New York Times


Wryly Defiant, Ickes Invokes Reagan, Bush and Jay Leno


October 8, 1997, Wednesday

After weeks of hearings, senators investigating 1996 campaign finance practices came face-to-face today with the man they believed stretched the law and then leapt through loopholes to help raise tens of millions of dollars for President Clinton.

What they and their television audience got was an earful about how legal and proper the President's fund-raising was -- and about the debt Mr. Clinton owed to Republican Presidents for showing him the ropes.

"In having the White House actively involved in campaign matters, the Clinton White House merely followed well established Republican precedent," said Harold M. Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff. He lectured the senators about calls he said President Reagan made to contributors from the Oval Office and on weekly campaign meetings he said were held in the Bush White House, accusing them of pursuing partisan aims by zeroing in on Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

In a pugnacious, half-hour opening statement that quoted the comedian Jay Leno as well as former Reagan White House operatives like Lyn Nofziger and Ed Rollins, Mr. Ickes, who was pushed out of the White House after the election when Mr. Clinton passed him over for promotion, proved himself every bit as combative and loyal to his old boss as Republican investigators had expected.

"I know that it is customary for witnesses to express their great pleasure to appear before you," Mr. Ickes began, in gruff greeting to the senators, "but because I am under oath, I am unable to say I share that sentiment."

As he entered and exited the hearing room lugging a boxy brown briefcase, Mr. Ickes complained to reporters that he was running out of cab fare, apparently in reference to his going back and forth to the Capitol after his testimony was delayed.

Mr. Ickes's testimony was pushed past 3 P.M. because of committee bickering earlier, followed by Senate votes on whether to change the campaign finance law the White House is accused of evading. Senator Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee investigating campaign finance practices, called a recess as soon as Mr. Ickes wrapped up.

Republicans said that they were satisfied that Mr. Thompson had generated enough news early in the day to shoulder Mr. Ickes's defense out of the spotlight. One Republican aide said the Republicans were "very glad to be able to push off Ickes's statement until late afternoon, and have a fresh news day to take our whacks at him tomorrow."

The aide added that, while Senators planned to press Mr. Ickes about a range of finance practices, they expected a formidable witness. "We really haven't been making war cries that we're going to come out of this with his scalp," he said.

Michael J. Madigan, the chief counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said that he hoped to complete questioning of Mr. Ickes on Wednesday.

It was Mr. Ickes, a famously compulsive jotter of notes and filer of memorandums, who supplied investigators with documents showing how thoroughly Mr. Clinton had involved himself in Democratic fund-raising. Mr. Ickes, who boasted today of his political training from "campaigns for district leader of part of an Assembly district in New York City to 11 Presidential campaigns," has emerged in the hearings as the President's omnipresent operative, calling shots as the Democratic National Committee raised money.

Senate investigators twice took depositions from Mr. Ickes, but Republicans appeared reluctant to call him to testify, and today he demonstrated why.

"I want to state categorically that I know of no violation of law or inappropriate action by the President or the Vice President," Mr. Ickes said. Broadening his defense as he spoke, Mr. Ickes added the words "or inappropriate action" to a prepared text, replete with footnotes, that had been distributed to reporters.

Mr. Ickes added that he knew of no law-breaking by any members of the staff at the White House, in the Clinton-Gore campaign, or in the Democratic National Committee.

White House aides were delighted with the performance of Mr. Ickes, who even appended to his prepared remarks a defense of Attorney General Janet Reno for having "integrity of the highest order."

Taking a page from Mr. Clinton, Mr. Ickes said that the system of campaign finance needed attention, not the 1996 campaign practices. "Your complaint is with the law, not with us," he said.

Mr. Ickes, whose wife sat behind him in the hearing room, acknowledged that mistakes were made in the campaign, without naming anyone. But he said that Democrats were driven to compete with a "Republican money machine" that still raised $222 million more than the Democrats raised -- $558 million to the Democrats' $336 million.

"We regularly consulted highly regarded legal counsel at the White House, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign," Mr. Ickes said. He paused after each word as he added, "And we followed their advice."

A lawyer, Mr. Ickes proceeded to swat aside several charges leveled by Republicans.

Mr. Ickes said that before asking Mr. Clinton to make fund raising calls, he checked with the White House counsel's office "and was told that he could make those calls from the White House -- preferably from the Residence." He added, "To my knowledge, the President made few of those calls I asked him to make."

Mr. Ickes then quoted Mr. Leno on the absurdity of the President calling from elsewhere. "What's he supposed to do," he quoted Mr. Leno as saying on "The Tonight Show," as Mr. Thompson began to grin, "go to the pay phone at the 7 Eleven?"

"Certainly," added Mr. Ickes, who studied past campaigns run from the White House, "President Reagan recognized this when he phoned contributors from the Oval Office."

He quoted Mr. Rollins, the Reagan aide, as saying that he dispensed favors like appointments to advisory commissions to Republican Congressmen to help them get re-elected in 1982. He described how James A. Baker 3d, as chief of staff, ran campaign operations from the White House for Mr. Reagan and then for Mr. Bush.

Mr. Ickes argued that it was legal for the President to help plan advertising paid for by the national or state parties, and equally legal for national, state and local parties to transfer money among themselves. He said that White House staff could legally direct contributors to proper recipients for their money. And he said the President was entitled to have contributors stay overnight at the White House.

"It simply is not illegal or untoward for a President or a Vice President to grant access to supporters," Mr. Ickes said, acidly noting that it was also not illegal for the Republicans to invite big contributors "to dine at the Capitol to meet with Congressional leaders."

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