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Harold Ickes: A Presidential Adviser Scorned?

Eeek! A Pack Rat On The Loose

By Michael Duffy

TIME, March 10 -- No one who knows Harold Ickes was surprised to learn that he walked out of the White House in January with thousands of documents. In a White House where files have a way of getting lost in closets, Ickes was the compulsive pack rat, a man known for keeping Eugene McCarthy campaign records in his basement. One friend, when told last week that Ickes left with at least 2,400 pages, said only, "Uh...is that all?"

No, as it turns out, that isn't all. Ickes was also carrying something of a grudge--but was it grudge enough to engage in political payback? Apparently. That's what some concluded last week after watching the man whom Clinton very publicly dumped after the election hand over volumes of paper to Republican investigators on Capitol Hill. And the chivalrous tone of his rhetoric--"It was an honor to work for him, and it is still an honor to work for him," he told the Washington Post--protests a bit too much, laying bare some wounded pride. But the former deputy chief of staff says his cooperation with Representative Dan Burton's Government Reform and Oversight Committee is not retribution but common sense: he believes it would be easier--and cheaper--to comply with a request for documents than pay his lawyer to cope with a subpoena. That's a plausible explanation from a patrician tightwad who hates to spend money (he sends his old suits out to be rewoven rather than buy new ones). In any case, Ickes draws a line between his treatment by the President and everyone else at the White House. Clinton tried to give Ickes the old desk used by his father, who was F.D.R.'s Interior Secretary, but couldn't because it was public property. More important, the President worked hard to find Ickes a job after the State Department became worried he was radioactive. (He now works out of a Washington lobbying firm on the upcoming Group of Seven summit.) "If my purpose was to sandbag the President," Ickes told TIME, "I would have put on rubber gloves, put the document inside a plain brown envelope, tied a rock to it and thrown it through the window of a news organization."

Besides, Ickes may have good reason to limit his legal exposure in the fund-raising mess. One of the most damaging documents in his trove was the one he reportedly faxed to a Florida businessman listing accounts to which more than $1 million could be wired, including three nonprofit groups and the Democratic National Committee. Although he could engage in political activities, Ickes was barred, like all other federal employees, from soliciting contributions. The fax reads more like an order than a solicitation, but even Ickes told the New York Times the memo was "just blind-pig stupid."

There are lots of wrinkles to the Ickes tale. Like his father, another compulsive note taker, he's learning just how cold Washington can be when the mighty fall. (Harold Sr. resigned when he found himself on the wrong side of his boss Harry Truman.) But the real irony of Ickes' story is that he is the first casualty of a fund-raising machine whose very creation he opposed. It was Dick Morris, the consultant turned million-dollar author, who pushed Clinton in 1995 to make his comeback with a centrist, ad-driven strategy that would require truckloads of cash. Ickes, almost alone in the West Wing, fought the scheme. Yet when he lost the argument, Ickes executed it to the letter, keeping fund raisers on schedule in memo after memo written in a tiny, pinched scrawl. Clinton has shooed away both men. But while Morris has begun his comeback, Ickes remains in limbo.

--With reporting by Michael Weisskopf/Washington

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