By James Warren
Web-posted Monday, October 13, 1997; 6:05 a.m. CDT

It was late and warm and you almost wished that Harold Ickes and Sen. Don Nickles would strip down to their briefs and start beating the hell out of each other. The hearing room was nearly empty. Three of 16 U.S. senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee remained. Long gone were the TV pundits and star columnists who had been news tourists, making cameo appearances at the campaign-finance hearing so they could watch Ickes, the Man Who Knew Too Much.

Testimony by the former top aide to President Clinton and a keeper of many secrets was into its eighth hour Wednesday. The Republican majority's hope of extracting damning insights into the Clinton re-election campaign was long deflated. Ickes, 58, had frustrated, deflected, lectured and even charmed his inquisitors. He defiantly had declined to admit to any wrong, offering an unintentional window into the cunning pragmatism pervading Clinton's political success.

Maybe the "ambience" of the fundraising operation was askew, he said at one point. But that was it. From a legal standpoint, the Clinton camp did everything on the up and up. It always consulted lawyers. Lawyers were everywhere, he said, and senators grinned in sympathy.

For hour after hour, the Man Who Knew Too Much proved that he knew far more than his foes about the finance operation. A mastery of detail threw the opposition, which for two months had debated whether calling him to testify would backfire.

He proved hearing-hardened, as Sen. Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.) learned when they battled during D'Amato's dud of a Whitewater investigation. He corrected senators, even relegated a potential nemesis such as Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) into seeking his advice on reforming the fundraising system--as if Ickes was a pointy-headed neutral from the Brookings Institution.

But Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican and one of the most conservative members, remained. He had doffed his suit jacket, as if at home. Which he was. He worked his way through college as a janitor and was elected to the Senate in 1980 at 31, the youngest Republican ever.

Tough and shrewd, Nickles inhabits a world apart from Ickes. He likely would deem Ickes a symbol of a snooty, licentious Eastern elite; a longtime New Yorker with a famous dad who was a progressive Interior secretary for, and soul mate to, President Franklin Roosevelt.

Several times he asked Ickes about cozy dealings between the White House and the ethically challenged Laborers Union but elicited only the response, "I've answered that question."

"I'm not . . . I didn't hear your answer. Would you repeat it?" Nickles said.
"Look on the record," Ickes said.
"Harold, Harold," attorney Robert Bennett could be heard whispering behind Ickes as his client resisted with less-than-statesmanlike pique.

Nickles was undeterred. He dredged up a 1994 Democratic National Committee memo, suggesting the White House reward contributors with goodies such as rides aboard Air Force One.
"Were political friends invited to ride on Air Force One and Air Force Two?" asked Nickles, who finds such largess beyond the pale.
"We basically invited people that we didn't like, senator," shot back Ickes, his sarcasm as glaring as a cut-rate prom tuxedo.
Nickles persisted, concluding with the litany of seeming transgressions by John Huang, the off-the-charts Democratic fundraiser who had been at the White House more than 100 times.
"So what?" Ickes said.

When Nickles noted the illegal contributions solicited by Huang and returned by the party, Ickes cut him short. He had been ticked off by earlier Nickles intimations that he had obstructed justice.
"That's a cheap shot," Ickes said. "You are trying to pin on me and the president of the United States what an employee of the DNC did and shouldn't have done. So don't use that cheap shot . . . come on."

Nickles continued, bringing up money laundering, illegal contributions and White House access for big donors, some clearly with "the president's blessing."
"I'm just tired of innuendo, senator," Ickes said.
"I think I've made my point, Mr. Chairman, and I thank you," said Nickles, picking up his jacket and exiting, leaving Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) to close up shop.

As the eight hours tumbled to an anticlimactic close, a reporter for a political weekly shook his head in my direction and summarized the GOP's botched opportunity:"It's like getting a date with Sharon Stone and then dropping pasta all over your shirt," said David Corn of the Nation.

By Friday, Ickes was back at his two-person consulting firm. As anybody fit for a C-Span appearance knows, Ickes picked up The Wall Street Journal one morning, after Clinton's re-election, and learned that he was out of work. He had been deputy chief of staff, but Clinton was picking somebody else for the chief's job. That guy didn't want Ickes around.

It may be Clinton's good fortune that Ickes, an inveterate note-taker, didn't immediately take his 50 boxes worth of papers and "sensitive matters" contained in a diary, walk into The Washington Post newsroom and say, "Is Woodward around? Here, be my guest."

But there he was last week, having prepared hours for a much-hyped appearance. Using the third-person like a pro athlete, he said, "The bar had been set very high for Harold Ickes."

Respect for the Senate is one thing, being pushed around another. Perceiving Nickles to be pushing, he attacked. "Some of the implications by Nickles were grandstanding, nothing to do with the facts. He was grandstanding."

He saw his appearance as marking the first time a witness "made the case about what we (the Clinton re-election campaign) were doing and attempting to do. We did everything humanly possible to stay within the limit of the law. The law can only be changed by Congress."

When I suggested that he had lost his cool on several occasions Wednesday, he disagreed. "The fact is when people think I am unleashed, it is done on a planned basis. I think what I said was appropriate given the circumstances and kinds of questions. You have never seen me ------ off," he said, referring to a fabled temper.

I then asked about a maladroitly phrased question from Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. The Democrat had wondered whether, legalities aside, the Clinton fundraising actions were the right thing to do? Lieberman's double-negative query had not prompted a clear response, so I tried.
"It was legal and it was right but I understood Lieberman's concern about the `ambience' of it," Ickes said.

He then admitted, "Some people conducted illegal actions," declining to name names but hinting they were minions, like Huang.
I could not summon the courage to inquire whether he felt like Sharon Stone watching a starry-eyed suitor blow his big chance. But there was a question about the ambience around his own appearance before the senators.

These are, after all, a group that could decry the horrors of the money-crazed election system Tuesday morning, have lunch, then walk to the Senate chamber and kill the reform-minded McCain-Feingold bill.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is one of the few panel members not to have shrunk in stature as the months pass by, suggested there was no lack of hypocrisy.
"Everybody (the senators) knows how this system works. . . . Some of the most sophisticated fundraisers in the nation are sitting on that Senate panel."
And some of them, those out to trap the Man Who Knew Too Much, blew it.

© 1997 Chicago Tribune

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