By Michael Lewis
September 21, 1997, Sunday
On Jan. 20 of this year, Harold Ickes left
his job at the White House and returned to private life. He had
been fired on short notice from his job as President Clinton's
deputy chief of staff and was not fully prepared for the ordeal
of departure. Just getting out of the White House takes four or
five hours, even for a man who dismisses red tape with obscenities
as often and as gustily as Harold Ickes does. You must pay off
your debts at the White House mess, return your cell phone, fill
out forms, submit to security debriefings. But for Ickes the departure
was especially arduous; he left with more baggage than most.
Once he'd finished with the official checkout
he trundled box after cardboard box down from his office into
the parking lot. Janice Enright, his White House assistant, had
parked her car in the first slot beside the West Wing exit, and
Ickes filled it up to the brim, several times over. In all, he
carried out about 50 boxes groaning with papers: news clippings,
fund-raising documents, private notes scribbled during White House
meetings, private memos to the President. In one pile were detailed
notes about the Asian fund-raiser in chief John Huang. In another
pile was a three-ring binder that contained a brief history of
fund-raising for Presidential campaigns that Ickes had compiled
for the President in the summer of 1995. This was done in response
to newspaper articles that accused Clinton of selling access to
the highest bidder. Sensing the President was embarrassed by the
accusations and might need a fall guy, Ickes also sent Clinton
The President declined to accept the resignation,
and there begins the most newsworthy subplot in the friendship
between Harold Ickes and Bill Clinton. Right up to Election Day,
1996, Ickes continued to offer access to the President in order
to raise money for the Clinton campaign. So insatiable was the
candidate, and so alarmingly gifted was Ickes, that he was among
the first to catch the eye of the Senate Governmental Affairs
Committee, headed by the Republican Fred Thompson, when it began
its investigation earlier this year of campaign finance.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks Ickes
will be hauled before Thompson's committee as it continues its
mind-numbing hearings. The Senators are likely to question him
ad nauseam about John Huang, Buddhist nuns, Chinese conspiracies
and the fine points of soft and hard money, and Ickes says he
will do his best to take the Senators seriously.
At this point they are no longer trying to
get at the truth," he says. They are just trying to catch
you on perjury.
But just beneath the surface of the Senator's
ponderous questions will lie the giddy hope that Harold Ickes
-- the patron saint of Presidential ingratitude -- will turn on
Bill Clinton and spill the beans. And there are a lot of beans
to spill. For 25 years Ickes, 58, has been a friend of Bill Clinton's.
But he has also been something else. Ickes has been caught up
in so many of Clinton's scandals and crises that he came to describe
his function in the White House as "director of the sanitation
As campaign manager of Clinton's '92 New
York campaign, he persuaded the state's Democrats to stick with
Clinton while Gennifer Flowers strutted luridly through the national
imagination. (His persuasion saved Clinton's candidacy.) He was
present in the most famous opening scene in Presidential literature,
the first few pages of "Primary Colors," when the candidate
charms the pants off everyone in Harlem. (Ickes is given the pseudonym
"Howard Ferguson 3d" but other than that, he says, the
author Joe Klein took the scene straight from life.) At Clinton's
behest Ickes came to Washington in 1994, ostensibly to work on
health care, but was instead handed the Whitewater file and told
that it was now his problem. As the 1996 election approached Ickes
helped guide his friend Jesse Jackson to the decision not to run,
and then he put together the most wildly successful, and most
successfully wild, money-raising operation ever conducted by the
But three days after Clinton's triumphant
re-election, Ickes walked out onto the doorstep of his Georgetown
house, picked up The Wall Street Journal and read that he was
on the way out. The man Clinton wanted as his new chief of staff,
a well-to-do Southerner and relative newcomer to Clinton's life
named Erskine Bowles, had demanded Ickes's head as a condition
of service. Clinton was going to give it to him.
And so now the President's garbage man was
leaving, and taking with him the records of what he did. And Lord,
what records they are! From the moment Ickes arrived at the White
House he was the guy everyone else in the room noticed scribbling
notes. Even after the Whitewater hearings, when it was clear that
anything you put down on paper could be held against you, Ickes
kept scribbling away. He couldn't have been more conspicuous about
it: he scribbled his notes standing up! It gave him the air of
a man who refused to join the crowd, but the main reason Ickes
stood through meetings was to avoid falling asleep.
When he was 25, Ickes had entered Columbia
University Law School and promptly contracted -- if that is the
right word - narcolepsy. For 10 years or so Ickes took massive
doses of Dexedrine. Five milligrams of the stuff would wire a
normal person for 48 hours; Ickes swallowed 60 milligrams a day
to keep himself awake. At the White House Ickes had a special
terror of falling asleep in the Oval Office. He imagined a day
when a pride of Cabinet members would be sitting around the yellow
sofas, Al Gore would be going on about the ozone layer and whoosh
... he'd be nodding off on his feet like some giant flamingo.
He says: "It's hard to fall asleep on your feet but it can
be done.Just give me a nice, dark cozy corner."
The note taking was not about staying awake,
however. Ickes didn't trust his memory, and he especially did
not trust the memory of others. He had also found that the written
word was the quickest way into Bill Clinton's mind. "The
President is difficult to talk to," he says. "You go
in to tell him one thing and he wants to talk about all these
different things and you end up never getting to your point. But
if you put it on paper he reads it. And he remembers every goddamn
thing he reads. The man can process an incredible amount of paper."
Of course, in this day and age, saving that
paper is not a simple business. There is no clear line between
private thoughts and public property. If you take personal notes
during a meeting in the Oval Office you are permitted to tear
them up and throw them away afterward. But if you keep the notes
in a file, or circulate the notes and then, months later, some
Congressman gets it in his head to dig into the business you discussed
during that meeting, the notes could be considered part of the
public record, and if you then decide to throw them away you can
go to jail. But the law is vague; it does not clearly define what
constitutes personal notes.
For his part Harold Ickes is certain the
papers belonged to him when he took them from the White House
and could not care less about the subsequent legal niceties. "I
still don't know who owns them," he says. "But I have
them. And what is that old expression? Possession is nine-tenths
of the law."
Why he had hoarded the paper is a different
matter. The man in the room who scribbles the notes and keeps
the records is built differently from others. He's staking his
private claim on public life. From the moment he moved to Washington
from New York, Ickes longed to keep a diary. He explains: "There
is a huge, huge public record out there these days. But what really
counts in a diary is the private nuance, the impressions you pick
up. People either lose the nuance, forget or misremember. What
kinds of questions did the President ask? Whom did he ask them
of? Whom did he listen to? All of those things can be of very
I have often wished that my father and his
father, to say nothing of ancestors back of them, had left some
written record, however brief, of their lives and times. To most
of us, if we go back of our fathers' generation, our ancestors
are only names. They may not even be that. They are not living
realities. We speculate about them: we wonder how they lived and
what they thought, but except for an occasional isolated and unconnected
fact or legend they are to us total strangers.
For years I have played with the idea of
setting down in the form of a running narrative enough of what
I have done, been and thought to give my children and theirs,
if they should care to read, some notion of who I was and how
Those words were written by Harold LeClair
Ickes, Harold Ickes's father, at the outset of the diary he kept
during his years as an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
and a member of his cabinet. Like his son he had come to Washington
as an outsider, to work for a President for the first time. Roosevelt
had tapped him to be his Secretary of the Interior, and though
Ickes was the Cabinet officer Roosevelt knew least well, he would
outlast all the others. But he was more than a Cabinet officer
from 1933 until Roosevelt's death in 1945 Ickes played for F.D.R.
something of the same role that his son would play for Clinton
-- mad dog during the campaigns, champion of the dispossessed
once that campaign has been won.
When the first of four planned volumes of
Ickes's diaries was published in 1953, the year after his death,
reviewers marveled that he had found the time to write so many
words. He was helped by his chronic insomnia: since his early
20's he'd had the most hellish time falling asleep. Only after
massive doses of whisky and, occasionally, pills could he manage
a few hours of rest, which left a lot of lonely hours for prose-making.
But even so! The three volumes that were eventually published
as "The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes" -- all of them
big sellers -- ran to about 700,000 words. Left behind in trunks
at the Ickes family home in Maryland was another four million
words that his editors deemed, for one reason or another, unfit
for public consumption.
In addition to his diary of public life,
Ickes wrote millions of words of letters and memoirs that no one
knew much about until the mid-1980's, when his biographer, T.
H. Watkins, rummaged through the collection, by then at the Library
of Congress, and read tens of thousands of documents. The Ickes
papers demonstrate, among other things, the mental compartments
that a sensitive, intelligent man, if left to his own devices,
will naturally create for himself when thrust into public life.
He will have one place in his mind where he keeps the public version
of his public life: the story he disseminates through his words
and deeds. Inside of that there will be another, smaller room
in which he keeps a private version of that public life -- his
diary. But inside this room there is still another room; for Ickes
it was sufficiently large and sacred that he penned an entirely
fresh memoir that he probably never intended to publish. This
relatively minor work -- a truly secret memoir -- runs to 800,000
words. It is the story of his private life and it betrays an emotional
complexity he never exhibited in public, even in his "Secret
Diary." It takes you out of the realm of crude political
explanation and into a private shadow world where there exists
no clear explanation.
It took a few weeks before anyone really
noticed the cardboard boxes that Harold Ickes had stashed away
in his Georgetown basement. They were piled up high, an eloquent
record of his unwritten diary. But during those weeks friends
back in the White House called Ickes to warn him that a new story
was being spun about his role in the Presidential campaign. By
now, of course, some of the money raised to re elect Bill Clinton
had officially become a scandal. And a few people in the White
House had a bright idea how to defuse the new scandal: Harold
Ickes was in charge of raising the money... and Harold Ickes had
"The White House story was going to
be that Ickes masterminded all of this fund-raising by himself,"
Ickes told me recently, during one of a series of interviews.
"That he was the rogue employee and that the rest of the
White House had nothing to do with any of it."
Well, we all know what happened to that neat
little idea. The Congressional investigation committees run by
Republicans wrote letters to Ickes. The letters said they wanted
to see his private papers. Ickes, who saw no point in waiting
for the inevitable subpoena, sent them right over. The most hopeful
Senate investigator probably was unprepared for what he encountered;
even after Ickes's lawyers winnowed out everything but papers
directly responding to the committees' requests, there remained
3,500 to 4,000 pages. And in these the Republican investigators
found all sorts of wonderful encouragement to Ickes written by
the President himself.
The Ickes papers, if nothing else, gave the
uninitiated some idea of how an important aide spends his hours
in the White House. He spends them in meetings. Most of Ickes's
job as the garbage man meant gathering people together to decide
what to tell the world about the garbage. "You prepare for
meetings, you go to meetings, and then afterward you talk about
what happened in those meetings," Ickes says. "That
is what you do in the White House. The art is in knowing what
meetings to attend and what meetings not to attend."
The meeting Ickes held with John Huang --
in which a great deal of garbage was created -- was most definitely
a meeting not to attend. Ickes's notes betray the chaos of raising
millions in campaign money when you aren't, by tradition, the
party of the rich. In the first notes, dated Oct. 2, 1995, Ickes
scrawls the sugar plum seeds that Huang, then an official in the
Commerce Department, planted in his head: "55 million overseas
Chinese"; "Silicon Valley -- one-half of the companies
are $(illegible$)Chinese and Indians"; "better mobilize
Asian-Pacific vote." After Huang has Ickes hot for Chinese
money he issues his conditions: "Willing to work out of D.N.C.
but needs a reasonable title." On a second page of notes,
dated Oct. 4, 1996, Ickes writes, inscrutably, Who is John Huang.
It was only a matter of time before copies
of the documents leaked out of the committees and wound up on
front pages across the land. The media assumed that Ickes was
handing over the documents to get back at the President who dumped
him. By the end of last winter Harold Ickes's phone was ringing
off the hook. ABC News trained cameras on the back and front doors
of his Washington office; NBC was waiting outside his home to
pester his 11-year-old daughter. Janice Enright, now Ickes's partner
in a consulting firm, asked reporters who called whether they
planned to write another "biting, fighting, bad suits and
peanut butter story," a reference to, in order: a) a famous
fight that ended with Ickes biting his opponent in the leg; b)
his reputation in the White House as the man who couldn't be bothered
to find a matching tie, and c) the jar of peanut butter he keeps
behind his desk at all times, together with a box of Ritz crackers.
Anyone who wrote about Ickes got caught up quickly, and understandably,
in his quirks. Among them were a truly spectacular rage, which
scared the bejesus out of most everyone in the Clinton White House,
and a willful inattention to the finer points of schmoozing with
the President. Ickes had spent most of his career as a lawyer
for big unions, and he emerged from the experience with the temperament
and diction of a long-haul truck driver in a traffic jam. About
his inability to relax with a President who can, Ickes says: I
don't give a $(expletive$) about golf or hearts. If people want
to waste time chasing after a little white ball, that's their
Last spring's articles about Ickes hewed
largely to a simple theme: another close friend had been betrayed
by Bill Clinton, but this time the friend got even. Suddenly,
important people were phoning Ickes to congratulate him for getting
even with the President. "People were calling us up and saying:
'What a move! Way to go!' " Enright says, "And these
were grown-ups !" TIt all drives Ickes to distraction. "First
of all," he says, "if someone's gonna $(expletive$)
the President of the United States, it ain't gonna be public.
You don't $(expletive$) the President publicly. I don't care who
you are. If you are gonna do it, it's a brown paper bag with a
rock in it through the window of The New York Times." Even
his old White House enemy Dick Morris, when asked, says: "I
don't question his motives in handing over the documents. If Harold
was going to get even with the President, the President would
The world is now heavily populated with Presidential
victims -- people who feel betrayed by Bill Clinton, many of whom
once considered Bill Clinton a friend, some of whom have since
tried one way or another to do him harm. Ickes plainly does not
consider himself one of these people. He has run up nearly $200,000
in personal legal bills defending himself from fallout from the
various Clinton scandals and has been rewarded with far more than
his share of betrayal and humiliation. But for a certain kind
of person -- a person like Harold Ickes -- that is not quite enough
to pry him from the original position.
The lawyers from the Senate committee investigating
campaign finance took Ickes's deposition, in the hope that Ickes
would right then and there serve up rancorous tidbits about his
former boss. What he told them was so conspicuously dull that
the committee decided not to call him as its first witness. "Do
I know things that could embarrass the President?" asks Ickes,
rhetorically. "Yes, I most certainly do. Am I going to tell
you about them? No. Any document that was really embarrassing
to the President -- or to any living person -- I threw away."
This business of serving the President is
not a simple matter. It requires you to be a layer cake of cynicism
and faith. You must watch a man betray others and debase himself
without losing your belief in his essential worthiness. The sordid
stories about the boss that make news every day -- and those stories
that never become news -- sustain your cynicism well enough. But
maybe the more interesting question, at least to put to a man
who has been through what Harold Ickes has been through is: Where
do you find the faith?
The more you read the father's diaries in
light of the son's experience the more they come to seem what
he intended them to be, a letter from a father to a son explaining
who I was and how I lived. The letter remains unread, however.
Harold LeClair Ickes was 65 when his son was born; Harold McEwan
Ickes was 12 when his father died, and the son, like many young
sons of prominent older public men, was almost willful in his
disregard of his father's career. "When I was a boy I used
to be embarrassed to say my last name," Ickes says. "I'd
like to think I've grown out of that."
But the son's ignorance of the father can
still send a sharp tingle down the spine of anyone familiar with
the careers of both men. In one of our conversations, for instance,
Ickes mentioned that his time in Washington seemed to be punctuated
by accidents, and he told the following anecdote. It was during
the first month that he worked in White House, in January1994,
and he was going to dinner at the home of some friends:
"You can never see the numbers on these
goddamn Washington houses," he recalls. "So I got out
of the car to look. Without warning, my feet went out from under
me on ice and I landed on my left side. I've never been hit that
hard. I finally got up and went back to the car.
We found the house," he continues. "I
sat through cocktails and dinner but the pain wouldn't go away.
Finally, Donna" Donna Shalala -- "said maybe I should
go to the hospital. It turned out I had broken three ribs. It
was the only time I've ever broken a bone in my life. Funny. With
all the fights I've been in."
Even the phrasing had a familiar ring, and I found myself saying, not for the first time, "Just like your father." Ickes replied, "No, my father never broke his ribs."
Later, I returned to his father's Secret
Diary. I hadn't been mistaken:
Halfway down $(the driveway$) both feet went
out from under me and I came down harder than I ever have done
in my life on the ice. . . . After a minute or two I was able
to get to my feet and I then proceeded to the garage where I got
into the car and then went to the of fice. ... The pain began
to increase and so I had a doctor brought in. . . . An X ray at
the hospital showed that one rib had been broken (Dec. 16, 1933).
But where the father's diary is most relevant
to the life of the son is in the descriptions of his friendship
with the President. The President is F.D.R. but often the reader
feels it could be any man who happens to be in the Oval Office.
Ickes senior, who was otherwise a shrewd and ruthless judge of
his fellow man (his nickname was the Old Curmudgeon), suspended
all such judgment when it came to Roosevelt. The smallest attentions
Roosevelt pays him become the subject of long, loving passages;
when he visits Ickes in his hospital room After his fall on the
ice, Ickes vibrates like an adolescent girl:
On Tuesday afternoon, shortly after five,
the President came over to see me. He must have spent some 25
minutes in my room chatting about public affairs and other matters
in his natural and delightful manner (Dec. 16, 1933).
On some days Ickes senior writes that he
knows Roosevelt for what he is: An opportunist. A liar. A politician.
On other days he forgets and gives himself over to his longing
for affection and approval (and advancement). Such ambivalence
is the inexorable consequence of putting together the sort of
man who becomes President with the sort of man who tries to serve
him as a friend. "Ickes had a personal, emotional commitment
to the man," says Watkins, Ickes's biographer, "and
Roosevelt did not reciprocate. You have the feeling that the President
was incapable of deep love and commitment."
Harold Ickes Sr. had a fantastic ability
to see in Roosevelt what he needed to see. Harold Ickes spent
his whole life looking for a father," Watkins says. "Every
relationship with a man that became intense on a professional
level with Harold always carried with it that personal baggage."
Ickes was eight years older than his President,
but he treated the President as his elder right up until Roosevelt's
death -- an event that as good as finished Ickes's interest in
public life. "We do not know what went through his mind,"
writes Watkins of Ickes on the day of Roosevelt's death, "because,
unlikely as it may seem, he never recorded it. We do know that
for the first and last time in his public life, Harold L. Ickes
There are several ways to understand the
friendship between Bill Clinton and Harold Ickes, and they correspond
-- as they did for his father -- to the compartments a man creates
in his mind when he enters public life. The public version of
the Clinton-Ickes relationship is that Clinton simply needed Ickes
and used him. Clinton combines an understanding that winning is
dirty work with a distaste for doing the dirty work himself; he
uses and abuses people like Ickes in order to get what he needs.
"Harold was always the guy with the iron butt," says
George Stephanopoulos, when asked what role Ickes played in the
Clinton White House.
As a public man Ickes is known chiefly as
a hard-edged operator, a cynical realist, and he has done a lot
to cultivate that reputation. Seated very near the center of the
campaign-finance scandal, he talks like a man who hasn't the slightest
hope that any good will come of it. "Money is like water,"
he says. "If there is a crack water will find it. Same way
with political money." When he speaks of Clinton he works
hard to prove that he has no illusions about the man. "He
is a politician, first and foremost," he says. "And
a politician's instinct is self-survival. Bill Clinton has strong
survival instincts. This sense in him is extraordinarily powerful."
He'll tell you point blank that Clinton does
not care about campaign-finance reform, and that he's just using
the issue for his own purposes, none of them altruistic. He'll
let you know in so many words that he -- like Clinton -- understands
you must do certain things to win, and that everything starts
The private version of the public friendship
-- the Secret Diary version, if you will -- cuts a bit closer
to the bone. Ickes and Clinton got to know each other in the early
1970's, and when they'd meet, they were often joined by their
mutual friend Susan Thomases. The ghost of Harold Ickes Sr. was
ever present. He had long been one of Thomases' heroes; she worshiped
him," she says. It was for that reason, in part, that she
knew who Ickes was when he was protesting the Vietnam War at Columbia.
(Their friendship was born during Eugene McCarthy's 1968 campaign
for the Democratic Presidential nomination; they both worked for
"In high school I was asked to write
a report about a politician who had done something of which he
was subsequently ashamed, or of which he should have been ashamed,"
she recalls. "I chose Woodrow Wilson and wrote about the
executive order he signed that segregated the Federal Government.
After it was done the teacher said, 'Fine, but who undid racial
segregation in the Federal Government?' I had no idea. I didn't
even know where to find out. So finally I went and asked an African-American
teacher in my school, and he said: 'You should know this. It was
"This teacher explained that not long
after Ickes became Secretary of the Interior two black men broke
with custom and dined in the cafeteria. When asked by two white
women what he planned to do about it, Ickes replied, 'Not a damn
thing, ladies.' When told that some white employees were upset,
he said: 'Their paychecks are waiting for them. They can leave
at any time."'
It was the first of a series of such gestures
by Ickes that led Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The Age of Roosevelt:
The Coming of the New Deal," to describe Ickes as the "informal
Secretary of Negro Relations" of the Roosevelt Administration.
When he discovered that blacks were not permitted on Washington
golf courses, he set aside land for a black golf course. Perhaps
most famously he stepped in after the Daughters of the American
Revolution barred Marian Anderson from staging a performance in
Washington's Constitution Hall. Ickes offered her the Lincoln
Memorial in its place and the gesture received such notice that
75,000 turned up to hear her sing from the top of the memorial's
Politics did not come as naturally to Harold
Ickes as it did to Bill Clinton. Ickes graduated from high school
functionally illiterate, and didn't finish his undergraduate work
at Stanford until he was 24. He was, to put it mildly, a loner.
"I don't remember having a single close friend before age
of 25," he says. The first job he took out of school was
as a cowboy on a ranch in Northern California.
But in 1964 he was drawn by some invisible
thread into the civil rights movement, and went to work for the
cause in Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1965, in Tallulah, La.,
three or four white men attacked a car carrying Ickes and two
black men. Ickes told the blacks to run and faced the gang by
himself. The men fired a shotgun over his head; Ickes responded
as he had been taught. "We were trained to curl up in the
fetal position," he says, "Fighting back was a good
way to get yourself killed. So I fell to the ground and curled
up in a ball. And they really kicked me around." When the
local sheriff finally arrived he arrested Ickes for disturbing
the peace and let the others go free. Ickes lost a kidney from
To understand Harold Ickes's attachment to
Bill Clinton you have to know that story, I think. At the roots
of his attachment there is a great deal of sentiment, and at the
core of that sentiment there is empathy for the underdog. That
is what pulled Harold LeClair Ickes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That is what attracted Susan Thomases to Ickes senior. And that
is what hews Harold Ickes to Bill Clinton. Clinton gave political
expression to whatever it was inside him that led Ickes to thrust
himself in between a group of defenseless blacks and a white mob.
"Bill Clinton is not a phrasemaker," Ickes says. "There
is not a single phrase of Bill Clinton's I can recall. But you
get him in a room with 25 people and, man, he will knock your
socks off. He'll be talking about the young black kid in the ghetto
who was shot to death while doing his homework and I mean it is
breathtaking . Better than anyone I have ever heard. Nobody, nobody
can say that this guy does not have enormous emotional and intellectual
Many former friends of Bill Clinton once
thought he shared their most essential beliefs. What distinguishes
Ickes from the others is that he remains convinced of it. When
you press him on details (How about his signing the welfare bill?)
he waves you away with great impatience. "If there is a true
north to Bill Clinton," he says, "it is race. I never
had a doubt in my mind where he stood on this issue. I have just
seen it too many times with people. He identifies with people
who have the short end of the stick." His faith in Clinton's
belief is perfectly unshakable. He can't explain where his faith
comes from, not exactly. "I can't think of a concrete example
to prove the point," he says. "It's an accretion what
I would call the nuances." (Again that word!). "I can't
get any more explicit than that."
The point is not that Ickes is wrong to believe
as strongly as he does in Bill Clinton. The point is that he cannot
explain to you why he believes as he does. A man so keen on detail
that he carts off 50 boxes of documents when he leaves the White
House remains unable to find a few sentences to sum up what it
is that drew him to Clinton in the first place.
Perhaps there is one way to understand the
sort of political attachment Ickes formed with Clinton. It is
hinted at not in Ickes's voluminous documents but in the later
pages of his father's unpublished memoirs. Once Harold LeClair
Ickes left office his family life came to occupy a larger place
in his diaries, which he continued to write at a furious pace
until his death in 1952. And as his son grows up he assumes the
role he has played ever since, the Difficult Son. Every few pages
we read something like this:
It was "no no no" to every proposal
made to him. He rebelled contumaciously against his mother's and
my plan for him to take sailing lessons this summer. ...He would
not look you in the eyes while being spoken to and he never spoke
himself....His mother and I became almost frantic in our desperation
as to know what to do for the boy.
Over and over again the writings express
the father's concern that the son isn't growing up a normal boy
-- that he prefers adults to children, and that he is obstinate
to the point of insurrection, that he spends all of his time alone.
In the process Ickes senior opens a window onto a relationship
that the son has been all but erased from his memory. (A dangerous
business in a family of note takers.) For instance, during the
summer before his death, Ickes senior writes of young Harold's
worries one night about his father's failing health
He was worried about "Daddy." Most
of the children customarily call me "Hump," for what
reason I do not know....He did not want "Hump" to die.
He loved "Hump" and could not live without him. His
mother comforted him as much as she could and shortly afterwards
when Harold came up to bed I slipped into his room and got into
bed with him.... This touched me because although I have loved
Harold and have been conscious that he loved me, I never knew
the apparent depth of his feeling.
The son for his part retains few vivid childhood
memories of his father, and most relate to his death. One is of
his mother sorting through the magnificent pile of paper his father
had saved. "She went through boxes and boxes and boxes of
materials," he says. "He kept everything. She was literally
throwing out notes he had taken from old legal cases he had worked
on. I mean the most unbelievable junk." Another is of the
memorial service for Harold LeClair Ickes at the Lincoln Memorial,
where Marian Anderson sang to an audience of thousands, including
half of official Washington.
"The Marian Anderson incident had a
profound impact on my mother," Ickes says. "And she
in turn told me the story of it. And I have the vivid memory of
our cook, Flo, who was black, telling me what a great man my father
was because he had let Negroes go where whites go."
But when asked what he recalls of his father
while he was alive Ickes comes up very nearly blank. After a pause
he says, "I have only the vaguest memories, I was only 11
when he died." Other times he will say he was 12 or 13 when
his father died. (He was 12.) When he is pressed further he says,
"My father was stern."
"It wasn't a hostile relationship. I'm
sure that he loved me but he never held me."
"I have no memory of being held by my
father," he says.
Ickes didn't come to Washington to serve
his friend Bill Clinton until he had been in the White House for
a year. He recalls those days not from notes but from memory and,
as usual, he is intensely aware of the tricks memory can play.
He says, "I want to preface everything I say with 'as best
as I recall.' "
As best as he can recall the first sign he
had that his friendship with Clinton had changed was the first
time he visited the President in the Oval Office: "The first
time I went to brief Clinton I knew him as my friend. He's my
friend, I'm thinking. He's the President but he's my friend. And
I'm standing there waiting for him to acknowledge me, but. ..
he's...doing a crossword puzzle."
The crossword puzzle isn't what's unusual;
everywhere the President goes he carries a crossword puzzle, a
deck of cards and a book. What's unusual is his new attitude.
"I am standing in front of his desk," Ickes says, "waiting
for him to give me his undivided attention. I mean he's sitting
there like there is no one else in the room. This guy is now the
President. But he's also my friend. I'm thinking: 'Hey Pal. I'm
here. Let's go.' Without looking up he finally says, 'Yeah, what
do you want?' And so I just start briefing him. He never stops
doing the crossword puzzle. After I'm finished he looks up and
he says What about this, what about that -- he has taken it all
in. You got used to working with him that way. I'd walk in and
say, 'You want me to start talking.' And he'd say 'yeah' or 'no.'
And if he said no you stood around, waiting."
Over time Ickes developed some feeling for
the nuances of Presidential service and friendship. Maybe his
most telling experience came after the 1994 mid-term Congressional
elections. The Republican landslide devastated Clinton. "He
took it as a personal repudiation," Ickes says. Clinton was
tormented by the results and in a state of mind Ickes had never
before seen. He had always been prone to rages, especially in
the mornings, but he was suddenly spending a lot more time than
usual waving his arms and screaming at the ceiling of the Oval
Office. And this time there was only one person to scream at;
everyone else who routinely went in and out of the Oval Office
had taken off for Christmas vacation.
"It was 'Home Alone' with the President,"
Ickes recalls. "And I tell you, it was not fun. He would
go into these towering rages -- 'Harold, you should have done
this, Harold, you should have done that.' It went for days until
he had to take off for -- what's that stupid thing called -- Renaissance
Before his departure, however, Clinton had
agreed with Ickes on a course of action. "I thought he had
green-lighted all sorts of things," Ickes says, "from
personnel decisions to policies. I should have known. I remember
telling him that I was going to rehire Stan Greenberg as his pollster,
and he said, 'If that's what you think we should do, then fine."'
Ickes had taken this as a straightforward assent, but when he
considered the sentence later, he saw that it wasn't. A few days
later Leon Panetta returned and mentioned to Ickes that Clinton
had been speaking regularly to Dick Morris. It emerged that the
whole time Clinton was telling Ickes one thing he was agreeing
with Morris to do almost exactly the opposite.
A lot has already been written about the
feud between Morris and Ickes. Ickes himself recalls one incident
involving Morris, and one conversation about him, above the others.
The incident occurred not long after Morris came to the White
House. Ickes had secured a promise from Clinton that he would
review all campaign advertising. Soon thereafter Morris ran a
campaign ad for Clinton that Ickes had never seen. It showed Latin
Americans scrambling over fences and under bushes and conjured
up the image of hordes of illegal immigrants storming the borders.
Ickes couldn't do much about it himself. "I had no credibility
on the subject of Dick Morris," he says. "Everyone knew
exactly what I thought about him." So he called up Henry
Cisneros, who had the ability to shame Clinton on the subject.
Cisneros complained to Clinton, and Clinton had the ad pulled
The conversation Ickes had with Clinton about
Morris took place before Morris came to the White House. Ickes
had worked up the steam to tell Clinton exactly what he thought
of Morris. After the long, Ickensian diatribe, Clinton remained
silent for a moment. Then, as Ickes recalls, Clinton said: "I
agree with just about everything you said. But that man understands
the underside of politics better than anyone I have ever met."
On the day he read in The Wall Street Journal
that Bill Clinton had agreed to let him go, Harold Ickes was scheduled
to brief the President on the portfolio of scandals. Clinton was
to hold a news conference that day, and he was sure to be grilled
about campaign finance. And so Harold Ickes did the only thing
he could think to do: he walked down the corridor to the Oval
Office to brief the President. He found him seated behind his
desk. Ickes remained standing front and center. The irritation
he felt was fairly intense but not all of it was directed at the
President. He reserved some of it for people who wondered why
he continued to serve a man who would treat him so poorly. When
I asked Ickes why he went and briefed Clinton that day he shouted,
"If you are on his staff you accept his decision and you
back him up."
And so he briefed the President. When he'd
finished, the President, as usual, had something else he wanted
to talk about. Ickes recounted for me what followed in considerable
Harold, let's talk about you, the President
-- O.K., let's talk about me, Ickes said,
following the President's suggestion to take a seat on his right.
In itself that presented a problem. An accident in his early 20's
left Ickes deaf in his right ear, and so he had to ever so slightly
twist himself around to hear the President. (His father, in his
early 20's, lost the hearing in his left ear.)
How are you doing? asked the President, pulling
his chair right up close to Ickes. You know, Mr. President, I've
been better. No. 1, this whole experience of working for you is
costing me a great deal of money, and being fired in public does
not make it easier for me to make a living. No. 2, I do not deserve
The President pulled over his chair and brought
his head right next to Ickes's, and hung it in that way he has
when he is upset. I know. It's terrible. Someone leaked. I cannot
believe it. But what can we do?
You gave me up to get Erskine Bowles. You
cannot very well go back on the promise you made him.
The President didn't respond directly to
I don't think I can get you confirmed for
Ickes let this hang. At this point he had
not asked for another job -- until a few hours earlier it hadn't
crossed his mind that he'd be in the market for one just three
days after getting Clinton re-elected. But he knew without being
told that there was no chance that he would be offered any job
requiring Senate confirmation. That is the price you pay for being
the President's garbage man. Your faithful service makes you,
from the point of view of the other side, unacceptable. His confirmation
hearings would quickly become a three-ring circus. But he had
Director of the National Park Service. Ickes
always thought National Parks would be a good job. Director, among
its other pleasures, does not require Senate confirmation.
What a great idea. The President said he
would call Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Secretary. And there they
left it, until two days later. Ickes was in his office at the
same oak desk his father worked from when he received calls from
Roosevelt. Janice Enright handed him the phone and said that the
President is on the line.
I've got some bad news. I've just been sent
the new Parks bill. It gives a new power to the Senate, to confirm
the Director. The new law is retroactive. You can't have the job.
These days Harold Ickes works out of his
small office in downtown Washington, cluttered with photographs
of Bill Clinton. "To Harold," reads the inscription
on a photo of the two of them in Bosnia surrounded by American
troops. "I always knew that you'd go into battle with me
but even you need a helmet."
When Ickes is hauled up to testify before
Fred Thompson's committee in the next few weeks, he will be asked
to explain how the man who let him go was re-elected. Ickes is
not looking forward to it. The Ickes papers may still fuel the
campaign-finance scandal. Certainly they will be Topic A when
Ickes drives up to Capitol Hill. But the papers -- and the peculiar
temperament they reflect -- have a great deal more to tell us
than what some Senate investigator will want to know. Among other
things they whisper to us the secret of why a certain kind of
man goes into politics -- or, at any rate, why he stays until
the bitter end. He possesses in uncommon quantities both the tendency
to doubt and the capacity to believe.
Ickes hasn't heard from the President for
some time and has to think hard to recall the last time he saw
him. But then he remembers. It was in Las Vegas, in July, during
the gathering of the nation's governors.
The President's close friend Bruce Lindsey
had told Ickes to wait after the speech, and Clinton would walk
out to the car with him. That's not what happened, however. The
President changed his plans. After the speech Clinton worked the
rope line, and Ickes found himself at the end of the rope, on
the customer side.
"When the President arrived he gave
me a big hug and asked me how I'd been," Ickes says. "And
that was the last time I saw him." Standing on a rope line
in Las Vegas, waiting to shake hands with his old friend, the
President of the United States.