies, "We're looking into that."
Last February, when the story of the fax
broke, Harold Ickes' reaction was characteristic-profane and regretful.
Speaking to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, he mocked the
media's disingenuous attitude toward the realities of fund-raising.
He claimed that as far back as 1968, when he worked for Eugene
McCarthy's failed presidential campaign, he "handed out money,
large sums of money, on Election Day. It was never reported. Now
you got to report everything."
What money did Ickes hand out in '68? I ask
Barbara Handman, a former McCarthy fund-raiser and veteran New
York Democrat. Handman also happens to be Ickes' mother-in-law.
There is a moment of silence. "I have no idea who Harold
was handing out money to on Election Day," she finally replies.
"I have no idea."
"There's some large Greek thing going
on l now," she adds. "Because Harold, to me, he has
a kind of honesty. And large principles which are inflexible.
And for him to be buffeted about by these little pygmies-who aren't
a tenth of what he is! Harold is someone who is so pure, so outside
the language and knowledge and recognition of everybody else."
Another pause. "Tough and sharp. But pure."
In 1994, when Ickes returned to Washington,
the city of his childhood, it was with few illusions. "It's
a hard city that is to a great extent mesmerized with status and
power," he told me then. "If you have it, it's one thing;
if you don't, you're in a different league."
He had status and power then, but they had
been a long time coming. A volatile legend in New York politics,
Ickes had spent years in the outfield, building his reputation
for unassailable, brutal force. Having served as counsel during
then New York mayor David Dinkins's campaign, Ickes was summoned
to testify in 1990 when there was a question of whether a stock
transfer Dinkins had made to his son had been backdated. Ickes'
testimony was such a source of controversy that, according to
one tabloid account, the Brooklyn U.S. attorney had considered
charging him with perjury. Ickes had stood firm, invoking attorney-client privilege,
putting himself in the line of fire for the sake of his candidate.
(Ickes has insisted that he cooperated fully with the grand jury.)
At the time of Ickes' arrival in the capital
city that tenacity looked appealing. Whitewater and its attendant
scandals were earning increasing attention, and the First Couple's
controversial health care-reform package needed shepherding on
Capitol Hill. Ickes, who knew little of Arkansas or real estate
and whose ideaof health care was equally limited, was a pro who
could take the heat.
He was, briefly, the man his father intended
him to become. Staffers marveled at his skimpy trouser legs, which
rode high over the single pair of shoes he owned. ("I only
have one pair of feet," he would reflect.) "In a world
which sometimes seems to put a premium on cool operatives, Harold
was the opposite, and I really respected that," recalls Roger
Altman, then a top Treasury aide. George Stephanopoulos and Dee
Dee Myers, both now departed from the administration, also found
him a welcome addition, a sign that control would imminently be
Ickes started in high gear; even by White
House standards his workhours were all-consuming, extending through
late nights and too many weekends. His office nourishment (peanut
butter smeared on Ritz crackers) was unvarying. His skin quickly
took on the pallor of long-term prisoners.
His daughter, Charlotte, only eight years
old then, had been so unhappy at the prospect of moving to Washington
that she had begged her father to "call Bill and tell him
you're not taking the job." His wife, Laura Handman, an attorney
specializing in First Amendment issues, who has represented Vanity
Fair among others, felt out of place after the move. Once in Washington
she realized, as her mother says, "If you're not part of
the company, you're out of it." She was often alone.
The couple shared similar pedigrees, and
were linked politically, if not always temperamentally. They had
met when Laura was around 29 at one of Barbara Handman's dinner
parties, where Manhattan liberals mingle with themselves. Laura
hoped to become a federal judge, like her friend Kimba Wood.
Ickes was a labor lawyer at the time, a reserved
stalk of a man with a high strung air of expectancy. He was unnerved
when his girlfriend insisted on becoming a bride. But he told
friends that, at the age of 44, he was "tired of fucking
around." The wedding was held, fittingly, in the New York
town house that had once been the home of F.D.R., his formidable
mother, and Eleanor. Within two years, Laura was pregnant with
Charlotte. It was her sister who accompanied her to Lamaze classes.
At the White House, Ickes was attended by
Janice Enright, who had worked for him for years in his Long
Island law firm. She could handle Ickes, and he took some handling.
Former C.I.A. director John Deutch, then serving as an undersecretary
of defense, remembers trying to approach Ickes. "I used to
admire you at Sidwell," he told Clinton's powerful aide,
reminding him that the two had attended the same private school
as teenagers. "I don't have time to chat with people I knew
at Sidwell!" Ickes snapped.
"I didn't think it was funny at the
time," says Deutch, "but Harold has mental discipline,
and I admire that."
A political insider says, "I think Harold's
relationship with people is not one where he tries to get along
with them -unless they are above him." Clinton, obviously,
qualified. He swiftly became the focus of Ickes' life. There was
more at work here than raw opportunism. "Of all the political
figures I've worked with and for, he's one of the most extraordinary,"
Ickes told me seven months after coming to Washington. "In
terms of his political instincts, the breadth of his mind, and
his intellectual curiosity, I can't think of another who combines
all those skills in the magnitude he does."
Old Manhattan friends who recalled Ickes' dedication to less conservative Democrats such as Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy were amazed, even unnerved, by the depth of his conversion. Labor leader Victor Gotbaum, like many wary liberal Democrats, was among them. He asked the question: "Harold, is Clinton really one of us?"
Ickes replied, "Look around. Who is?"
In fact, Ickes knew that Clinton was not
a traditional liberal. But he was dazzled by the Arkansas governor's
political skills. They had first encountered each other during
the anti-war days. The relationship deepened through Hillary Clinton,
who was close to Manhattan attorney Susan Thomases, Ickes' old
live-in girlfriend, with whom he remains on affectionate terms.
"Harold's made an industry of turning
lovers into best friends," one friend explains.
Sooner or later Ickes' rage will destroy
him, just like my arrogance in part destroyed me," says Dick
Morris, Clinton's former political adviser. "He's a man possessed."
Morris takes a careful swallow of a soft drink. "You ask
what Ickes was for Clinton - I think Clinton has a very virtuous
self-image. He feels himself to be a very good person.... I think
Clinton took everything bad about him and put it in one place:
"Whenever there was anything that he
thought required ruthlessness or vengeance or sharp elbows and
sharp knees or, frankly, skulduggery he would give it to Harold."
Morris insists upon that word. "Skulduggery. It's not my
place to be throwing accusations around. I'm not going to amplify
A waning light falls in Morris's Manhattan
apartment, which is dominated by a variety of bristling greens,
chartreuse nudging leaf and mint. Morris's mirthless smile is
reflected in a cut-glass mirror shaped like a heart.
Clinton's Svengali, the man who replaced
Harold Ickes as the president's man, succeeded where Harold Ickes
failed, tilting the presidential profile toward a more marketable
centrist position. But, like Ickes, Morris is also in exile, manacled
now by scandal and derision.
To this day, Morris believes that Ickes-vengeful
and desperate after Morris sandbagged both his status in the White
House and Clinton's liberal ideology - leaked to the media the
news that Morris had fathered a prostitute's illegitimate child.
Morris says he learned this from a Washington Post reporter, a
source he trusts. The war between the battling Ickes and Morris
split apart the Executive Mansion.
"I think Morris thinks Harold is a prick,"
says a White House staffer, neatly summarizing the relationship.
"I want all of this on the record," Morris says. "Harold, when I got there, ran a reign of terror in the White House.
He controlled everything and was constantly
working at moving his people in and everybody else out. And he
had many White House staffers absolutely terrified.
"And he had three assignments from the
president: manage Whitewater, manage health care, and get a Democratic
Congress re-elected. He was not successful at any of those. So
my arrival was, of course, a very direct repudiation of him and
that level of control."
By 1995, Morris had muscled into Ickes turf,
grabbing a fair portion of the re-election effort and, some would
say, a large chunk of Clinton's soul. Morris took charge of the
media, the message, and Clinton's attitude adjustment. Ickes got
the Bill and Hillary schedule, the black-tie dinners and donors,
the D.N.C., and the money, which became his obsession, his road
Ickes' papers, 2,400 pages which he placed
in the hands of an investigating congressional committee, seem
to confirm the administration's maniacal attension to the fiscal:
Coffees with the president: $400,000. First Lady's latest task:
help raise $5 million. Al Gore's duties: raise $10 million.
"Remember, Harold did go from thinking
he was running the world to finding out he was just running the
trains," explains a campaign insider. Ickes, this man says,
was admirably suited to the task. "The president recognized
that Dick was brilliant and Harold is cruel. He knew Dick was
like the tide, had to be controlled. So Harold's role was to torture
Dick. Oh, Harold would complain about Morris spending too much
on the media campaign; he'd bird-dog the buys. Anyone running
a campaign does that, but he enjoyed the cruel part."
Dick Morris elaborates: "Two of my colleagues
were negotiating with Harold on our compensation for the campaign,
and he was so furious over a relatively minor disagreement that
he slammed the door so hard that workmen had to come in and repair
it. Not just the door, but the frame itself. It splintered."
These rages grew legendary. Once when Ickes
lit into D.N.C. chairman Donald Fowler over campaign expenditures,
his language was so abusive that Fowler, an old friend until that
moment, stalked out of the Map Room. He returned five minutes
later. ("See, that was Fowler's big mistake," a Democratic
operative tells me with a chuckle. "You don't walk back into
the room. Then Harold knows he's got you!")
Behind Ickes' anger, there was disappointment
over his diminished power. There he was, a sprint away from the
Oval Office, but Morris was outgunning him. This became apparent
in the fall of 1995 when, in a well-attended strategy meeting,
Morris demanded an early. three-month run of commercials that
would cost the Democrats $10 million.
A total waste!" snapped Ickes. "No
one will remember them by the election."
"I think this is important," said
Al Gore, who didn't have much use for Ickes. The commercials ran.
"Harold's never been a big-picture person,"
explains one insider. "And the Big Guy understood that. So
Harold became the traffic cop."
More than anything, the Ickes files contradict Clinton's insistence that his White House has remained far removed from cash concerns. Donations of more than $600,000 from the Chinese exporter Charles Yah Lin Trie (now abroad) to Clinton's defense fund had to be returned: "Don't report names if $ are returned," wrote the deputy chief of staff When Stanley Shuman (one of the Clinton guests who slept in the Lincoln Bedroom) had an upcoming birthday, Ickes was asked to wangle a congratulatory phone call out of the president. "I hate to tell you this, but we did this all the time," says Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the re-election campaign.
Within this morass of tiny details and immense
sums, certain warning signs were ignored or lost. The mysterious
Commerce Department employee John Huang, for instance-the man
who turned out to have a knack for raising all those questionable
millions - was interviewed, at Clinton's behest, by Ickes in late
1995, and then promptly sent on his way to the D.N.C., where he
received the unusual title of finance vice-chairman.
Indeed, it was Ickes who spoke to D.N.C.
finance chairman Marvin Rosen about employing Huang-astonishing,
when you consider that several months earlier Ickes had reportedly
been warned about the eager fund-raiser by White House counsel
Jane Sherburne, his good friend. Ickes, who suffers from a famously
bad memory, had apparently simply forgotten the caution.
"Who is John Huang?" the deputy
chief of staff, a feverish notetaker, scribbled just last October,
one year after that fateful interview. "$250,000- last week
returned it-Korean company-illegal ... slipped through cracks
. . . does he have a job at Lippo?"
All his life, Ickes has managed to undermine
his own sizable attainments. Inside the White House, he was at
long last a player, admired by some-but so harsh and ill-considered
were his outbursts that he also developed a pack of unnecessary
enemies. "All the conflict around here comes from one man,"
Morris recalls Erskine Bowles, a courtly southerner who was Ickes'
fellow deputy chief of staff, telling him. But there were reasons
behind Ickes' fury, which often remained close to the surface.
His job went directly against his very nature:
"See, Harold had the role of enforcer-he
delivered a lot of bad news to constituent groups like the unions,
and was very effective in that, I admit," reports a campaign
insider His other job-controlling the flow of contributions was
equally painful: "He didn't like money'' says Terry McAuliffe.
In the span of a year, Ickes had become what another campaign insider calls "the bagman for Dick and the president."
Eventually, he and Morris stopped speaking
altogether, and poor Doug Sosnik, White House political director,
discovered that he was supposed to be their go-between.
"That was perhaps one of my functions,"
Sosnik sighs. Inside the White House, the scent of roses drifts
in from the garden. We are seated along the gleaming mahogany
table of the Roosevelt Room. Behind Sosnik is a small relief of
F.D.R., and an early-20th century American bronze: a hunched buffalo,
its head lowered, ringed by wolves.
The old curmudgeon," as the late Harold
LeClair Ickes was known, was an abrasive politician who was an
early supporter of civil rights. He was also the lonely prophet
who in the 30s viewed the rise of Nazism with disturbing clarity.
In his private life, he was a devout philanderer,
quite unburdened by guilt. "She knew that she was licked,"
he wrote when his first wife attempted suicide after discovering
one of his infidelities. Before that he'd been a troubled youth
who had once seriously contemplated shooting his own hard-drinking
At the age of 64, after his first wife died
in a car accident, he wed beautiful Jane Dahlman. The couple lived
happily on a farm in Olney, Maryland. Young Harold arrived a year
later. The son grew up worshiping his red-haired mother, whom
he called "Maw" or "Jane."
About his father, who died when Harold was
12, Ickes was always more ambivalent. "I didn't see much
of him during the week," he told me. "I do not have
vivid memories of my father. It's my understanding-I'd have to
check his biography that he had patented a dahlia. And we had
a big vegetable garden, at least half an acre. And he insisted
that the corn be picked only 15 minutes before we put it into
By the time he left the Sidwell Friends School,
young Harold was in full rebellion. To his mother's horror, instead
of heading straight to college, he spent three years as a cowboy
out West. After graduating from Stanford, he became a civil-rights
Driving through the Louisiana countryside
in the mid-60s with a few black colleagues, Ickes was stopped
by a group of armed whites. Sensing trouble and fearing that his
friends might be murdered, he asked them to go get help. In an
act of heroism, he faced the aggressors alone. They beat him so
badly he ultimately lost a kidney. For many years, Ickes suffered
from narcolepsy; he would doze at inopportune times. If he took
the prescribed amphetamine, he would remain sleepless long into
the night. As the years passed, he became known for ferociousness
and language of monumental vulgarity.
By 1972, politics was his life; campaign
dates had come to define his existence. Recalling his mother's
death, he began, "It was in the middle of the Muskie campaign
... " Jane Ickes passed away unexpectedly, in her sleep.
"Lucky for her," he told me. "She'd always feared
dying. But it was very hard on those who were left, let me tell
One night in spring 1973, Ickes was working
late at Herman Badillo's mayoralty-campaign headquarters on West
57th Street. During the course of the evening, the young worker's
teeth managed to find their way into the leg of the press secretary,
James Vlasto. "One big bite, I can assure you" is how
Vlasto described the wound. Ickes was actually brawling with Badillo's
campaign manager, and Vlasto, believing "he was going to
do serious damage," managed to get in the middle. Armed cops
appeared. Only Badillo, a forgiving man with a doomed candidacy,
was lighthearted. "Growing up in Puerto Rico, I've seen fights
By the late 70s, Ickes was vigorously promoting
his quick-draw image. At a liberal-packed Fire Island party, one
guest remembers, Ickes was sizzling with rage and, reaching into
one of his long cowboy boots, whipped out a knife to illustrate
"Harold said, 'I have a perfect right
to carry one of these fucking things around if I want to,"'
recalls the witness. "It was like he was demonstrating a
new toy," David Alpern, of Newsweek's radio division and
another party guest, thought at the time.
Ickes was by then a lawyer at Meyer, Suozzi,
English & Klein, a Long Island firm with Democratic ties.
More important, he was also an expert on the mass of arcane party
rules which can make or break a candidacy. By this time his friendship
with the brash young Bill Clinton had intensified. Ickes remarked
on Clinton's grace as the ambitious governor pumped hands and
charmed residents of Little Italy. Here at last was a winning
candidate - Ickes' ticket out of the liberal desert, his passport
into the very center of things.
Specifically, Ickes brought Clinton the backing
of East Coast liberals who had been singularly unimpressed by
the southerner. Ickes had worked a long line of local and presidential
campaigns, in the process amassing I.O.U.'s from Ted Kennedy,
Walter Mondale, Dinkins, Badillo, Jackson. When Ickes took over
Clinton's difficult 1992 New York campaign, he dropped his alliances
into his new boss's ample lap like so many gold coins.
There was, naturally, every reason to believe
that the minute Clinton swept into the Oval Office he would summon
Harold Ickes. This did not happen. For eight years Ickes had represented
Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International
Union. In 1992, a civil racketeering suit was filed against the
union, which, prosecutors claimed, was controlled by members of
John Gotti's Gambino crime family. (This segment of Ickes' career
is currently being reviewed by Senate investigators.) Although
Ickes and his law firm were never charged with anything, his White
House job was on hold. For a year he sat in New York. My life,
he was reported to have said, "is over."
When it appeared that Harold Ickes could
once again be of use to Bill Clinton and he was reclaimed and
brought to Washington, a friend of Ickes' asked her pal a question
about the president. "When is he going to make a decision
about Bosnia?" she wondered.
"The only time Clinton ever made a quick
decision," came the sorrowful reply from the deputy chief
of staff, "was about me."
The depth of Harold Ickes' loyalty to Bill
Clinton was palpable during the Whitewater hearings when Ickes
served as the main White House antagonist to Senator Alfonse D'Amato,
the chairman of the banking committee, who led the charge against
the president. "Harold approached it with such a bulldog
mentality!" says an admiring partisan. "The only one
who did; the rest of 'em were sucking up to the committee."
To this day, D'Amato believes it was Ickes who was behind the
compilation into a book (dutifully passed out to the media) of
anti-D'Amato clippings-"The Ethics Sampler," as one
White House insider called it.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist.
to figure out that D'Amato was an issue and that the strategy
we would be smart to adopt would be to discredit D'Amato,"
an Ickes ally says with a mild shrug. "It was personal."
Last year D'Amato got his own back when his
people referred possible perjury charges against Ickes (relating
to his Whitewater testimony) to the independent counsel's office.
"I think you're taking a real chance with the law,"
says Michael Chertoff, who led the interrogations, "when
you answer a question in a narrow and perhaps unrealistic way."
But among Senate staffers there is a distinct
measure of awe when Ickes' name is mentioned. "You had the
feeling that most of those Clinton-administration guys who testified
may have hidden the facts, obfuscated, even lied maybe-but they
were amateurs," says one impressed observer. "Not Harold,
though. Harold's a pro. Boy, if looks could kill, his eyes would
have ripped you apart."
In the service of Clinton, Ickes abandoned
caution, forfeited large sums of money (his Washington attorney
is the $475-an-hour Robert Bennett), and helped sell out his own
beliefs. In other words, everything that had sustained him throughout
his long and difficult career. One top White House aide says,
"A lot of what we did in the last several years weren't things
Harold would have wanted done. Things like Harold's walking the
line on the president's signing the welfare bill." He adds,
"Things that may have disgusted him." A long pause.
"Harold was a loyal staff guy."
Too loyal, other staffers thought. Among
them, according to informed insiders, was George Stephanopoulos.
Clinton's departing senior adviser attempted to persuade his friend
to follow him through the exit door. Ickes, certain that he was
to be promoted to chief of staff, ignored the advice.
"George saw it coming," says a
former White House aide. "But Harold wasn't hearing it. I
think because there's a part of him always trying to live up to
the old man's reputation.... See, one of the things that saves
you from a broken heart is understanding who Bill Clinton is and
what he might do. One of his weaknesses is he travels light. He's
with you as long as he's with you. He really liked Harold but
believed that as chief of staff he might become a liability."
Last October, two White House insiders say,
Ickes discovered from Chief of Staff Leon Panetta that he was
not about to step into his shoes. Then he found out who was: Erskine
Bowles. This was conveyed to him on Election Night as Ickes sat
watching CNN inside the presidential suite in Little Rock. Three
days later, he would learn from The Wall Street Journal that Bowles
had made his coming contingent on Ickes' exit. He never thought
he'd be looking for a job after January 20, Ickes told a friend,
with considerable feeling.
It might have been in Clinton's interest
to have kept Ickes close at hand. Several options had been considered
earlier. "Once, I mentioned to the president that it would
be neat for Harold to become secretary of the interior,"
recalls Dick Morris, "because I was trying to get Harold
out of the White House."
Initially, Clinton seemed intrigued: "I
think he'd really enjoy having his father's old job."
But, for Al D'Amato's scourge, an unapologetic
liberal who had helped lead a triumphant presidential campaign,
a Senate confirmation hearing was out of the question. Equally
problematic: those massive campaign contributions from strangers,
foreigners, and friends were, by the time of Clinton's victory,
under heavy scrutiny. A few weeks before the inauguration, which
he dutifully coordinated, Ickes began to pack and label his possessions.
He was very angry. Such "callous treatment" as he had
received, he told friends, was "unwarranted and undeserved."
Weeks later, when the ousted aide handed
over his 2,400 pages of White House notes to congressional investigators,
Clinton finally felt Harold's pain. Explicitly detailed, blazing
with Clinton's eager scrawl, these documents-which White House
aides had no idea he had spirited out of his office-showed voters
a president with a price tag.
"How did you feel about handing all
this over?" asked a close friend who knew that Ickes was
whisking papers out of the White House.
"I felt very comfortable about it,"
came the reply.
"Harold Ickes is the Inspector Clouseau
of fund-raising," snipes William Morgan, the Texan who thought
he had tax trouble. "I hope you print that." The Texan
is annoyed. His bond deal, his $300 million dream, has completely
When Ickes had needed money, Morgan was expected
to produce more than a million dollars from a deal that hadn't
yet materialized. And almost half was nondeductible! Even more
ludicrous to Morgan: "They wanted me to donate to Defeat
Proposition 209 in California." The Texan is still fuming
over the idea that he would give money to support a group in favor
of affirmative action. "I hate affirmative action,"
he says. "I didn't like most of those organizations he put
on that fax."
Gary Barron, of Vote Now '96, says he can't
understand why his name or his group's bank-account number was
included in Ickes' fax.
"Harold never told me he was going to
do it!" Barron snaps.
There is no immediate end in sight for Harold
Ickes' ordeal. He has joined the "other league" he once
spoke about, the group without status or power. Last seen coordinating
activities for the White House at the G-8 conference in Denver,
Ickes, who will have spent an estimated $125,000 in legal expenses
before he is through testifying, has reportedly started a lobbying
group. "I get the sense he wants to stay in Washington-and
that surprised me, too but Harold is not a guy who wants to look
like he's driven out of a place," says a close friend.
Bob Bennett's comment about his client is: "When all is said and done, it will be clear Mr. Ickes violated no laws and regulations." But there are deeper levels here than one man's technical guilt or innocence. Much more has been extinguished here than a political career.