WHEN THOMAS "MACK" McLARTY 3d was growing up in Hope, Ark., his future looked just about perfect. Son of one of the richest men in town, hardworking and athletic, McLarty seemed destined for greatness. His friend Billy Blythe's prospects were less clear. Fatherless and poor, Billy had a playful, happy-go-lucky way about him and a tendency to get into mischief. But sometimes appearances are deceptive. Little Billy Blythe grew up to be Bill Clinton. "The funny thing is, years ago people would have said Mack was going to be President someday, not Bill," says Little Rock lawyer Joe Purvis, who attended Miss Marie's kindergarten class with both. "Mack's just one of those guys who gives off an aura. He has charisma."

McLarty may not be the President, but he hasn't done all that badly. First, he turned the familly business into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, then he became CEO of Arkla Inc., a FORTUNE 500 natural gas company. Now he's made it to the White House after all. One of Clinton's first moves was to appoint his oldest friend chief of staff. For Clinton, loyalty goes a long way—but personal history goes further. In an administration populated with FOBs (Friends of Bill), McLarty is the only staffer who can tell stories about playing posse in the school yard with the boss at age 5. "My devotion to him goes deep," says McLarty, 46. "Lifelong friendships are very special."

The question worrying Washington insiders is whether the soft-spoken "Mack the Nice" has what it takes to navigate the shark pit of politics. A devout Methodist who rarely drinks, McLarty is enormously self-effacing, deferring to Clinton in his conversation and in his actions. But despite his polite manner, he has brought a forceful corporate management style to the meetings with the mostly young and casual Clinton staffers. His efficiency is legendary: He fills up every hour in his daily calendar. (Years ago one Little Rock businessman who caught a glimpse of it saw that one 7 p.m. entry read "Play with Mark [McLarty's elder son].") And his courtesy is sometimes misleading. According to White House communications director George Stephanopoulos, "When he makes a suggestion in his courtly way, it would be foolish not to equate that with an order."

After all, he has the inside track. McLarty's corner office is just down the hall from the Oval Office, and he meets with Clinton every morning at 8:45. "Along with Mrs. Clinton, he's the President's first and last slop," Stephanopoulos says. McLarty is more modest. "I have been trying to stay focused on priorities," he explains.

To that end, his early actions included notifying Zoë Baird that she was no longer the President's choice to be Attorney General, helping soothe tensions over the controversy about gays in the military and managing White House staff cuts. As one of the few members of Clinton's inner circle with corporate experience, McLarty has also been meeting with business executives to enlist support for the President's economic agenda. But most of all, says McLarty, using one of his favorite words, he is working to foster a spirit of "teamwork" at the White House.

McLarty has always been a team player. The son of Thomas "Frank" MeLarty Jr., who ran Hope's Ford dealership, and his wife, Helen, Mack McLarty was, according to one of his elementary school teachers, Dorothy Moore, "on the verge of being perfect. He studied. He paid attention. He was a delight." A 5'7" quarterback on his high school football team, he went on to be elected student body president at the University of Arkansas. After he graduated in 1968, he went into politics, getting elected to the state legislature at age 23. He quit after one term so he could spend more time with his family: his wife, Donna, now 46, whom he met in college, and their two sons, Mark, 21, a sophomore at Georgetown, and Franklin. 18. a high school senior finishing out the school year in Little Rock.

The death of McLarty's father in 1977 was a turning point for him. According to Little Rock accountant Richard McDowell, another member of that now famous kindergarten class, "His dad was always standing in the eaves to rely on. [When he died,] Mack said to me, 'I don't know if I'm ready to take this over myself.' " He built the car dealership into a prosperous leasing business, then left in 1979 to work full time at Arkla, where he became chairman in 1985. McLarty also campaigned and raised money for Clinton's six gubernatorial campaigns. Wife Donna worked with Hilary Rodham Clinton on issues that included the reform of the Arkansas juvenile justice system.

Since he moved to Washington in January, McLarty has had little time for the things he likes best: long walks, going to the movies and, most of all, spending time with his wife. To set an example, he and other staffers are taking pay cuts (and at some $125,000 he earns considerably less than his $487,000 Arkla salary). But that is not the only way he has demonstrated a remarkable sense of restraint. He even calls his old friend Mr. President—at least when they are working, which is almost always. "There are people who try desperately to show their power and proximity to the President," says Clinton consultant Paul Begala. "Mack doesn't need to do that. When the President is a guy you ate paste with in kindergarten, you can be secure."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
NINA BURLEIGH in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Burleigh.