10/07/97 - 11:57 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Thompson bashes White House over tapes

WASHINGTON - Dramatic political theater had been expected Tuesday at the Senate hearings on campaign fund-raising.

Harold Ickes, the point man for Clinton-Gore fund-raising strategy in 1996, would at last give senators the opportunity to fire tough questions at someone who knew how the money was raised and spent.

There was drama, but not from Ickes. He was upstaged by a fusillade of criticism by committee Chairman Fred Thompson, who challenged President Clinton to "step up to the plate" and help produce the answers that have eluded the Governmental Affairs Committee since its hearing started in July.

Waiting in the wings to counter three days of embarrassing disclosures was a new player, White House lawyer Charles Ruff. But he never got on stage.

Even for Capitol Hill, it was not politics as usual.

Republicans, still seething over the White House's surprise disclosure of 44 fund-raising videotapes last week, lambasted President Clinton for what they said was a pattern of obstruction and obfuscation in answering requests for information about his fund-raising. Some demanded that Attorney General Janet Reno be fired for failing to aggressively pursue allegations of improper fund-raising.

No Democrats on the committee spoke to defend the White House. But they accused their GOP colleagues of attacking Reno for a headline.

The trigger for the tempers was the emergence of the coffee videotapes.

Thompson said Clinton had unfairly put Reno on the hot seat by failing to fully cooperate with her investigators.

"This should not be about the attorney general. She should not be put in the place, in a situation, where her reputation is in jeopardy," he said.

"Mr. President, this is your campaign, these were your supporters, your friends. This is your White House, this is your Department of Justice. Much of this money that was raised, illegal money, was for your campaign, for your re-election. And these are your tapes and you have a responsibility," Thompson said in his strongest public criticism of Clinton to date.

In unusually biting tones, Thompson said that the "White House is trying to run out the clock on this committee." Its mandate to examine the 1996 elections expires Dec. 31.

"People leave the country, documents are destroyed, defenses are getting together and the evidence gets cold," Thompson said.

He said there is a "clear pattern of delay, foot-dragging and concealment . . . by the same people who are here every day to put the spin on what has happened in this room."

In an attempt to deflate the furor, the White House dispatched Ruff, its top in-house lawyer, to the Senate hearing to say there was no coverup.

Earlier Tuesday, the White House had called Sen. John Glenn, ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, to tell him Ruff would be in the audience. It was the first time Ruff had been at a the committee's proceedings.

At his first chance, Glenn suggested having Ruff take the witness stand to answer questions about the tapes. Other Democrats seconded the suggestion.

Thompson wouldn't have it.

"This is not a cocktail lounge where you can wander in, take a seat at the bar and tell your story to a bartender," Thompson said. "Usually the minions are sent up to distribute the propaganda, and now the top man is here, so we're making progress."

By this time Ickes was sitting at the witness table, only to hear Thompson abruptly recess the hearing. "If this is a bar," Ickes joked, "where are the drinks?"

When the committee reconvened later in the day, Ickes told senators that he had encouraged Clinton and Vice President Gore to use the White House to help the Democrats raise money. Their practices were all legal, he said.

"To raise the funds to stay competitive, it was necessary and appropriate to involve the president and vice president in fund-raising activities," Ickes said. "I so advised them, and I have no regret."

Ickes will return to the committee today to be questioned. And more fireworks are expected.

By Tom Squitieri , USA TODAY

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.