Romancing The Stone Faced: How Ceos Were Won Over

If politics is the art of illusion, Bill Clinton deserves an Oscar for Best Special Effects. Working with a cadre of business-oriented White House aides, the President has turned what was a trickle of business support during the campaign into a seeming tidal wave of corporate backing for his economic program.

With traditional Democratic interests safely in his camp, Clinton made business backing a priority and assigned top aides to the task--including Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, National Economic Council Chairman Robert E. Rubin, political director Rahm Emanuel, and public liaison chief Alexis M. Herman. They targeted CEOs they already knew, Democratic business leaders, early Clinton business contributors, and a few token CEOs who might neutralize opposition to tax proposals. The goal: a star-studded rooting section to flank Clinton.

WISH LIST. Rubin, former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co., chatted up old Wall Street pals. Emanuel worked on the CEOs he had talked to as a campaign fund-raiser, including NationsBank Corp. Chief Hugh McColl Jr. and Sara Lee Corp.'s John H. Bryan. Soon after Inauguration Day, Herman laid on numerous meetings with business groups to find out what they wanted in an economic package. Says Herman: "The early reaching out was one of the critical components of success."

On Feb. 11, a week before the economic plan was unveiled, the President met with a handful of top CEOs. Among them: Tenneco's Michael H. Walsh, Prudential Insurance's Robert C. Winters, and Western Digital's Roger W. Johnson. After the Feb. 17 State of the Union speech, Herman phoned this group to gauge their reactions.

Soon thereafter, Ford Motor Co.'s Harold A. "Red" Poling and Time Warner Inc.'s Gerald M. Levin wrote Clinton praising his efforts, and Herman asked them to join Clinton at a Feb. 25 press conference in Washington. Levin took the red-eye back from California to make the event. Bryan, who supported Clinton during the campaign, returned two days early from a trip to Hong Kong. Others were in town for a Business Council meeting.

McLarty scored one of the biggest coups. As former CEO of natural gas giant Arkla Inc., he had served on the National Petroleum Council with Atlantic Richfield Co.'s Lodwrick M. Cook. A Bush supporter, Cook is a maverick who backed increased gasoline taxes to promote energy conservation. Following the State of the Union speech, McLarty called to ask if Cook would meet with Clinton when the President visited California. After a face-to-face chat, Cook signed on.

KEY MOVE. The CEOs at Clinton's press conference got nothing in return. But obviously, says an aide to one, "there are strings attached because you're standing there next to the President. My feeling was, this will be a photo op, and you will be a prop--but it's not a bad touch to make."

Clinton had made inroads with business during the campaign to gain credibility for his "New Democrat" economic plan. But, aides say, the real clincher came after the election, with Clinton's economic summit in Little Rock. There, before a throng of executives, he made a

bravura performance. Among the impressed: Anheuser-Busch Cos. Chairman August A. Busch III and American Airlines' Robert L. Crandall. The airline chief followed up with a six-page letter of suggestions. The President responded swiftly, backing the industry's call for a high-level commission to study ways to help restore its profitability.

His charm and grasp of economic minutiae have so impressed executives that one lobbyist quips: "My top priority is to keep my CEO back in headquarters so he doesn't meet the President." No wonder Clinton is convinced that, with enough work, he can turn potential foes into sometime friends.

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