An assessment of Meg Whitman, candidate for California governor.

An assessment of Meg Whitman, candidate for California governor.

An assessment of Meg Whitman, candidate for California governor.

What women really think.
Feb. 9 2010 7:50 AM

Meg Whitman, California's "Manly Girl"

She is the anti-Palin.

Meg Whitman. Click image to expand.
Meg Whitman

Arnold Schwarzenegger used to call his rivals for the California governorship "girly men." Meg Whitman, who is running to replace him, could be called the "manly girl." Whitman made her name in the testosterone-heavy halls of Silicon Valley. She is a passionate fly-fisher, and a self-described "frumpy" dresser who shies away from the worlds of "fashion and decorating." When she reveals personal details, she does it with the spontaneity and warmth of Al Gore.

Whitman is instead billing herself as something few women could plausibly pull off: the future "CEO of California." In this way, she is the anti-Sarah Palin. She's no 40-something pinup, but she finished high school in three years and entered the Harvard Business School at 21. In the corporate world, she is known for her competence and cunning. Instead of talking about her political experience, she talks about her business expertise—years of working on branding at Procter & Gamble, Bain, Hasbro, and Disney, all of which led her to create the "Country First" slogan for John McCain's presidential campaign, of which she was national co-chair. Her campaign revolves around the GOP standbys of tax cuts, deregulation, and gutting welfare as the keys to recovery.

Whitman even behaves more like an insular CEO than like a politician. Unlike Palin, she seems mortified by her own celebrity. "That's what I hate," Whitman told the New York Times in 1999 about her fame. "I even have the furniture man noticing me." Of course, when you're running for office, this is a problem. A December survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that at least half of likely voters across parties and demographic groups haven't heard of Whitman or don't know enough about her to have an opinion.

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Her answer to that problem is to write her own book. But even here, she has failed to reveal her softer side. Her recent stab at literary outreach, The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life reads more like Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten for the corporate set. The book is full of platitudes like "you can't buy integrity," "courage is contagious," "the power of validation," and "enfranchise your partners" but is very short on humanizing revelations. The few moments of personal trauma included are described in PowerPoint-ready sound bites: her sister overcoming a bout with mental illness is her "power of many moment"; the family's reaction to the disease's onset is when their "bias-for-action gene kicked into gear." When she refers to her marriage to neurosurgeon Griffith Harsh IV as the "Whitman-Harsh merger," it's not entirely clear whether she's joking.

Whitman does have one public relations problem, as she might call it. Her two college-age sons, Griff and Will Harsh, have reportedly been tossed from more than one prep school, and a private dining club, and are said to have been banned from the dorms at Princeton. (If true, that means they would be forbidden from living even in the $30 million Whitman College dorm created by a donation from their mother.) Her camp has not responded to the Internet rumors about her sons' behavior—which also includes accusations that they casually toss around the N-word. This makes Whitman the latest in a chain of female candidates who have had to answer for errant family members, a list that includes Palin, Hillary Clinton, Claire McCaskill, Dianne Feinstein, and Geraldine Ferraro.

And like those female politicians, Whitman is not immediately attracting sisterly support. One survey shows her leading Steve Poizner, her main rival for the GOP nomination (himself a billionaire former tech CEO) by 35 points among men in the primary vote but only 25 points—one-third less—among women; the gender skew is even more pronounced when Whitman is pitted against prospective Democratic nominee Jerry Brown. Brown has a 19-point gender gap working in his favor against Whitman, giving him an overall 41-36 percent edge. "Female candidates ... have to remember that women can be deeply suspicious and critical of one another," political journalist Ann Kornblut warns in her book Notes From the Cracked Ceiling.

But maybe being a woman won't matter. If California is about to declare bankruptcy, then the fact that Whitman took a no-name Web auction house peddling little more than collectible Beanie Babies and turned it into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut may be her best qualification. Despite a personal fortune topping $1 billion, her campaign has centered on slashing state spending. She's written op-eds declaring she'd hack away at welfare by imposing "stricter sanctions on adults who fail to meet work requirements." She's also said she would suspend the state's pioneering greenhouse-gas emissions restrictions. Her book is peppered with words like "value," "lean," "streamline," "frugal," "minimizing," and "budgeting." Her operating principle is somewhat flat and overly practical but maybe appropriate for these times: "You have this much money and this much time, and you'll have to figure out how to do the best job you can."

Sara Libby is managing editor of Voice of San Diego.