LITTLE ROCK, ARK., DEC. 12 -- Of all the old Friends of Bill knocking around Arkansas, the gregarious Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, named today as President-elect Clinton's choice to be chief of staff, may be the oldest. He was Clinton's friend before Clinton was Clinton, back when the president-elect was known as Billy Blythe.

They attended kindergarten together in the much mythologized Arkansas town of Hope, where McLarty's clan ran the town's Ford dealership and Clinton's stepfather ran the Buick dealership, which lagged far behind the McLarty operation in sales and prestige.

The kindergarten pals formed their first political alliance when McLarty was elected governor and Clinton national representative of Arkansas Boys' State in 1963.

While Clinton went away to college, McLarty stayed home to attend the University of Arkansas. In Hope, he expanded the auto business to one of the region's largest transportation companies.

He was first elected to the Arkansas House at age 23, and while he was still in his late twenties was named to the board of Arkla Inc., a Fortune 500 natural gas company. He eventually took over, replacing Clinton's nemesis, Sheffield Nelson.

Veterans of Arkansas politics warned against thinking of McLarty in terms of such former White House chiefs of staff as John H. Sununu, Donald T. Regan and H.R. Haldeman, who were widely perceived as controlling access to the Oval Office and insulating the president from staff debates.

Clinton has experience with that model, and it was a disaster. Elected governor of Arkansas in 1978, the youthful Clinton appointed a gatekeeper-style chief of staff.

"He went down that path and was perceived as out of touch," said David Matthews, an Arkansas state legislator and Clinton confidant.

Voters turned him out in 1980, and it was a chastened Clinton who recaptured the governor's office in 1982.

"Unless Bill Clinton has a complete personality change . . . he doesn't want to be protected, he doesn't want to be insulated," Matthews said. "He likes to hear all sides. I think you'll find the role of chief of staff very different under Bill Clinton."

Clinton discussed the chief of staff job with McLarty the day after his election and today announced his choice of someone who, rather than being a wide-ranging policy adviser, will, as McLarty put it, "always be straight with him, and he knows that. Bill Clinton has my complete loyalty and trust. Always has and always will."

Even though he has no Washington experience, Clinton said he expects McLarty, 46, will succeed because the Arkansas millionaire is a seasoned political player who "knows enough to get help when he needs it."

"I am not a Washington insider," McLarty said. "I have lived my life in the heartland, as you might say. But through my experience as a citizen, as a businessman, as a former state legislator, and as a former state party chair, I know Washington well and I know how to make organizations work."

McLarty has two habits that could ingratiate him with Washington insiders. He is said to have an uncanny ability -- equal to Clinton's -- to remember names and is a noted letter writer, penning notes and letters by the dozens each day.

"The fact that Mack McLarty is from Hope does not mean he doesn't know Washington," said Matthews. "He has been the CEO of a major utility and the chairman of the state Democratic Party. I'm confident he has had to deal with Washington power brokers in those roles.

"Mack is close not only to Bill Clinton, but also to {Arkansas senators} David Pryor and Dale Bumpers. He's served as a kitchen cabinet adviser to all the most prominent Arkansas politicians in the past 15 years. So it isn't like Clinton just picked an old boyhood chum."

Rep. Ray Thornton (D-Ark.), a longtime McLarty friend, said McLarty's lack of Washington political experience will not be a handicap. McLarty is not a "politician per se," Thornton said, but he "understands politics well enough" to succeed in the job.

One difference between Clinton and McLarty, said Skip Rutherford, an Arkla vice president, is that McLarty likes to have early morning meetings, whereas Clinton is notorious for keeping late hours.

"So I guess we'll have 24-hour coverage," Rutherford said.

Bill Burton, a Texas natural gas lawyer, said Clinton "views Mack not only as one of his closest friends, but also as one of the most successful business people he has ever been close to. This appointment has to do with both of those things."

After the announcement, McLarty toured the transition headquarters, greeting young staff members.

"He's a very personable manager," said transition press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "He'll be an honest broker, somebody we can go to. He has no personal agenda he's pushing. He's someone who will facilitate communication in the White House, not block it.

"People in Washington will say he doesn't have enough experience to deal in the shark tank. But they're underestimating him. He's like a lot of these Arkansans: Dumb like a fox."

Staff writers David Maraniss in Austin, Tex., and David Von Drehle in New York contributed to this report.