Next White House chief of staff is an affable pragmatist

January 03, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

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.

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