Inaugural Outsider

Inaugural Outsider

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 18 1997 3:30 AM

Inaugural Outsider

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       If you're somebody important and you need a last-minute ticket for the inauguration, Harold Ickes Jr. is the man to see. When I dropped in on him at 8 a.m. Friday morning, the outgoing deputy chief of staff had already been in his office for several hours, working over his seating chart for the swearing-in platform. "My basic rule of conventions and inaugurals is: no major ... mistakes," he says. The famously profane Ickes may have an alternate version of his basic rule, but this weekend he's on his best behavior.
       "The ticket thing is really fascinating," he says with a chuckle. "There are a lot of people who just want to come and watch. But there's a whole group of upper-tier people for whom it's basically ego. Who's sitting on the platform? Who has the red ticket? Who has the green ticket? It's amazing how many people on that level get tickets that don't actually use them. But they want to make sure that they have the exact same ticket, or a better ticket, than their contemporaries, so there's a lot of jockeying." Ickes declines to provide specific examples of this kind of behavior.
       There is considerable irony in Ickes' situation as head of the inaugural. Having been unceremoniously dismissed after three years of doggedly loyal service to the president, he is throwing a party for the guy who fired him. When it is put to him in not quite those words, Ickes acknowledges that he feels "some poignancy" in leaving. "There are a lot of considerations that go into putting together a White House staff," he says. "While I think I certainly have the skills to be the chief of staff, the president decided that he wanted somebody else, and that somebody else decided he wanted other people at the very top helping him. That's just the way it goes. I feel no resentment about it."
       That Ickes even wanted to stay is a testament to his relish for political battle. In his three years at the White House, Ickes has seen his name become almost synonymous with Clinton administration scandal. "I literally stepped off the plane on Monday, January 3, and walked in here and [then-White House Chief of Staff] Mack McLarty's first words were, 'We've got a problem here and I want you take charge of it,' " Ickes says.
       His biggest regret about the scandals is not the legal bills or the harm to his reputation, but that they kept him from keeping a White House diary, as his father, FDR's secretary of the Interior Department, did through the New Deal. "There's plenty of paper around," Ickes says. "But what you miss are the nuances--the questions that are asked, the tone of voice, some of the jokes, some of the stories the president tells. Just different situations that somebody like my father noted and wrote religiously in his diary. That is what is going to be missed from this administration. It's going to be missed because of the real concern about having your records subpoenaed."
       When I bring up Dick Morris, an expression of "Don't get me started" crosses Ickes' face. Morris and Ickes have been antagonists since 1968, when they both worked in Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign. "He makes things up," Ickes says of his old rival. "I took a lot of notes during those meetings that are just directly contradictory, but I'm not going to get in a total fight with Dick over it. I had a real sour relationship with him, as is well known. He is very smart, there's no question, but he's like an idiot savant. Everything that's in his head comes out of his mouth, and there's no filter or discretion. It's quite extraordinary." Ickes says he hopes that the book George Stephanopoulos is writing will help to set the historical record straight.
       Asked about the most recent scandal, the Asian money affair, Ickes unsurprisingly downplays its seriousness. "The DNC [Democratic National Committee] did not check and police contributions as well as they should have," he says. "But there was absolutely no corruption, there was no bending of policy for contributions so far as I know--and I know a fair amount." He attributes the trouble to the fact that Asian-Americans are just starting to participate in politics and don't have real connections to the Democratic Party establishment yet. "If Jacob Weisberg gives $20,000 out of New York and our people don't know you, they can get a line on that real fast," he says. "That's not true yet of Asian-Americans because they are newcomers to politics. You're not able to back-channel to see if an unknown name is legitimate and whether they have the sources of income and stuff like that."
       After Tuesday's cleanup, Ickes has one additional assignment: managing the G-7 summit that is scheduled to take place in Denver in June. Other than becoming chief of staff, the job he most coveted was labor secretary, but the difficulty of his getting confirmed ruled him out as a candidate. If nothing else comes along, Ickes may return to his New York law firm. He admits to being in some denial about leaving the White House. "This whole circumstance came about very unexpectedly, and I frankly don't know what I'm going to do," he says. "The shock of recognition hasn't set in yet."

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.