Harold Ickes knows all the secrets, but won't tell any
By DAVE SALTONSTALL Daily News Staff Writer
October 10, 2000
Imagine the tell-all book that could be written by Harold Ickes, President Clinton's one-time scandal manager and the guru behind Hillary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate race.
It would all be there: The truth behind Whitewater, the fund-raising excesses of Clinton's 1996 reelection, the collapse of the First Lady's health care plan and her reemergence later as a U.S. Senate candidate, just as Congress was debating her husband's impeachment.
The steely-eyed Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff to the President and now an unpaid adviser to his wife, had all those crowning White House debacles foisted upon him.
But that's a book that will never be written by Ickes, whose character has always been that of the loyal aide, whispering discreetly just offstage.
"I am not a writer, and there is no book," promised Ickes, 61, during a recent interview in his Washington office. "No kissing and telling. Not my style."
In short, Ickes is happy to remain in the background, the great and powerful wizard of New York street politics, the practical idealist who delivered New York unto Bill Clinton in 1992 and now, eight years later, hopes to do the same for his wife.
But that raises the question: Just who is this man behind the curtain?
"He is probably one of the single most influential people in the country," insists City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, who often sees Ickes in what many regard as his "real" job — that of highflying Washington lobbyist.
It's a vocation that Ickes has pursued steadily since 1997, when he learned he'd been fired from the White House — a condition set by newly appointed chief of staff Erskine Bowles — in the most humiliating way possible. He read about it in the newspaper.
Vallone was among the first people to sign up with Ickes, whose then-new firm, The Ickes & Enright Group, has ever since received $7,000 a month in city taxpayer funds to be "the eyes and ears" of the speaker and the rest of the City Council in Washington.
A review of the bills submitted each month to the Council suggests a mix of bring-home-the-bacon strategizing by Ickes, combined with a dose of high-level profile-raising for Vallone himself, who is running for mayor next year.
Ickes attends monthly strategy sessions on Capitol Hill, for instance, where New York's legislative aides map out priorities and goals. But he also talks frequently with Vallone's top political operative, Karen Persichelli-Keogh, and spent several months setting up an Oval Office chat between the President and Vallone last May, records show.
The real political heft behind Ickes' growing, left-of-center portfolio is the unions he represents. The American Federation of Teachers is a client, as is the Service Employees International Union and its powerful affiliate, hospital workers' union Local 1199.
Meanwhile, United Airlines is seeking help on its merger with US Airways. The Brooklyn-based 4C Food Corp. wants to buy more Canadian sugar. Deloitte Consulting of New Jersey needs to navigate the federal Health Care Financing Administration. And the New-York Historical Society is angling for more federal dollars. All have turned to Ickes and his long-time partner, Janice Enright, for help.
Then there is the government of Puerto Rico and its governor, Pedro Rossello, who seeks advice from Ickes on economic development and statehood. And, finally, Ickes remains a partner in the Mineola, L.I.-based law firm where he worked before the White House — Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein — which itself represents some 40 unions.
What do all these clients, especially the unions, see in Ickes, a blade-thin man with perennially windblown red hair, piercing blue eyes and a Smithsonian-like collection of rumpled suits and ugly ties?
"With Ickes," explained Joe McDermott, the president of another Ickes' client, HiSynergy Communications, a business dedicated to opening the Internet to unions, "there's never any question; his dedication to workers is visceral."
Its source is not hard to trace: Ickes is the son of Harold LeClaire Ickes, a former interior secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As such, Ickes' father was present at the birth of the New Deal.
The elder Ickes was also the man who told black opera singer Marian Anderson that she could sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial after the segregationist Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from appearing in Constitution Hall.
"That was something that was sort of handed down in our family," Ickes says today of the Anderson incident. "There was a strong streak, certainly in my father and also my mother, about equities, especially along racial lines."
Ickes showed absolutely no interest in addressing those equities, however, as a young man. Like the sons of many political fathers, he ran from politics — first to ranches out West, where he spent several years after high school roping cattle, and eventually to California.
His wrangling days would later come in handy. On a horseback ride with President Clinton in Montana in 1996, a Secret Service agent was thrown from his mount. Ickes, dressed in a purple cowboy shirt and riding a steed named Peaches, roped the errant horse and returned him smartly.
"The President was so amazed — he thought it was the most macho thing he had ever seen," said mutual friend Susan Thomases.
By the time Ickes was 21, he had found his way to Stanford University, where he met the charismatic Allard Lowenstein, the future New York congressman who in 1964 was recruiting students for voter registration drives down South.
Ickes, still a certifiable loner who lived off campus in a beat-up trailer, signed on. He's still not sure why — "You just sort of got caught up in the cause" — but he soon got a very concrete lesson in civil action.
Ickes was sent to Tallulah, La., where one day he was driving with two black colleagues in a pickup truck when they were stopped by a group of gun-toting whites.
"I told the two guys who were with me, ‘You better get out of here because they'll probably kill you,'" Ickes recalled.
"In the meantime, I was beaten up pretty badly," added Ickes. "And then the sheriff arrested me, naturally, for disturbing the peace."
Ickes lost a kidney to the pounding he took that day, but the fix was in. Politics became his life. He came to New York in 1966 at Lowenstein's invitation, and on his first night in town, went to a dinner with Ronnie Eldridge, the current City Council member who was then running Lowenstein's first primary bid for Congress.
She still remembers the blue beret that Ickes was wearing that night at Granson's Restaurant, an old Lexington Ave. haunt owned by Lowenstein's brother. "He was just a kid who had gotten hurt down South."
Recalls Ickes of that night: "I literally didn't know what an election district was."
He would soon. Ickes became a master at election law and the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.
It was around this time that Ickes also met the young Bill Clinton, when both became involved in Project Purse Strings, an effort to cut funding for the Vietnam War. There were dinners down in the Village, usually with Thomases, and eventually with a young Wellesley College grad named Hillary Rodham.
Partly because he has known the First Lady for so long, many say that he can now speak to her in a way that other, younger advisers probably cannot.
Ickes remains one of about six top advisers to the campaign, which he says consumes roughly 30% of his time. He is a volunteer, although Ickes & Enright as a firm has been reimbursed for some $66,750 in expenses — mostly for travel, phones and office space — as is required by law, records show.
"People have used me to break bad news to her," he concedes without elaboration. "I'd like to think I can give her my best, most candid advice. But having said that, she doesn't always take it, nor should she."
When Ickes first went to work in the White House in 1994, he inherited all the dirty jobs no one wanted: the Whitewater portfolio, health care and eventually the job of raising money for Clinton's 1996 reelection.
It was Ickes who then pioneered the use of soft money to pay for so-called issue ads — those that advocate for a candidate's position but don't explicitly urge viewers to vote a certain way.
The decision remains at the heart of inquiries into alleged campaign finance abuses in 1996 by both Clinton and Vice President Gore, who raised millions of dollars in soft money to finance those ads.
In the years since his stint as President Clinton's scandal manager, Ickes has testified under oath 34 times and responded to another 34 subpoenas for information, all in response to assorted Whitewater and campaign finance inquiries. He has never been charged, much less found guilty, of any crime.
He has, however, paid out more than $300,000 in personal legal bills — the price of doing business in the Clinton White House. He can get a little testy about all the inquiries.
Like the time he walked out of a 1998 deposition by Larry Klayman, head of the anti-Clinton group Judicial Watch, saying that if he didn't leave right away, "I might just soil your rug."
That Ickes now continues to labor for anyone whose last name is Clinton strikes many as astonishing.
But those who know Ickes, however, say that if there is one trait that his detractors always underestimate, it is his loyalty to the people and causes in which he believes.
As his wife, First Amendment lawyer Laura Handman, said: "You ask who he is? I think he's still that kid back in Louisiana, telling his friends to go off while he took the beating. That's who he is, and always will be."