Ickes: Drop Dead, Fred

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WASHINGTON: The insistent pecking of scandal has produced a rough division of opinion on the inner life of the Clinton White House: It's either devious and corrupt, or just sloppy and confused. Wednesday, almost a year after his somewhat huffy departure from the Clinton team, former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes did his old boss a near impossible (and likely fleeting) favor: He made the White House look good.

Led through the document swamp by Fred Thompson, Ickes was sharp-tongued, occasionally indignant, and always in control. He deflected accusations, dispensed alibis, even the gracefully absorbed Democrat Robert Torricelli's ham-handed attempt at flattery. It was, in short, a competent and assured performance by one of the few members of the Clinton circle who has any credibility left.

Ickes' testimony will hardly clear either Clinton or Gore with the committee. It was salted with memory lapses. But after the Lebanese oilman and the Buddhist monks, a candid line like "I don't ask you to like the ambiance (of his scramble for cash) but I don't think I broke any laws" had to carry a little refreshment, even for Fred Thompson. For Bill Clinton, it must have sounded like music.