In Washington, the home of diplomatic scheming and bitter debate, few people have no enemies. James McLaughlin, director of regulatory affairs for the American Bankers Association, seems to be one of these few.

With his arching eyebrows and bald crown, Mr. McLaughlin looks vaguely like Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa in "Hoffa." But unlike the corrupt teamster, Mr. McLaughlin's speech is friendly and humorous, his smile is winning, and his motives are, by all accounts, straightforward and honest.

"Bankers tend to be nice people," Mr. McLaughlin said. "We wouldn't do anything that wouldn't reflect that."

After falling into a job with the ABA 28 years ago (back then he "didn't even know what the hell a trade association was") Mr. McLaughlin has turned into one of the industry's most respected representatives, and one of the main guardians of the ABA's reputation for honesty.

The Long Island Irishman's low-key, no-nonsense approach to lobbying has earned the praise of banking colleagues. Even Mr. McLaughlin's contacts in government and rival lobbyists go out of their way to say nice things about him.

"I really think of (Mr. McLaughlin) as a genuinely valuable resource on industry-related matters," said Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig. "He's a vast source of knowledge, and a pleasure to deal with."

Of course, while Mr. McLaughlin speaks softly, he does carry a big stick: The ABA represents banks holding nearly $4 trillion in assets.

For the last seven years, Mr. McLaughlin has headed a key ABA division. He helped redesign Community Reinvestment Act exams, create the banking industry's retail investment sales guidelines, and arrange a series of meetings between the comptroller and presidents of small banks. Mr. McLaughlin also is a key figure in the ongoing debate over Glass-Steagall reform.

Mr. McLaughlin's department of agency relations recently absorbed another ABA division, so he now handles regulation, trust, retail, and operations issues, negotiating with agencies as diverse as the Department of Defense, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board.

This new breadth of duty keeps Mr. McLaughlin on his toes: In any given week, he can be seen at obscure congressional subcommittee hearings, at pow-wows with top industry executives, and at technical meetings with middle-level managers at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

As he spoke about his job, Mr. McLaughlin waxed slightly nostalgic about the "good old days" when politics moved more slowly, congressional hearings took months to organize, and the ABA's director of agency relations didn't have to move so quickly.

"I like to think about things for a while, but that's not always a luxury that we have," Mr. McLaughlin said. "Back in the old days, we could cogitate and meditate for months and months. Now, when we face an issue, we have to have it decided and solved by the end of the week.

"This makes for quicker decisions that are not always the most thought- out decisions. We can find out on Friday that there's a hearing next Thursday, and they want 150 copies of our testimony over by Tuesday evening, and we don't even know who the hell our witness is at this point, right? Everything has just been tremendously compressed."

Still, those who have dealt with Mr. McLaughlin say he comes prepared, whatever the issue.

"I called Jim McLaughlin once to ask a question about a new issue on a bank exam," said Kate Barr, senior vice-president of Riverside Bank in Minneapolis. "In two hours, he had responses to three questions. He knew his stuff, and was really responsive."

In his dealings with the government, Mr. McLaughlin is polite, frank, and flexible, federal officials say.

"It's amazing how easy our conversations are," said Bob Miailovich, the FDIC's associate director of supervision policy. "When the regulator and the lobbyist meet, you would expect a certain amount of tension. But with Jim, it's always an amazingly untense situation. He understands what's on bankers' minds, but also understands what our needs are."

Mr. McLaughlin's mildness is part personality and part strategy. As a lobbyist, Mr. McLaughlin tries to present himself as an archetypal banker.

"It's an old accusation of the industry that bankers are not as forceful as others might be," he said. "But that fits the image of the banker. It's just their character. The typical community banker is really a gentleman; he's not seen as a hotshot salesman.

"You really see that when banks come up against somebody like the insurance industry. The mental image is that bankers aren't good salesmen, though they're getting better. Insurance salesmen live and breathe on sales. And what is lobbying but selling ideas?

"We try to lobby as effectively as we can, but we also try to lobby on the substance of the issues."

Mr. Duchemin writes for the Medill News Service.

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