Arkansans Rave About McLarty

But Washington insiders wonder whether chief of staff can play `hardball' politics. TRANSITION IN WASHINGTON

TO know him is to love him. At least that is what Arkansans say about home-grown Thomas (Mack) McLarty, President-elect Clinton's pick for White House chief of staff.

Political operatives, businessmen, even usually acerbic journalists are all enthusiastic about Mr. McLarty's selection. "I just love the guy - he's Arkansas' most popular public figure," says John Brummett, one of the state's leading political commentators and a man not known for doling out praise.

But while popular in Arkansas, McLarty's selection has been questioned by some inside-the-Beltway observers who wonder whether somebody with no federal government experience will be able to manage the White House.

McLarty admits he is no Washington insider, but says his experience in business and politics has made him familiar with the way power is exercised in the nation's capital.

Clinton aides agree. "McLarty's no pushover," says Craig Smith, director of political planning for the Clinton-Gore transition team. Mr. Smith, who left Clinton's gubernatorial staff to run his boss's state-by-state presidential campaign, has seen McLarty in action. "He's analytical and he makes hard decisions" - and those decisions will always be on Clinton's behalf, Smith says.

McLarty moved up the political and business ladders fast in this state. He expanded his family's car leasing business into a big transportation concern, became the youngest member of the Arkansas House of Representatives at age 23, and a few years later was named to the board of directors of Arkla, Inc., a Fortune 500 gas company. He has chaired the firm since 1984. He has also assumed a leadership role in many state charities and has chaired the Arkansas Democratic Party.

Based on his track record, observers here say McLarty will be the polar opposite of John Sununu, the contentious former New Hampshire governor President Bush brought to Washington as his chief of staff.

"Mack will be the chief administrative officer of the White House, with a very limited policy role," Mr. Brummett says. "The public is just not going to be his agenda. Bill [Clinton] is."

Brummet adds that McLarty "has the best chance of lasting a full term [as chief of staff] of anyone in recent history."

If anything cuts short McLarty's reign, Brummett says, it would probably be friction between the chief of staff and first lady Hillary Clinton.

"You could conceivably have a Nancy Reagan-Donald Regan rift, but not based on astrology. Instead, the friction could develop based on Hillary's strength. She gives Clinton a lot of bearing and backbone that Bill doesn't normally have," he says.

But, Brummet adds, the chances of a rift developing are not great. "Mack gets along well with Hillary and that's crucial."

Smith, the political director, predicts that McLarty will be able to hold his own even with the "many strong personalities he will have to contend with on [Clinton's] staff and in his Cabinet."

Besides the Cabinet members already named, a number of other appointees - many with decidedly strong personalities - are expected to be announced by Clinton. Among them are former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros as secretary of housing and urban development; Jesse Brown, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, as secretary of veterans affairs; and former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley (D) as education secretary.

"Everyone will listen to Mack," Smith says. "Even when the perspectives from advisers are in conflict, everyone will feel like they got a fair hearing."

The real value of McLarty, adds Mark Stodola, the prosecuting attorney in Little Rock, is his service to Clinton as a loyal and trusted aide.

"Bill's got to deal with all those people in Washington who are trying to figure out just how to capitalize on a Democratic presidency. And it will be hard to get honest information in that environment," Mr. Stodola says. "There is no question that Mack will provide that."

While many locals here think McLarty will do well as chief of staff, they are also delighted by his selection for more parochial reasons. Many Arkansans hope to make the most out of the access provided by an affable chief of staff.

"I've been excited about a lot of things, but that appointment was the greatest thing that could have happened to the business community of Arkansas," says local businessman Alan White, who owns the $20 million Alan White Furniture Company based in Arkansas. Mr. White's sons, he says, have known "ol' Mack back since their school days together."

Brummett says he would "jump up in the air if I could... Mack's the nicest, most courtly, solicitous fellow you'd want to know."

Arkansans are mostly looking for an ear in Washington, Brummett says. "It's not that he's going to shovel a lot of pork barrel down our way."

Then he smiles and says: "People are happy here because they can say `Hey, it's Mack. We can call him up.' "

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