Ickes Papers Force White House Damage Control

It is a truism in Washington that you shouldn't put anything on paper or on tape - at least if you don't want it to come back to haunt you.

President Nixon learned that the hard way with his Oval Office taping system. So, too, did former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who commissioned the Pentagon Papers, the classified documents detailing US decisionmaking in Vietnam, that eventually ended up as 60-point headlines in newspapers.

Now Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff, is the latest to have his notes and private conversations released for public perusal.

His documents revealing the extent of White House involvement in fund-raising activities in the 1996 campaign don't, on first glance, provide dramatic new evidence of misdeeds by the Clinton administration. But their release continues to grab headlines and make it difficult for the president to get his message out in a city increasingly consumed with scandal.

"They [the Ickes papers] sound very interesting because they have to do with fund-raising and presidential involvement," says Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal, The Crisis of Mistrust in American Politics." But their impact "will depend on the specifics of what else is found," she says.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein agrees there is no smoking gun, yet. "What we're seeing here are editors assigning a lot of reporters to this story, so each time 500 or 1,000 documents are released ... we are getting a lot of nonstories."

What the documents do show is the freneticism and collusion between the White House and Democratic Party in raising money following the sweeping GOP midterm victory in 1994. Of the so-called kaffeeklatsches the president hosted to raise money, one memo indicates each event was projected, and expected, to raise $400,000.

"That was the purpose, you know, to get people in, to talk to them, to get them interested in what the president was trying to do for the country, and then to encourage them to be supportive, including raising money," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said this week, again having to defend the aggressive fund-raising practices.

As with the first release of Mr. Ickes's personal memos and documents in February, this 1,120-page stack, already in the hands of congressional investigators, is adding to the White House's public-relations problems.

As much as anything, the second batch underscores the pressure-chamber atmosphere the Democratic National Committee and the White House operated in. One memo makes clear the party counted on Clinton to raise more than $50 million by attending fund-raising events inside and outside the White House.

Another memo illustrates how heavily the party counted on Clinton and Gore to raise funds. But the memo does not offer any additional insight into whether funds were improperly solicited on White House grounds.

For all the freneticism about the documents, Ickes seems undisturbed about his private note-taking. In a brief encounter near the White House, where reporters were lugging away his once-private conversations, he said: "I have no regret. Whatever it is, it is." Then he walked away.

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