Washington's Other Scandal | frontline online
navigation, see below Interview: Harold Ickes

harold ickes
Long-time labor lawyer and Democratic activist, Ickes served as campaign manager of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign in New York. In 1994, at the President's urging, he joined the Clinton White House as Deputy Chief of Staff. In that position, Ickes served as the primary White House liaison with the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 campaign. Ickes left his White House post on January 20, 1997 to return to private life.

Bill Clinton impressed a lot of people, including yours truly in 1992 with his very strong indictment of the present campaign finance system. Yet, here he is, the President, at the center of the worst fundraising scandal since Richard Nixon in 1974. How did this happen? That's the heart of what we're trying to understand. How did this happen?

We think that we complied with the law. I think the campaign finance situation in this country is in disarray and a disgrace and a mess. I would be the first to concede that.

The system we have now stinks.  It reeks.  It needs to be changed.  There's not the political will to change  because the American public--maybe because of cynicism or maybe because they think this is the way business is done--is not rising up in wrath over [it]. But the question is did we purposely violate the law? The answer is I think no. I'm confident of that. We proceeded with lawyers at every turn.

So the quibble is, and it's a serious quibble, is with the state of the law. The Republicans I think have been adroit in trying to focus the emphasis and trying to make the case that we violated the law, that I do not think we did. Is the system in a mess? Yes, it is.

Well, let's go back to after the Congressional elections in 1994, the Republicans had delivered a crushing blow to the Democrats. Bill Clinton is described, I think in an article about you in The New York Times, as standing in the Oval Office, waiving his hands and screaming at the ceiling. Why did those elections cause that kind of reaction in the President?

I think the most difficult meeting I had with the President was the night of that election when I went over from my office in the west wing to the residence where he was late at night to tell him that we had in fact lost the Congress. He was to put it mildly very, very unhappy.

So he took it personally.

He took it personally. I can understand that.

Had you ever seen him in that agitated a state of mind before?

I have on occasion. The President I characterize him as sort of -- his temper is like a very quick thunder storm in the summer. It flares up. He'll get red in the face. He'll point his finger at you. He's a big man. He's over six feet tall. So there's the impressive aspect of his size as well as his tone of voice and his redness of face. He has very long fingers.

He was down. He was down. He was -- he's not -- he's a half-full, not half-empty guy. He doesn't get depressed. But there's clearly this weight on him. There was open talk among the inside circle that this President is -- maybe his presidency is over.

What role did the ads play in [changing this perception of the President]?

Dick Morris, with whom I have a number of differences with, but who was no fool, advocated early on, that in order to break through and start to make the case about the President and try to resuscitate it, you needed paid advertising in addition to his going around the country speaking.

You needed paid advertising in selected markets. None of us disagreed with this. It was not a genius idea. It was an idea that we all agreed with. The real question was what were the ads going to say? When were they going to start to run? Most critically, how were they going to be paid for?

Our first ads were run in June, late June and early July of 1995. We bought $2.5 million worth of time and ran a crime spot, a spot about crime.

I remember that ad.

The money to finance that ad was paid for by the Clinton/Gore campaign under the Federal Campaign Election Act. The campaign in the general election can only spend a certain amount of money and the primary can only spend a certain amount of money. We can only spend $34 million in the primary campaign. Sounds like a lot of money. It's not a lot of money when you start spreading it out over a long campaign.

I hit the ceiling and raised hell and went directly to the President. I said, this is your campaign. You're the boss. But if we are going to start spending Clinton/Gore campaign money this early, we only have $34 million to spend, we will run short. We don't know what's going to happen coming out of the Republican primary. We don't know how much money they're going to have, when they're going to go on the air. This is foolish beyond belief.

He said, well, is there no other way we can do it?

The deal is, if a President or candidate takes public funds, he accepts certain restrictions on his own ability to raise funds.


There was the argument made by Dick Morris that we should not go under the federal statute because he wanted to raise and spend a huge amount of money on advertising, was afraid that the law would not permit that and urged the President early on not to accept public funds and run outside of the statute.

I, Leon, George and others felt that that would be foolish on the President's part because we'd be beaten over the head by the good government types and the editorial boards and quite rightfully. I'm not being pejorative about that. That it would cause more political harm than good.

Was Morris polling on the subject of taking the public money or not taking the public money?

Yes. We did some polling on that.

What did those results show?

You're taxing a very feeble memory. I think that I would have to go back and look. I think that it was mixed and therefore Dick came in and said, look. The public doesn't give a damn about this.

He says forego public financing.

Yes, just spend it.

Yeah, spend it.

Yeah, just spend it. Yeah. My view is, Bill, is that my experience in politics is that the public doesn't care a great deal about the financing of campaigns. They should because the financing of campaigns in large measure determines who's elected, which in turn determines the laws of the country and the policies of the country.

So they should care, but they don't. Unless you are really violating the law in a very clear way or taking money from a corrupt source, the mob, a huge environmental polluter, or something like that, that a big issue can be made out of, my view is that the public cares very little about this.

Did you disagree with Morris when he said let's just give up public financing and raise all the money we need and spend it?

Yes, I did disagree with him. Because I thought that we did not need the enmity of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, people like you, who would be down the back of our necks saying the President of the United States should set the example and go under the Federal Campaign Finance Act. I argued with Dick about that and the President decided, I think, the better course.

You didn't think that was cynical to say let's take the money and find other ways to raise what we do need and look the other way on the restrictions?

I don't think it's cynical, Bill, as long as it's within the law.

You make your case. The President says I'm going to take the public financing, but we're also going to start running these ads already. What was plan B?

Plan B was -- was there a legal way to run advertisements that would be helpful in the legislative debate and by inference clearly helpful to the President's reelection that was legal? The answer was, yes, there was. It's in the form of the issue ads which could be financed, not solely, but in some measure by soft money.

The key decision was made then in September of 1995 to go forward.

The question was -- could we raise the money that was going to be needed and spent at the rate of roughly a minimum of a million and often ranging up into $1.5 to $1.8 million a week? Week after week after week through the general election.

What did the President say when you told him you'd have to raise, it would cost that much money, $600,000 to a $1.5 million a week to run these ads? What was his reaction?

He said, can we raise it? I said, we can raise it. The only way we can raise it, Mr. President, is if you're going to devote a considerable amount of time and if the Vice President is going to devote a considerable amount of time raising it. He said, I'm willing to do it. I said, let's go.

So he agreed to the advertising campaign and he agreed to the recommendation that he would have to be deeply involved in raising that money.


Himself. He couldn't delegate that.

He was involved.

Did he raise a moral question?

He wanted to know whether it was legal. His order to me was--he didn't have to order me to do this, because that's where I was to begin with--but his order to me was, 'Harold, it's got to be legal.' And it was legal.

Did he say find a way to make it legal?

No, he did not. He said --

So often lawyers will do what their clients --

No, he said that, 'if we can do this, I want to do them. I think it's necessary. But I'm only going to do it if it's legal.' I talked with our lawyers and they came back and said this is what we can do.

I insisted that the lawyers look at every script and every ad, not only the script, but the ad itself after it was cut and before it was sent out to the station.

To make sure.

To make sure that it came within the guidelines.

The guidelines said it could not tout the President's re-election.

You could not tout it. Then the third decision was when do we start running ads? That was the great, that was the third great debate and that was a great debate. Because the issue there was, and that was decided in September, could we raise the money?

Tens of millions of dollars. Tens of millions of dollars you had to raise.

I estimated on my first memo that we would have to raise about $150 million for advertising.

It worked. The polls went like this, didn't they?

The President is still President.

Tell me about the Wednesday night meetings, the meetings where you got together and discussed strategy and talked about the ads. Was the President involved in those meetings?

The President was our best strategist, bar none. I've never seen anybody who can read and absorb a poll and integrate it into the practicalities of the political atmosphere and mix at the time than he. He has a phenomenal memory. He has a great eye for ads.

The President polls, typically the polling results would be presented at those meetings. They would be polling on different issues. He would listen to it. Recommendations would be made. We would sometimes look at different spots.

Did he have comments to make about an ad? Would he say we ought to change this or change that?

He did. I've seen Bill Clinton sit down to cut an ad.

He was very intimately involved in how his communications were going to be designed and structured.

When you made the distinction as to whether this was a Clinton/Gore ad whose funds had to come from the public purse or a Democratic National Committee issue ad which could be paid for with unregulated or soft money, what was the distinction?

You could not expressly advocate the election of the President or the reelection of the President. You could not advocate the defeat of Dole. Now, those are rough terms.

But in the real world, is this a distinction without a difference?

I think from a legal point of view, and I really want to be very clear here, Bill. From a legal point of view, it is a great distinction and a very critical distinction. In the broader sense that I think you're asking that question, probably not.

Several visitors who came to the White House who later made the news, Roger Tamaraz, James Riady, John Huang, what did you think they were doing when you saw them there?

They should never have been at the White House. I have said publicly that as the head of the political operation in the White House that the buck stopped at my door. I was not involved in deciding who came to the coffees. That was basically decided by the DNC. The lists came over. We would look at them. We assumed that the DNC had done a background check. I think they may have assumed that we were going to do some background checks. It's inexcusable. The President had nothing to do with it. His staff served him ill. It should not have happened. But I don't think that the foundations of the Republic are going to crumble.

John Huang fell through the cracks, got in by accident?

No, John Huang, well, let's go back.

He ended up going over to the DNC. He was going there to facilitate outreach to the Asian-American community which the Democrats have always had difficulty with. Also to raise money. We knew why he was going over there. He was going over to help raise money.

There were a lot of people who came to the White House that helped the President raise money. A lot of people have come into every White House that have helped presidents raise money. The White House has been used for those kinds of purposes.

There's no law that says that a fundraiser cannot come into the White House. There's no law that says that just because you gave the President money or intend to give him money, that you can't sleep in the Lincoln bedroom or have coffee with the President.

But the fact of the matter is the Presidency, the Presidency as designed in the constitution is a very complex [institution], I feel almost embarrassed talking to you about it because you've forgotten more about the presidency than I'll ever know. But the fact of the matter is it is a very complex institution. He's the leader of the country. He's the Commander in Chief. To foreign governments, he is the United States. He is also the head of his party.

He is also a candidate for reelection. He has got to raise money for reelection. This is his house. This is where he works out of. All of that seems to have gotten lost in this debate. We seem to have structured this debate so that the presidency is a pure, pristine, constitutional figurehead. Good forbid that he's involved in day-to-day politics. Now, come on.

What did the President mean when he said to you to follow up on it with John Huang?

To follow up on it with John Huang was to make sure that he got moved out of Commerce Department as John had requested and was hired by the DNC.

Was it unusual for the President to take such a focused interest in a single fundraiser?

It was, I would say, unusual. But if you look at the history of this, he and John Huang had known each other. They were on friendly terms. I suspect they may have been on John and Bill terms before he became President. He had known John Huang for a period of time and John had been helpful to him in 1992. So I saw nothing unusual.

Were you aware or did you think that the folks at the Democratic National Committee were in effect selling admission to the White House coffees?

No, I did not.

There's no question that the coffees were designed to stimulate the fundraising apparatus.

Basically, the coffees were get togethers where people came in. Basically, they were money people who had given in the past, who still liked the President, who felt they had gotten out of touch with him. They were brought in, ten or a dozen in a coffee. Nothing about money was discussed. The President talked, as you know, he loves to talk, about his programs. These people went out and afterwards they helped raise money at some large events.

These people went out and gave $26.4 million to the Democratic Party.

There's nothing wrong with that.

That's an average of $50,000 per person.

They were not solicited at the White House. There was not to my knowledge, there was no admission price. Did we know that many of the people that came to the coffees --

I mean, they could have got coffee at Starbucks.

-- were fundraisers? Yes. But there's nothing illegal about that.

I do know that the system we have now stinks. It stinks. It reeks. It needs to be changed.

There's not the political will to change it because the American public I think maybe because of cynicism or maybe because they think this is the way business is done is not rising up in wrath over [it]. Incumbents like the system the way it is. They don't necessarily like it, but they understand it. They don't want to change it because they don't want to know what changes are coming down the pike. So let it stay where it is.

The essence of our democracy is representation. Representation requires access. These people who came to the coffees got more access than people who didn't donate.

Has there ever been a time in the history of the Republic when that was different, Bill?

This arms race today has so escalated the amount of money that it creates a larger gap it seems to me between the haves and the have nots. So that you get a -- Alan Solomont raises more than a million dollars from friends in the nursing home industry, gets a change in the rules that's going to save Solomont and his friends a lot of money. Coincidence? I don't think it's a coincidence, do you?

You said that Bill Clinton identifies with people who have the -- "the short end of the stick." My question is how many of those people at the short end of the stick get invited to those White House coffees? Doesn't that fundamentally change the character of the party and the priorities of the President?

I think that it's a difficult question. The process is a very subtle one. I think there's no question that people are influenced by who they spend their time with. Unfortunately, given the way our political system is set up, our political system is based on private contributions. That's the bedrock of the American political system.

Where do private contributions come from? They can come from small people.

But the large people understand that if they give a contribution of serious magnitude that they will at least get access to make their case. It's not to say that laws are going to be bent, but they will get access to make their case. The person that doesn't make the contribution does not get access to make the case. I agree with that.

Was policy bent illegitimately because of contributions? No, there's been no evidence of that. I have never experienced that in the White House. I've only had three years in the White House. I can only base that on my own personal experience.

The issue of -- are there certain issues that I would hope that the party would address and that the presidential candidate for our party would address in the next election? The inner cities, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor in this country, the continuing disparity....The fact that in this new economy hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are not going to be able to compete effectively. The answer is yes. Is that absent from our dialogue? The answer is yes.

The President has said time and time again, and I believe him, that he wants to see campaign finance reform. He is, however, not prepared to lay down what is available to him if the other sides aren't going to lay down what's available to them. The other side's not prepared to do it.

You do a very good job of defending what I suspect in your heart you find indefensible. That's just --

Well, be a little more, be a little -- what's the word?

I mean, I just don't sense that you find any great satisfaction in having to draw these distinctions and to walk this tightrope and to take public money and to spend this advertising and raise a million dollars to $1.5 million a week. I mean, I can't believe that you really think this is the way we ought to be doing it.

No, I don't. Bill, I'm the first to say the system needs to be changed. I'm also a practical politician. I think that Bill Clinton needed to be re-elected.

There are people who say that he could have exerted more pressure, more muscle on the Congress. I think you have to start with the Congress though, Bill. The Congress has shown time and time again that they are not about to change the system. A President only has so much political capital. You have to make real calculations on how you're going to expend that. I am convinced that Bill Clinton would like to see this rotten system changed. He'd be the first one to advocate change and has advocated it. On the other hand, if you make the calculation that Congress is going to be dead set against you, including your own party, there's only so much political capital you have. You only have a certain amount of time to spend that capital. You have to make judgments about where you're really going to put your muscle. I can't speak for the President. I don't know how much muscle he's put on it. I haven't been in the White House for a long time. I know he has spent some capital on it. You could argue that he should have spent more. I think an equally valid argument can be -- given the attitude of the Congress and given the lethargy of the public that it would have been unwise for him to have spent more political capital than he spent.

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