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Meg Whitman is all business, all the time

The deeply private novice politician stays on message and seldom strays into spontaneous situations. Californians have learned more about her from campaign crises and court cases than from her own telling.

October 27, 2010|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

Meg Whitman strode to the podium, cloaked in righteous indignation. Her husband stood silently by her side.

Just one day earlier, her former housekeeper had revealed that Whitman — the Republican candidate for governor with the tough talk on immigration — had employed an illegal worker for nine years.

Although she said she fired Nicandra Diaz Santillan after she heard about her housekeeper's status, Whitman was in a no-win situation. Conservatives wondered why Whitman hadn't turned "Nicky" over to authorities. Liberals bristled that the candidate hadn't helped this "member of our extended family" find an attorney.

After a 45-minute barrage of questions, the always-on-message candidate finally delivered her main talking points: "We have to secure the borders. We have to hold employers accountable. We've got to eliminate sanctuary cities. And we've got to get a temporary guestworker program so people like Nicky can work here legally."

The dueling news conferences that week — Whitman vs. Diaz Santillan and her attorney, Gloria Allred —were remarkable for more than their political repercussions. Salted between housekeeper tears and candidate bluster were as many details as had ever been known about the closely guarded private life of the billionaire who aspires to be governor.

Whitman has spent a lifetime in business, shepherding, protecting and selling some of America's most valuable brands: Ivory soap, Keds, Mr. Potato Head, EBay. For the last 19 months, she has burnished her own brand — using more than $141 million of her personal fortune in the process.

Her money has made Whitman a ubiquitous presence in California living rooms, her aristocratic tones wafting out of television sets in an unprecedented barrage of ads. It has allowed her to largely avoid the spontaneity that gets novice politicians into trouble. Campaign stops tend to be by invitation only, or photo ops, like her recent stint as NASCAR grand marshal: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

The former EBay chief is running on resume, not biography, to an extent rarely seen in modern politics. At a time when candidates' extended families gambol on stage, and cameras are invited to watch them ski, fish and barbecue, Whitman's is still largely unknown.

The candidate is married to Dr. Griffith Rutherford Harsh IV; his silent cameo in Santa Monica was a rare appearance on his wife's behalf. The Stanford University neurosurgeon has given just one interview in their 30-year marriage. Whitman's sister and brother have neither spoken nor appeared for her. Ditto, her two grown sons. Despite repeated requests, the campaign did not make Whitman available for an interview.

As a result Californians have learned more about Whitman from campaign crises and court cases than they have from the candidate's own telling: For most of her adult life, she did not vote. She has a temper that can flare under pressure. Her primary residence and household staff are modest by billionaires' standards: 3,700 square feet in tony Atherton for the first, a part-time housekeeper, landscape and pool service for the second.

Whitman and her campaign staff "refuse to relinquish any kind of control over the candidate, her image and her message," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC political analyst. "They can afford to; they have all the money in the Western world.… When her people don't have control, there is danger there."

It's not as if Margaret Cushing Whitman's 54 years haven't had their share of personal drama. But there are stories she tells on the campaign trail — and ones she doesn't.

Whitman was raised in wealthy Lloyd Harbor, N.Y., the youngest of three children. Her 6-foot 8-inch father, Hendricks Hallett Whitman, was a World War II veteran who worked in the financial industry. But it was her stay-at-home mother, Margaret C. Whitman, whom the candidate describes as her inspiration, a woman blessed with a "bias for action."

Whitman actually talks as much about her mother's personal life as her own.

In the depths of World War II, Whitman's Boston-born mother wanted to do her share. She ended up in New Guinea with the Red Cross fixing airplane and jeep engines — though she had never popped a hood in her life.

"What that story really told me as a little girl was the price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake," Whitman said at a recent campaign event. "That you have to try things that you're not sure you can do."

Buried deep in Whitman's recent book, past 200 pages of corporate bromides (Be frugal. Be authentic. Results matter.) are two tales that do not make the campaign-trail cut: the story of her own birth defect and of her sister Anne's struggle with mental illness.

Tall, patrician and athletic today, Whitman was born with dysplasia; her left hip lacked a socket. Doctors discovered the condition shortly after she was born, and she spent her toddler years strapped in a metal brace that helped mold a socket.

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