Meet Mr. Bowles, Mr. Bill's Mr. Fix It

Clinton's troubleshooter could go places in a second term

When North Carolina investment banker Erskine B. Bowles turned up at Bill Clinton's side during the Democratic Convention to deal with the sordid Dick Morris affair, Washington insiders were startled. After all, the lanky, self-effacing Bowles had left the White House seven months earlier--and he never had been thought of as a political operative. Yet with the tabloid The Star about to break open the Morris story, Bowles spent the night convincing the disgraced political op to resign--just hours before Clinton delivered his acceptance speech.

That the President would turn to Bowles in the midst of such a crisis reveals just how much Clinton values his former Deputy Chief of Staff. Next for Bowles: heading the team that will prepare Clinton for his debates with Republican nominee Bob Dole. And if Clinton is reelected, Bowles could land the post of Chief of Staff, succeeding Leon E. Panetta, who is expected to return to California next year. "The President trusts Erskine with his life," says a Democratic strategist. Adds Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes, a potential rival for Panetta's job: "There's a chemistry between the two men. For all his gregariousness, the President doesn't cultivate close personal friends, but Erskine is in that league."

Their relationship is all the more remarkable considering that the two didn't meet until late in the 1992 campaign, when Bowles helped raise funds for the candidate. During the transition, Bowles helped run the post-election economic summit in Little Rock. "He impressed me because he immediately jumped in, making coffee and Xeroxing," says Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor. "He is a man without overarching ego." That may explain why Bowles wound up handling Morris' ouster: He was one of the few White House aides who didn't resent Morris' influence in the Oval Office.

At the start of his term, the President asked Bowles to leave the investment bank he had co-founded and head the Small Business Administration. There, Bowles won high marks from business for revamping the badly mismanaged agency. In late 1994, Clinton tapped him to apply his businessman's sense for organization and discipline to a White House that was unfocused and mistake-prone. Bowles immediately ordered a detailed study of Clinton's schedule. He concluded that the President spent too much time in public, diluting the value of each appearance. Bowles restructured Clinton's day to leave him more time to think, read, and make phone calls. And he forced the White House to make decisions, instead of endlessly rehashing old squabbles.

"INCREDIBLY DISCREET." Over time, the two progressive Southern baby boomers developed a deep bond. Says former White House Staff Secretary John D. Podesta: "He could go into the Oval Office, tell the President when he thought he was wrong, and be incredibly discreet about the conversation." Even as Bowles was packing up last January to return home to spend more time with his family, Clinton continued to bombard him with notes seeking advice. "Clinton was in denial that Erskine was leaving," recalls an aide. The two still speak at least weekly by phone, and Bowles travels to join Clinton for golf outings.

Does that qualify Bowles to become Chief of Staff? Some Clintonites question whether he has the political savvy to pilot the White House solo. Indeed, his only prior political experience consisted largely of managing his father's unsuccessful bid for North Carolina governor in 1972. Besides, luring Bowles back to Washington may be no small feat. Bowles has raised nearly $200 million for his new merchant bank, Carousel Capital, and on Sept. 6 told BUSINESS WEEK, "I don't want to return to Washington." Still, he has been helping his golfing partner out of the rough of late. White House officials believe if the President asks again, he might be persuaded to play one more round.

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