By Lee Pace
When Goldman Sachs executive Ken Brody asked Erskine Bowles for a political favor in mid-1992, the Charlotte banker felt obligated because his company had just received a nice referral from the New York-based investment bank. Brody was helping raise money for the governor of Arkansas, who wanted to be president, and he knew that Bowles had roots in North Carolina’s Democratic Party. Brody asked Bowles if he’d organize a fundraiser for Bill Clinton.
“I knew nothing about Bill Clinton other than he’d made that long, horrible speech at the convention,” Bowles says, referring to the Democratic Party’s gathering in 1988. “But Ken’s just given me a great big deal, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll figure out a way to do this. I’ll do it and get it over with.’”
A meeting with Clinton quickly changed things. “I was knocked over by him,” says Bowles, who helped raise $1.5 million during the campaign. “He was fiscally conservative and socially progressive, and he had more personal magnetism than anyone I’d ever met.”
On a campaign visit to North Carolina that fall, Clinton sensed Bowles was troubled. Bowles had spent much of the day attending to his son, Sam, who has Type 1 diabetes and had suffered a seizure. “If you’ve ever seen anything like that, it just rips your heart out,” Bowles says.
Bowles lamented that President George H.W. Bush had blocked efforts by advocates for diabetes, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease studies to lift the ban on fetal-tissue research. In a subsequent campaign speech, Clinton referenced his friendship with a “conservative North Carolina businessman” whose son had diabetes. If elected, Clinton pledged to remove the ban.
After winning the presidency, Clinton asked Bowles to join the administration, which he rejected because he’d never desired a Washington job and his investment firm was “going gangbusters.” In early 1993, Bowles was invited to a White House reception, and Clinton privately took Bowles into the Oval Office. After signing a document, Clinton handed Bowles the pen, which he had just used to approve an order lifting the research ban. “I want you to take this pen home and give it to your son Sam. Today he has hope.” More than two decades later, Bowles says, “I still get goose bumps, literally.”
The next day, after talking with his wife and business partners, Bowles called Clinton to say he’d take any job offered by the president. Within weeks, Bowles was head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Bowles held the post for a year and a half, then was appointed Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. After taking a break, he returned to Washington in 1996 as chief of staff, famously adding structure to the president’s freewheeling style.
His service at Washington’s highest level turned Bowles into an internationally known figure, but his ties to Clinton came at a cost. Bids for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004 failed after his opponents, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, attacked his work for a president who never carried North Carolina.
Erskine’s web: More than 20 years after leaving his investment bank, Erskine Bowles still influences dozens of former colleagues in the finance industry