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Governor Bowen.

Banker, Lawyer, Politician: The Three Lives Of Bill Bowen, Bill Clinton's Chief Of Staff

Before a visitor can leave Bill Bowen's office at the state Capitol, Bowen teases him with a cup of coffee.

"You know, Carolyn is known for making the best coffee in North America," he says, smiling that easy smile and pouring an extra cup.

As usual, it's hard to say no to Bill Bowen.

Bowen also takes a late-afternoon coffee break. He needs to keep alert for an evening civic club speech.

The svelte, white-haired Bowen, 68, was named Gov. Bill Clinton's chief of staff in September.

Many find this latest endeavor by the former chairman and chief executive officer of Little Rock's First Commercial Corp. intriguing. They see Bowen's new position as the perfect steppingstone for a gubernatorial run.

Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker is the obvious front-runner for the 1994 governor's race. Just months ago, Tucker was considered the heir apparent to Clinton.

But Bowen, with his thousands of contacts in the banking and legal communities, would have no trouble raising the funds needed for a competitive statewide campaign.

A Tucker-Bowen Democratic primary race could draw national attention.

Two years removed from any of that, Bill Bowen again smiles his fatherly smile.

Will he run?

"No," Bowen says. "Never say never. But the answer is no."

Jim Keet, a Little Rock businessman and Republican politician, says he recently spoke with Bowen about the possibility of a race. Keet had thought a Bowen-Tucker race was probable.

Now, he's not sure.

"I don't think he's going to do it," says Keet, defeated by Ray Thornton in the race for the 2nd District congressional seat last year. "In his words, his wife would leave him if he even contemplated it."

But, if he did ...

"Bowen's administrative acumen and national connections in every segment of the economy, from manufacturing to the service industry, would provide Arkansas with needed contacts," Keet says. "He is well-respected, a hardball player with a heart.

"... The likelihood of him running may not be good, but I think he would be an excellent candidate."

Who's Minding The Store?

Of course, there are those who say Bowen is running the show already.

With Clinton crisscrossing the country in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, who is in charge at the Capitol?


Indeed, some in state government refer to him as Gov. Bowen.

Or is Tucker governor, as the state constitution says he is when Clinton is outside Arkansas?

"The governor's absence has caused a power vacuum," one longtime political observer says. "How much of that is being filled by Jim Guy Tucker and how much by Bill Bowen, who knows?"

Not surprisingly, Bowen downplays his role.

"I just express myself and do what I'm told to do," Bowen says.

He says communication between Tucker and Clinton's staff has been excellent.

"Jim Guy and I have parallel views of almost everything," says Bowen, who has left Clinton's staff intact since coming aboard.

Tucker points to a 20-year relationship with Bowen and similar legal and business backgrounds. He says those backgrounds have "provided a common bond ... that might not have been there with someone whose background is purely political."

Bowen says of Tucker, "I'm his chief of staff, and my duty to him as acting governor is to see that the staff is responsive and the information flow open and accurate."

Although he had a "cup of coffee" with Little Rock-based Environmental Systems Co., joining the Ensco board for less than two months, Bowen mostly was enjoying retirement from a 20-year banking career when Clinton called.

Perhaps "enjoying" is an inappropriate description.

An avid tennis player, Bowen tired of filling time on the courts following his resignation from First Commercial at the end of 1990.

"Playing tennis and taking time off is really fun and constructive when you're taking time off from something," Bowen says. "In my limited experience with retirement, it wasn't fun.

"I like to be committed and engaged."

Clinton's call came in mid-August.

Career No. 3 was hatched--from lawyer to banker to politico.

Actually, it is career No. 4.

Bowen was a Naval fighter pilot between attending Henderson State University at Arkadelphia and law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Just Ask Bowen

First and foremost, Bowen is a lawyer.

After leaving New York University in 1952, Bowen worked for the U.S. Tax Court (an administrative body within the Department of the Treasury) and the Department of Justice in Washington before joining the Little Rock law firm Mehaffy Smith & Williams (now Friday Eldredge & Clark).

Back in Arkansas, Bowen found himself handling the legal chores for various banks. He organized a bank in Gillett. He represented Little Rock banks that successfully opposed the granting of a charter for a new bank to be called Capital National.

In 1964, Bowen was named general counsel for the Arkansas Bankers Association, an appointment that changed his career.

"When I took that retainer, it involved my getting acquainted with almost every senior banker in Arkansas," Bowen says.

Those senior bankers had pull. By 1971, Bowen was president of Little Rock's Commercial National Bank. The exact date was Friday, Jan. 27, 1971.

Just ask Bowen.

He has an uncanny ability to remember dates.

"My wife says it is because nobody cares," Bowen says with a laugh. "They don't challenge me, and I might be wrong half the time."

Bowen remembers another date -- July 31, 1983.

On that date, he became chairman of the new First Commercial Bank, the result of a merger of Commercial National and First National Bank of Little Rock.

First Commercial was born following 14 months of intense negotiations, during which Bowen fought off challenges by what is now Worthen National Bank of Arkansas, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the Justice Department.

The powerful Stephens family of Little Rock also jumped into the battle, hoping to purchase the merged bank. They ended up with a sizable share of Worthen Banking Corp. instead.

"There were some intense negotiations," Bowen says. "There were some feelings |hard?~, largely expressed on their side, never expressed on our side. After |the Stephens~ withdrew, it was done and behind us as far as I was concerned. When they acquired control of Worthen ... that put us in a competitive confrontation."

First Commercial and Worthen are the state's two largest banks.

When Bowen announced his retirement from First Commercial, the company was on the verge of becoming Arkansas' largest bank-holding operation in terms of assets.

Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson came out of retirement in 1983 to assist Bowen in merging Commercial National and First National. Vinson was not surprised when Bowen stepped down at the end of last year.

Neither was he surprised when Bowen came out of retirement to run the governor's office.

"He's a practical politician," Vinson says. "He understands the objective and the job as well as anybody Governor Clinton could have brought in."

Political Background

Banker to politician?

Is this "window dressing," as one analyst called Bowen's appointment to the Ensco board?

Most Bowen associates say no. Bowen as always has been politically active, they say. They note:

* In 1987, Bowen was appointed Arkansas campaign finance chairman for the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

* In 1988, he co-chaired a campaign advocating passage of a constitutional amendment on judicial discipline.

* In 1990, he was a spokesman for Citizens Against Legalized Lottery.

* In the 1970s, he was part of a team then Gov. Dale Bumpers sent to eastern Arkansas to help solve racial problems.

* In 1976, he became a financial supporter of Clinton when Clinton ran successfully for attorney general.

"He has been involved ... for a couple of decades," Keet says.

Tom Steves, one of Bowen's former co-workers, says Bowen always has been involved in "quasi-political civic matters."

Like other Bowen friends and associates, Steves has a fierce loyalty to the former banker.

"I would not speculate |on Bowen's future~," says Steves, a vice president at the Little Rock advertising agency Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods. "But I would vote for the man no matter what."

"If Bill Bowen decided to run for office, he would make a top hand," says Vinson, who does not expect a Bowen campaign. "He would have ... strong support."

During the 1960s, Bowen seriously considered a political career, either as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee or as governor.

In 1984, Bowen's name again was bandied about as a possible political candidate.

"I used to think about it a lot and, candidly, was ambitious because I think the political process is vitally important," he said at the time. "And I think the profession is honorable if pursued honorably ... At age 60, I would say that ambition has to be laid aside for others."

Seven years later, Bowen is not retracting the statement.

"This is the extent of it," he says of his new career.

Chain Of Command

Former Gov. Frank White, a friend of Bowen's despite their political differences, says Bowen is serving as governor vicariously.

With Clinton campaigning, the chief of staff's role takes on more importance. The governor's office conducts day-to-day business through this system:

* Bowen is in daily contact with Clinton.

* The governor's office is in daily contact with Tucker.

* Tucker and Bowen meet at least once a week.

* If Tucker needs Clinton, Bowen passes on the message. For more routine matters, Tucker makes immediate decisions.

* Tucker and Clinton talk at least once a week.


So are others. But Tucker says it is working.

"I have tried to have Bill Bowen work as my chief of staff when Bill Clinton is out of state," Tucker says. "... He and other members of the |governor's~ staff serve at my pleasure when Bill Clinton is gone.

"Obviously, their fundamental loyalty is to Bill Clinton, which is understandable. |But~ the presence of Bill Bowen has allowed me to have one person with whom I can work consistently."

Back To The Question

The articulate Bowen does not shy away from questions.

Yet on the subject of "Governor Bowen," he will not elaborate, although he admits other do.

"They do it two ways -- in good humor and with the purpose of flattering you," Bowen says. "I view it both ways -- with humor and flattery."

Age is not a problem. At 68, Bowen is in excellent physical condition. He claims to weigh the same he did when he left the Navy in 1946.

"I'm in great shape," Bowen says. "I might be dead tomorrow, but I feel great. I eat like a horse. Everything but sauerkraut. I don't like sauerkraut."

Neither does he like gubernatorial talk.

A photographer asks Bowen to pose in front of the Capitol. Bowen declines.

It would make him uncomfortable, he says.

There is other evidence Bowen will not run for governor in 1994.

"He has a lot of personal goals and commitments," says White, who was governor from 1981-82. "He's very involved in the think tank |The Arkansas Institute~ and the funding of it. He's committed to the |Aerospace Education Center~ and the funding of that.

"... Once he starts something, he won't stop until he gets it done."

But never say never.

Bill Bowen's Career: Law, Banking And Politics

* May 6, 1923 -- Is born at Altheimer to Robert James Bowen and Lois Ruth Falls Bowen.

* 1941 -- Attends Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. Leaves at midsemester to enter the Navy.

* 1945 -- Finishes training as a fighter pilot four days before the end of World War II. Is assigned to the fighter replacement pool but does not see action.

* 1949 -- Graduates from law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

* 1952 -- Earns a master's degree in law from New York University. Takes first job as a law clerk with U.S. Tax Court at Washington. Later becomes a trial lawyer with the Department of Justice.

* 1954 -- Returns to Arkansas with his wife, Constance. Joins the Little Rock law firm Mehaffy Smith & Williams.

* 1964 -- Becomes general counsel for the Arkansas Bankers Association.

* 1970 -- Is asked to be president of Commercial National Bank of Little Rock.

* April 1971 -- Accepts position as president of Commercial National.

* May 1982 -- Becomes president of Arkansas Bankers Association.

* June 1982 -- Announces merger of Commercial National and First National Bank of Little Rock.

* June 1982 -- Pushes for Amendment 60, which would raise interest-rate ceilings from 10 percent to 17 percent on consumer loans and to 5 percent above the federal discount rate on other loans.

* July 1983 -- Becomes vice chairman of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority.

* July 31, 1983 -- Becomes chairman of the new First Commercial Bank and chairman of the executive committee of the new holding company, First Commercial Corp.

* Nov. 15, 1983 -- Is appointed to the Federal Advisory Council by the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

* Jan. 27, 1984 -- Replaces the retiring Bill Cravens as president and chief executive officer of First Commercial Bank.

* April 1986 -- Is elected to the board of directors of Hendrix College at Conway.

* Nov. 23, 1987 -- Is appointed Arkansas campaign finance chairman for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

* Feb. 22, 1989 -- Is elected to the board of Fairfield Communities Inc. of Little Rock.

* March 1990 -- Is said to be the state's highest-paid banker with earnings of $327,500 in 1989.

* Dec. 31, 1990 -- Retires as chairman and CEO of First Commercial Corp. and is replaced by Barnett Grace. Bowen remains a board member of the holding company.

* July 1991 -- Is named to the board of directors of Environmental Systems Co. of Little Rock. The move is part of management changes at Ensco following the resignation of CEO Jack Forrest.

* Sept. 9, 1991 -- Leaves the Ensco board after less than two months to serve as Gov. Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes Bowen's profile; Bill Bowen, chief of staff of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 16, 1991
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