By JAMES BENNET
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
"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
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,"
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
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
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."