If Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is elected president, at least one banker is likely to have entree to the Oval Office.

William H. Brandon, incoming president of the American Bankers Association, has known the Democratic presidential contender for 15 years.

"It certainly won't hurt anything that I've known him this long," said Mr. Brandon, 60, the president and chief executive of First National Bank of Phillips County, Helena, Ark. Mr. Brandon becomes the 107th president of the ABA this week.

Mr. Brandon met Gov. Clinton when he and another Banker backed the candidate for Arkansas attorney general.

"We were just impressed with him," he said. "I've always found him to be pro-business and pro-banking."

Gov. Clinton was impressed with Mr. Brandon, too. He appointed him chairman of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission in 1979.

Mr. Brandon, however, is reluctant to talk about his relationship with Gov. Clinton--and he emphasizes that "the ABA is neutral" when it comes to politics.

Colleagues think Mr. Brandon's relationship could benefit the industry if Gov. Clinton makes it to the White House.

"I think it is always an edge to have the ear of the President," said Robert M. Freeman, chairman and chief executive of Signet Banking Corp., Richmond, VA.

"I do believe Bill Brandon could walk into the White House most anytime he'd want to," said Harold A. Stones, executive vice president of the Kansas Bankers Association and a die-hard Republican. "That'd be real good" for the banking industry.

For one thing, Mr. Brandon plans to continue the ABA's fight to reduce the number of regulations heaped on the industry as a result of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1990. That battle has been actively backed by the Bush administration.

Mr. Brandon, a talented orator, also plans to make speeches around the country urging bankers to get involved in issues that affect the industry.

Visiting 12 states since April, he has been urging bankers big and small to stop fighting with one another if they want to accomplish anything on Capitol Hill. He said this is his No. 1 priority.

"There is bickering and I don't think it's good for the banking industry," he said.

"In my mind, if you talk to anybody in Congress they will tell you: As long as you are divided you are not going to get much done."

Mr. Brandon runs a $94 million-asset bank, but he doesn't anticipate having a communications gap with bankers at large institutions. In fact, he shares many of their views.

"We have way more in common than we have differences," he said.

"There is a great deal of doubt about the viability of the banking industry," Mr. Brandon said. "If you keep the industry on exactly the same course it is on ... it will go the same way as the railroads."

Mr. Brandon said the "too big to fail" policy, which favors large banks, must go because it's "unfair" and "extremely dangerous" to the insurance fund.

As for interstate banking -- a position opposed by most small bankers because they don't want big, out-of-state banks in their backyard -- well, that's a "done deal."

For Interstate Branching

Mr. Brandon supports interstate branching -- as long as outsiders that come into the state do so by acquisition and abide by state rules. In his home state of Arkansas, the rule says banks cannot branch outside the county in which they are located.

Colleagues expect great things from Mr. Brandon, who is known for his wit.

"He can get up in a tense meeting and defuse the tension," Mr. Stones said.

During a recent speech to the Texas Bankers Association, he tossed aside his notes: "I know everybody in the audience doesn't like the ABA," he said.

"He did more good with that speech because he talked to them," not at them, said Robert E. Harris, president of the Texas Bankers Association, who attended the speech.

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