Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

       Harold Ickes returned this morning with his pricey lawyers and a chip on his shoulder the size of Queens. His body language said, “You think I take money from Teamsters thugs, but really I am a Teamsters thug.” You knew it was going to get ugly. You just didn’t know who was going to get slugged, how hard, or when.
       For some reason, the first senator to set Ickes off was the nicest one on the committee: Susan Collins from Maine. Collins asked Ickes about a story that had come up back when Don Fowler testified last month, about an Indian tribe in Michigan that had enlisted the DNC in its efforts to prevent another tribe from competing in the gambling business. According to Collins, political appointees at the Interior Department overruled career appointees, siding with the tribe that contributed big bucks to the DNC.
       The trouble started when Collins asked if a letter sent to Ickes’ White House office from a lobbyist for the tribe refreshed his recollection about the episode. Taking great and sudden umbrage, Ickes said he didn’t like the “implication” of the question. He had no recollection about the matter to refresh. In any case, his office would have done no more than request information from the Interior Department about the status of the decision. When Collins tried to press the issue, Ickes snapped.
       “I hate to interrupt you,” he said.
       “I doubt that,” Collins retorted.
       “No, no. I’m here all day,” he said, turning suddenly gracious.
       Collins tried again, asking whether Ickes had told Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to rule in favor of the DNC-friendly tribe.
       “I don’t know how many of you know Bruce Babbitt,” Ickes responded. “You don’t tell Bruce Babbitt what to do.”
       Apparently frustrated by Ickes’ unwillingness to yield any ground, Collins simply made the point on her own. “I think the conclusion is, clearly, if you don’t like the decision you want from the career types, give enough money to the DNC and you’ll get access to the political appointees.”
       “If you give enough money to Republican senators, you’ll get access,” Ickes shot back.
       The performance amounted to a highly effective one-man good-cop/bad-cop routine. Handled gently, Ickes was all smiles and respect for even the most cloddish senator. Poked in the wrong spot, he revealed a capacity to bring out his inner Mike Tyson. The wiser–or more cowardly–senators, like Pete Domenici and Arlen Specter, were intimidated. They simply threw in the towel, praising the witness as too crafty for them. Ickes returned the compliments. The more foolhardy had at him on a range of issues–the White House coffees, the plot to swap contributions with the Ron Carey faction in the Teamsters, and the skirting of the rules on issue-advocacy ads. Don Nickles survived the swordplay but didn’t land any blows. Bob Smith, who has become convinced, not incorrectly, that everyone in the room is laughing at him, got his head handed to him.
       When he got a pointed question, Ickes responded with an artfully phrased three-part shove of an answer: I don’t remember anything about it; I wouldn’t have done anything wrong; You’ve all played by these rules yourselves. He turned out to be exactly what Republicans feared: too clever to get caught in a lie and too blunt to be accused of hypocrisy. Worst of all, he was unimpressed by them. The atmosphere he created was so pugnacious that, before long, senators and committee lawyers started hammering away at a more promising target: each other.
       What started the melee was the accusation by Alan Baron, the chief Democratic lawyer, that Thompson had intentionally distorted evidence in his questioning of Ickes. Thompson asked the witness about Secret Service records that suggested that an indicted Teamsters official and the two DNC officials who have been charged with orchestrating an illegal money swap had a private meeting with the president in June 1996. Baron noted that this meeting was, in fact, a larger DNC lunch with others present. After Collins got done with her questions, Thompson exploded. “If staff makes another reference to members of this committee in terms of disingenuousness, there’s going to be hell to pay,” he said. In fact, it was his own staff he should have been mad at for setting him up with incomplete information.
       This set the stage for Carl Levin, who touched off a wider fracas by complaining, for the 1,000th time, about the refusal of Republicans to agree to all the subpoenas requested by Democrats. At this, Thompson raged that there was no point in trying to issue more subpoenas when the AFL-CIO and other groups were disregarding ones that had already been issued. At that point, Glenn waded in, complaining that Thompson had been unfair to the Democrats from the start. Glenn wanted a bipartisan inquiry like the Watergate or Iran-Contra hearings, but Thompson had never been interested in that. Thompson said he didn’t want to go through the history of their early arguments but would if Glenn insisted.
       “I didn’t start it,” snapped Glenn.
       “I didn’t either,” barked Thompson.
       There was more elevated banter of this sort. “In the beginning, when all this was breaking, I said that if you would help me on the first phase–the unprecedented array of illegalities–I would help you,” Thompson said. “You have a problem with my helping you. I have a problem with you helping me. Therein lies the tale.”
       Glenn said that with help like he’d got, he didn’t need anyone trying to stop him.
       Thompson, pouring out a long accumulation of frustration with Glenn, was by this time truly wound up. “I kept reaching out to you time and time again,” he said. He then complained about the AFL-CIO ignoring the committee’s subpoenas–suggesting that the Democrats had sanctioned it. With a Dec. 31 deadline that Glenn and others demanded for the investigation, there was no time to go to court to enforce the subpoena.
       “That’s your problem,” said Glenn.
       The chairman couldn’t resist one more stab. “When you were insisting on a deadline, did it occur to you that we wouldn’t be able to enforce the subpoenas?”
       “Nope,” said Glenn.
       For Glenn, this was a rare moment of partisan candor, no doubt inspired by the infectious bluntness of Harold Ickes. For Thompson, too, it was an unusually honest expression–a venting of the frustration he has tried to keep private, that his hearings have never been given a chance to succeed.