Clinton's Top Aide: A Banker to Watch

Article excerpt

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Retired banker William Bowen arrived home from a cruise vacation one day last September to find a message from the governor's mansion. Within an hour, he had agreed to serve as chief of staff to Gov. Bill Clinton.

It was the beginning of a much different life than the one he had known as chairman and chief executive officer of First Commercial Corp., a $2.3 billion-asset bank holding company here.

Part of the Inner Circle

But the 68-year-old banker is adapting so quickly that observers of Arkansas politics say he is an obvious candidate for a Washington post should Mr. Clinton win the presidency in the fall.

Mr. Bowen is hardly the only banker in the state backing Mr. Clinton's presidential bid. After a decade in power, Mr. Clinton has built support among Arkansas business leaders, including top officers at Worthen Trust Co.

Mr. Bowen has known the governor sicne 1974, when he backed Mr. Clinton's unsuccessful bid for Congress. The two men grew close over the years. Mr. Bowen advised the governor on banking issues and raised money for his campaigns.

His retirement from the bank in 1990 came at just the right time for Mr. Clinton, who needed someone to help mind the statehouse while he campaigns.

"He's a businessman, and the governor was anxious to have a businessman in that office," said Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a friend of both men. "He's also unquestionably loyal to, and a part of the Clinton political family."

Mr. Bowen is a gracious and courtly man, with thinning gray hair and flinty blue eyes. Those who know him say he arouses strong feelings in people - not always favorable ones.

"People either love him or hate him," said a banker who has known him for years. "He is tenacious and he can be manipulative."

Admiration Is Mutual

"He can be very personable and diplomatic," said Mr. Tucker. "But he can also be mean as a snake. He's a capable trial lawyer and a ferocious competitor."

Friends of the two say the bond between Mr. Bowen and Mr. Clinton is deep. One banker recalls the governor saying the was "crazy" about Mr. Bowen.

Mr. Bowen, in turn, said he was attracted to Mr. Clinton immediately. "His education is uncommon, and he obviously was very bright," he recalled of his first meeting with Mr. Clinton.

"I was very plased for the state that we had that kind of talent interested in public service."

His admiration for Mr. Clinton increased in 1979 when he was an officer in the state bankers association and Mr. Clinton was a first-term governor. Interest rates had begun to spiral upward, and Arkansas had a provision in its constitution, dating from Reconstruction, that flatly prohibited interest rates above 10%. A federal preemption was in place, but it was due to expire in three years.

An Unpopular Stand

"We were at a state bankers' association convention, and I remember, there was Bill Clinton, bravely out front, endorsing a modification of the state usury ceiling," Mr. …