Harold Ickes, Riding The Storm

April 23, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a White House said to be suffering from too much Arkansas and not enough Inside the Beltway, a would-be cowboy from Olney is laboring days and nights to keep the Clinton administration on course.

Harold Ickes, White House deputy chief of staff since the first of this year, has on his plate three of the most critical issues facing President Clinton: Whitewater, health care reform and keeping Congress manageably Democratic in this fall's elections.

In addition to keeping his eyes and ears open on the latest Whitewater developments -- and his mouth shut -- Mr. Ickes, 54, is focused on getting Mr. Clinton's health care message out to the country and to Capitol Hill, and planning the involvement of the president and subordinates in the November congressional campaign.

Mr. Ickes has been a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton's since 1972, when he met the future president as a colleague in Project Pursestrings, an unsuccessful campaign to end the American role in the Vietnam War by cutting off its funding. Still, Mr. Ickes has taken a roundabout route to the White House inner circle.

Although he is the namesake son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's interior secretary, and attended Sidwell Friends /^ School in Washington, Mr. Ickes says he gave little thought in his formative years to a career in politics and government.

Although he was raised in a Democratic household, he says, he was more interested in livestock than in political horse races.

Born on the family farm in Olney in 1939, young Ickes wanted nothing so much as to become a cowboy. He is the least likely-looking cowpoke -- thin, gentle of face and manner and quiet of voice, with a receding hairline. But as a boy he milked cows, drove a tractor and performed the other usual farm chores in Olney.

He worked several summers on cattle ranches in the West, went to the University of Arizona in Tucson for a year, and finished at Stanford, where his political career began quite apart from the legacy of his famous father. He went to Columbia for his law degree.

While he was at Stanford, one assistant dean was was the late Allard Lowenstein. He was the frenetic New York liberal later known as "the man who dumped Lyndon Johnson" in 1968 by recruiting Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota to challenge Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in his famous "children's crusade" against the Vietnam War.

Lowenstein was recruiting students to go to Mississippi to register black voters, and Mr. Ickes was in Vicksburg in 1964 in the start of what was to be a long career in civil rights and other liberal causes. There, he worked for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white regular party delegation at the national convention in Atlantic City.

The next summer, in Tallulah, La., where he worked for the Congress of Racial Equality, Mr. Ickes encountered first-hand the racial hatred and violence that marked the civil rights movement of those days.

"I was with this group of blacks, and we were heading out past a sawmill," he recalls, "and a group of white guys stopped us with guns. I told the blacks to get out of there because I was very afraid they were going to get hurt. They went back to town to get help. The white guys beat me, and I lost a kidney as a result of it later that year."

In 1968, Mr. Ickes was involved in the McCarthy campaign, as he has been in every Democratic presidential campaign thereafter. In 1992, he was national convention manager for Mr. Clinton.

Of all the candidates he has worked for, the only winner was Mr. Clinton. The New York convention proved such a unifying force for the party and a triumph for Mr. Clinton that Mr. Ickes says the nominee asked him to run his fall campaign. He declined, citing business pressures.

After Mr. Clinton's election, Mr. Ickes joined the transition team and was in line to become White House deputy chief of staff, when stories broke in New York alleging links between his law firm and Mob connections. His prospective selection was shelved for a year. Once he and the firm were cleared of the allegations, he was brought to the White House, ostensibly to oversee the health care reform fight.

The Whitewater affair was mushrooming in the media at the time. He spent much of his time coping with political aspects of the case until the appointment of a special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., by Attorney General Janet Reno.

Mr. Ickes continues to oversee the matter, with John Podesta keeping track of developments and reporting to him. Mr. Ickes was among the White House aides subpoenaed before a grand jury by Mr. Fiske in connection with White House conversations with Treasury regulatory officials regarding Whitewater.

Now, Mr. Ickes is focusing on rallying support for health care reform, working closely with Hillary Rodham Clinton, White House legislative liaison Pat Griffin and Ira Magaziner, a leading conceptualizer of the plan.

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