Ex-Clinton aide becomes the first lady's mainstay

Harold Ickes guides her nascent N.Y. Senate candidacy

May 19, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The day the Senate was voting on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, two people widely seen to have been betrayed by him were discussing a future of their own -- one that could thrust them into the national spotlight just as the president faded into retirement.

The pair eating a four-hour lunch that day in the White House residence: the president's wife and the trusted adviser whom he had notoriously fired.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton began to consider a Senate race in New York, former Clinton aide Harold Ickes was the first person she called.

Now the red-haired and rangy Ickes is Clinton's unofficial main man in her unofficial campaign -- a political venture she is considering ever more seriously with regular visits to the state, including one scheduled for Monday.

The two lunch mates have lots in common. Intense political strategists, they share a genuine passion for liberal causes and love a great campaign fight.

And one other thing: unhappy experiences with President Clinton, who is widely seen as having brushed aside the enduring loyalty of each and done them wrong in very public ways.

"Will this be about redemption?" asks longtime Ickes friend Basil Paterson. "Perception-wise, to some people, it will."

The successful Hillary-Harold alliance could be seen as trumping the humiliations of the Clinton years, even offering the opportunity for an odd kind of revenge: Ickes helps the first lady reach for a historic political milestone while her husband awaits history's verdict on his presidency.

What better way to get the last word?

Ickes, 59, rejects the notion that desire for vindication drives him to advise Hillary Clinton. Over fruit salad and tea at Cafe Luna, a restaurant near his Washington office, he points to a far simpler motive: He intimately understands New York politics.

Besides, he says, she asked.

"She's a friend of mine," Ickes said, his New York accent as stiff as a perfect manhattan. He quickly dispenses with the revenge scenario: "You can read all sorts of things into it, but this is not motivated by Ickes having the last laugh in any way, shape or form."

In teaming with Ickes, the first lady is elevating an old friend who learned he was fired by the president when he read it in the Wall Street Journal in November 1996, three days after the re-election that Ickes helped engineer.

For his part, in changing the subject from the Monica Lewinsky affair and guiding Hillary Clinton over New York terrain, Ickes is enhancing the possibility of her personal triumph in a life beyond first lady-dom.

Ickes, who is not paid by Clinton, is everywhere for her.

The two take late-night flights home after his savvily engineered city-suburb-upstate sweeps around New York.

He lashes out in newspapers against likely GOP rival Rudolph W. Giuliani's suggestion that Clinton is a carpetbagger.

He updates lists of roughly 200 New York Democrats for Clinton to consult about her campaign prospects.

He warns her not to take New York voters for granted -- particularly in what polls show is almost a dead heat in a potential race with Giuliani, the mayor of New York.

Ousted without notice

Ickes, who came to the White House in 1994, developed close ties to "Hillaryland" -- as he calls the first lady's domain -- and floated between the his and hers sides of the White House for two years.

In 1996, newly named chief of staff Erskine Bowles refused to work with the famously tempestuous Ickes, and the president promptly axed his friend of nearly 30 years.

In an instant, Ickes -- who had racked up more than $300,000 in legal bills for his alleged role in a variety of Clinton scandals -- was kicked off the president's cloud.

"He's annoyed and she's annoyed and they belong together," concluded one New York Democratic consultant, describing one take on the Hillary-Harold partnership. "It's a perfect relationship because they're both upset with the president of the United States."

Friends say Ickes -- who as a young man took a job as a cowboy -- is simply demonstrating a kind of Lone Ranger loyalty to causes and people that has characterized him for years.

"A friend of mine says Harold Ickes is like Gary Cooper," Paterson said. "He's that lone cowboy in `High Noon,' standing by himself, four-square for what he believes in."

This time, Ickes is lassoing recalcitrant Democrats. When talk of a Senate campaign started flying and New York politicians began insisting Clinton make up her mind quickly, Ickes turned the tables.

"I said, `Should she make up her mind without talking to you?' And they would say, `Oh no, of course not.' " So, they settled down and waited for her call.

Ickes is ready to rumble in New York, having cut his teeth on nasty Upper West Side politics in the 1960s. He works with both stunning brashness (he once bit a fellow campaign staffer in the leg in an argument during a New York mayoral race) and disarming charm ("I was hungry," he says, when asked why).

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