Ground zero for Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor of California is a suite of rooms modestly tucked into a colorless cookie-cutter office park—all sprayed stucco walls and fluorescent lights. I’m ushered into a conference room so unadorned there is not even a campaign poster on the walls. Whitman sits at the head of a white meeting table, and as I sit down beside her, two handlers pull up chairs as well. The space offers no clues to Whitman’s personality, and she doesn’t reveal much herself.
In her black suit and black-and-white sweater, the former CEO of eBay, now 53, is still the picture of a put-together corporate titan. And her approach is all business. Seeming energized by an earlier discussion of the state budget with her campaign staff, she tosses numbers around with confidence. When I ask where she’ll find the votes to win the race (the primary is in June, the general in November), she breaks down the research in a tone so self-assured that I can almost see a thought bubble forming over her head: Statistics may scare some women, but not me.
Over the months that I reported this article, I often heard the candidate and her staff say that they want people to know “the real Meg Whitman.” Jillian Manus, the chair of Whitman’s women’s coalition (dubbed MEGaWomen), told me, “Everyone knows what she’s done. I want to let people know who she is. To feel her, get her, touch her.” But Whitman is hard to know, much less touch. She’s quiet, understated and more wonky than ebullient after a career spent largely in Silicon Valley tech circles—in all, not the type that seems born to storm the political stage. Unlike Sarah Palin, Whitman doesn’t wink or quip or let go with unscripted rants; unlike George Bush, she doesn’t give people funny nicknames; and unlike Bill Clinton, when she tries to show she feels your pain, she sounds a bit wooden. Forget your pain; she seems at times not even to feel her own.
But with her high-level Republican connections (she counts Mitt Romney and John McCain as friends) and her jaw-dropping personal fortune ($1.2 billion, by a 2009 Los Angeles Times estimate), Whitman is a candidate no one can ignore. Having left her job at eBay in 2008, she is now pursuing politics as a second act and at this moment is in mid-leap—committed to her new calling but, with no experience running for elected office, uncertain of her odds. Her political future boils down to this: Will she persuade voters—especially women—that the talents she parlayed into a billion bucks can guide California through the recession’s perfect storm?
If only every voter Whitman is courting could meet her mother. While the candidate seems all discipline and reserve, Margaret Whitman, 89, does not, and the stories she tells about the young Meg hint at what lies beneath the candidate’s cool. “When she was little, she was extremely determined. Whatever she decided to do, she was going to do,” says Margaret, recalling that swim meets in particular brought out the competitor in her younger daughter. “Meg was a pretty good swimmer. But at meets, I had to be there, because if she wasn’t at least first or second, she’d be screaming with rage. There was no second best for her. She has always loved to win.”
During the summers, while Whitman’s father stayed behind at his financial services job on Long Island, her mother took the three kids—Whitman and her older sister and brother—on cross-continental adventures. They traversed the western U.S. one year and Alaska the next; on that trip, they drove the desolate, partially unpaved Alcan Highway. Whitman was only six, but the image of her mother lashing four spare tires to the roof of the family camper, just in case, stays with her. Whitman recounts how in the 1940s, before having kids, her mom volunteered to be a war mechanic in New Guinea. “She’d never looked under the hood of a car or fixed anything with a wrench,” Whitman says. “But she knew that’s where the critical need was and where she could make the biggest contribution. The learning curve didn’t stall her. In fact, it fueled her.” To Meg Whitman, the parallel is clear: “I am my mother’s daughter.”