Next White House chief of staff is an affable pragmatist

LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty is such a down-to-earth guy he doesn't even like to fly.

About to assume a job where he'll undoubtedly find himself above the clouds from time to time, he's already thought about how he'll handle the helicopter rides to and from the White House lawn should he need to accompany the president on such trips.


"If I can see the ground, I'll be OK," says the fifth-generation Arkansan about to become chief of staff in the Clinton White House. "I just hope it's a smooth ride."

President-elect Bill Clinton, in turn, is relying on Mr. McLarty, who's been his buddy since childhood, for a smooth ride through the next four years.


Mack McLarty, 46, is not only Mr. Clinton's oldest friend, he's his touchstone with what the successful Little Rock businessman calls "the real world."

During a presidential campaign that took Mr. Clinton from supermarket tabloids to MTV, Mr. McLarty provided a periodic reality check.

Every two weeks or so, the man in the national spotlight would check in with the man back home for a "pragmatic, common-sense view," says Mr. McLarty.

"He'd say, 'How are we doing?' 'Do you think this is a problem?' 'Am I responding aggressively enough?' "

Now, the courtly gentleman with the wholesome good looks and easy smile will dole out his common-sense counsel in a formal capacity as chief gatekeeper, organizer and confidant to a man he's known since his days at Miss Mary's Kindergarten in Hope, Ark.

In recent years, the chief of staff has become one of the most powerful players in Washington, often shaping the president's agenda and influencing nearly every major decision.

Mr. McLarty downplays the power he will wield, insisting that his role will be to supervise the White House staff and manage the president's time rather than determine policy.

One of Arkansas' business success stories, Mr. McLarty -- until recently chairman and chief executive officer of Arkla Inc., the nation's third largest natural gas distributor -- is so well-liked in his home state that a local newspaper called him "our real favorite son," noting that he, unlike Mr. Clinton, has never lived anywhere else.


The nicest guy you'll ever meet, say the locals. "He's just Mr. Perfect. He never has a damn hair out of place," Elaine Dumas, a Little Rock educator, says with much affection.

The mild-mannered multimillionaire, who built his family's auto dealership into a major leasing operation, doesn't just shake your hand. He holds onto it for a moment or two. He remembers names. He returns phone calls.

"He doesn't smile ALL the time, but he always remains a gentleman," says his best friend, Little Rock lawyer Wayne Cranford. "I've never heard him use an expletive in business."

As Mr. McLarty himself concedes, he has a distinctly un-Washington manner.

"I try to be considerate of others -- which may not be the way Washington works," he says in an interview.

"But this was a different type of campaign. The people of this country have said that they want change."


The businessman

He sees himself, in his new role, as Mr. Clinton's Filofax, the guy who'll keep the information flowing, the staff organized, the president focused.

Indeed, he's known in town as Mr. Daytimer, a highly disciplined manager who makes lists, keeps an immaculate desk and tight schedule and prides himself on efficiency.

"In the 26 years I've been in business, he's the only man I've ever had who brings his work in and reads something pertaining to work while he's getting a haircut," says Roy Sullivan, his barber of 18 years. "He's one of those workaholics."

While this alone would recommend him for a career in Washington, some have criticized the appointment of such an outsider to such a brutal and high-ranking White House position, and have suggested he may not be tough enough to survive the place.

"I don't quite accept that," says Mr. McLarty. "I don't think you can be in business 25 years and not be faced with difficult decisions. That doesn't mean that you enjoy making them."


His tenure at Arkla, the Shreveport, La.-based company he joined in 1979 and has led as chairman since 1985, has not been without confrontations -- everything from lawsuits to consumer groups picketing in the lobby.

Noting Mr. McLarty's brand of polite aggression, David Wannemacher, a Little Rock publisher and former business reporter, once described him as a guy who could "step on somebody's shoes without ruining the shine."

"Anyone who thinks Mack McLarty is a patsy better think again," agrees Little Rock lawyer Henry Hodges, Mr. McLarty's roommate at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. "He's a tough customer when he wants to be."

Still, he's received mixed reviews as the utility chief. While he turned the small, statewide gas company into a giant Fortune 500 firm with 7,500 employees and customers in nine states, he leaves the company saddled with debt and a stock that sells at half its 1984 price.

Critics say Mr. McLarty overextended the company, noting that he racked up $2.3 billion in debt. In November, Arkla was forced to sell its exploration subsidiary as part of a $700 million cost-cutting program.

But admirers say Mr. McLarty steered the company through a difficult period of deregulation, falling gas prices and reduced sales because of mild winters, and also inherited bad deals made by his predecessors.


The politician

Personal friends with more than a dozen members of Congress, Mr. McLarty is much less of a political outsider than people think, says Skip Rutherford, his longtime aide at Arkla and former administrative assistant to Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, one of those close friends.

Ironically, young Mack McLarty -- whose family owned the Ford dealership in Hope and was one of the wealthiest clans in town -- was the kid everyone in Arkansas assumed would go on to become governor one day.

At 16, he was elected governor of Boy's State in Arkansas, the same year his pal Bill Clinton became a delegate to the larger assembly in Washington. And in college, where he was student body president, an all-state quarterback, and rush chairman for the Sigma Chi house, everyone called him "Governor."

Soon after college where he met his wife, Donna Kay (he graduated second from the undergraduate business school; she was No. 1), he won a seat in the Arkansas Legislature in 1969 becoming, at 23, the youngest state representative in Arkansas' history.

But his father's health began to fail, the family business was expanding and his first son was born. So after serving one term in the Legislature, he returned to Hope to help run the family auto business, eventually developing it into one of the top vehicle-leasing companies in the country with revenues of $150 million.


But through the years, he's never strayed far from politics, serving as head of the Democratic Party in Arkansas and also as treasurer for Mr. Pryor's 1974 gubernatorial run and Mr. Clinton's later gubernatorial campaigns.

Both he and his wife, who have two sons, Franklin, a senior at Central High in Little Rock, and Mark, a sophomore at Georgetown University, have worked closely with Hillary Clinton on education issues in the state. In fact, many believe Mrs. Clinton was largely responsible for the McLarty appointment.

"I don't think there's any doubt that Hillary has been a friend, supporter and advocate of mine," says Mr. McLarty.

The friend

Those close to the two boys from Hope say they share a fierce drive and ambition and a gregarious nature, but at the same time, are different as night and day -- literally.

Mr. Clinton is a night owl; Mr. McLarty, a morning person. "I'm learning to be both," he jokes, during a 7:30 a.m. interview.


The president-elect jogs. The chief-of-staff-designate walks.

Mr. McLarty wouldn't dare go out in jeans and a T-shirt. Mr. Clinton has been seen in attire less formal.

"Their styles are not the same," says Dick Herget, vice chairman of Rebsamen Insurance and a friend of both men. "Mack is an organization, detail-oriented business person. Bill is the consummate political animal. Mack is to a certain degree shy. There is a reserve about him that Bill Clinton doesn't have any semblance of."

But there is a bond that goes back four decades to a house on Main Street. "Mack can walk in and make eye contact with Bill, and they'll know exactly what each other is thinking," says Mr. Rutherford.

Still, no one was perhaps more surprised at Mr. Clinton's selection for chief of staff than Mr. McLarty himself, who thought he might be tapped for energy or commerce secretary if anything.

As is his way, he spent 10 days deciding whether or not to accept the post after Mr. Clinton asked him, on the day after the election, if he would serve.


"It's difficult not to respond to a genuine request of a 40-year friend when he's asking for help," says Mr. McLarty. "And it's difficult not to accept responsibility that the president-elect asks you to accept."

Since his formal nomination just over two weeks ago, Mr. McLarty has been reading books and listening to tapes about the job he's about to take on, including such subjects as, "what happens if the president is shot."

He says he's been comforted to learn that, as he suspected, "The job is not defined. It's tailored to the style of the president."

He's also been talking to a number of past chiefs of staff, among them James A. Baker III, Howard Baker and Hamilton Jordan, hoping to pick up a pointer or two on what they did right and what they did wrong.

He hopes to meet shortly with John Sununu, the prickly former Bush chief-of-staff who ran into trouble for using government planes for personal business.

Those who know Mr. McLarty say that's one lesson he doesn't need to learn. Says Mr. Rutherford, who's been by the side of the white-knuckled flier on many a trip, "I don't think you'll be hearing about Air McLarty."