NEW YORK CITY — During her college years, Carly Fiorina — the former Hewlett-Packard CEO currently serving as John McCain’s Victory Chairwoman — found life-affirming inspiration from what many may consider an unlikely source: Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
“The power and importance of choice, the act of becoming rather than the stasis of being — these were to me profound ideas with personal meaning,” Fiorina writes in her moving, candid (not ghostwritten!) memoir Tough Choices. “If we cannot choose our circumstances, we can always choose our response to them. If we cannot choose who we are, we can always choose to become something more. To stop choosing is to start dying.”
It’s a beautiful takeaway sentiment, and certainly the woman who divined it out of that relentlessly gloomy text is a welcome addition to the campaign of a candidate who would fine The Stranger‘s Meursault for running an ad sixty days before an election, never mind the rest of that business with The Arab. Happily, Fiorina, who sat with TAS for an interview last week at a Manhattan Hilton, lives up to her considerable hype — much as The Stranger reportedly did for George W. Bush.
To begin with, she is phosphorescently brilliant. When once asked by a reporter who her favorite business author was, Fiorina answered, “Hegel. You know: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis…” At Stanford she studied Greek to read Plato and Aristotle minus the translation filter, and dove into Latin, French and German as well. In person, Fiorina has a remarkable poise and an easy command of facts that she is somehow able to relate in an easy, gracious spirit.
Second, Fiorina is a great and persuasive advocate for the free market and self-determination. Clearly, as my colleague Phil Klein notes, this has ruffled some opposition feathers. When, however, Fiorina declares something like, “we know that the disciplines of competition and choice work,” her own life story stands as testimony: This is a woman who as a newly minted manager at AT&T was introduced by her boss to clients as “our token bimbo,” and eventually got even by rising to the rank of Senior Vice-President. Later, Fiorina served as (albeit controversial) CEO of Hewlett-Packard, a company she had done secretarial temp work for as a young adult.
It’s the all-American story. Bootstraps, pulled up? Check. Can-do attitude? Check. Perhaps with luck Fiorina will tip McCain’s current team of rivals into a more uniformly economically conservative direction.
SINCE LEAVING THE BUSINESS world, Fiorina has advised the Departments of Defense and State, USAID, as well as the CIA — and she’s learned a thing or two via this proximity to the leviathan. “I’ve gotten a closer look at how Washington works,” she confirmed. “Washington has many well-intentioned and able people, but all bureaucracies take on a life of their own. All bureaucracies become internally focused. All bureaucracies, if left alone, become inefficient and ineffective. There is plenty of opportunity in Washington to offer greater performance incentives and streamline…
“In a business there are some very clear and accepted guideposts for progress,” she added a few minutes later. “Income statements. Balance sheets. Customer satisfaction. In government it’s a little less clear, although sometimes the metrics of success could be a lot more clear, it’s just people don’t necessarily want them to be.”
Although she has been courted in the past, this is Fiorina’s first political endorsement. She praises the Arizona senator as “a unique and authentic leader” who won’t get so “caught up in winning” that he loses his ethical moorings. And what does Fortune magazine’s former “Most Powerful Woman in Business” make of McCain’s oft-quoted statements concerning his “need to be educated” on economics, which he has further said is “not something I’ve understood as well as I should”?
“I was impressed with his economic chops [in 2000], and remain so,” Fiorina answered. “Look, who wouldn’t benefit from more education on the economy? Let’s look at the credit crunch. It is not anything people anticipated. You clearly had very sophisticated bankers who misjudged the situation. To me, that statement speaks more to [McCain’s] humility than it does to his expertise.”
EVEN WITH MCCAIN’S WELL-DOCUMENTED heresy on the Bush tax cuts, readers of Tough Choices are probably not surprised to learn Fiorina has chosen McCain over Hillary Clinton or, especially, Barack Obama. In one telling passage from her memoir, for example, someone asks Fiorina why she prefers Beethoven to Mozart.
“It was a good question,” she writes. “Mozart’s music was angelic and otherworldly in its beauty. I could imagine divine inspiration, but I couldn’t hear human struggle. I could hear angst and fear in Beethoven. His music was sublime, and ultimately triumphant in its suffering and humanity.”
As goes Fiorina’s record collection, so, one could posit, go her thoughts on the presidential race. The times the nation faces, she argued, are too consequential for a candidate to not be rooted in some practicality and reality. “John McCain will never be an eloquent orator the way Barack Obama is,” she said. “Barack Obama is an extremely appealing candidate to many, many people and we shouldn’t underestimate that. I think the way we run against him, though, is to compare his talk to his record and compare his talk to his action. If the American people see a consistent disconnect between…talk and action, they’ll get that. One thing people know about John McCain is that he walks the talk.”
Often in her speeches at colleges and businesses around the country, Fiorina speaks on the difference between managers and leaders, and she’s found the concept transferable to the political world. “Management is about producing acceptable results within known constraints and conditions,” Fiorina explained. “And that’s what a lot of politicians do. They manage public opinion. They manage their positions to reflect public opinion or what they perceive to be public opinion. And they manage bureaucracies. What leaders do is change the order of things and set an organization on a new path….That doesn’t mean we throw out things that have served us well, our bedrock values. But we have to accept that we operate in a different environment today.”
John McCain, unsurprisingly, fits Fiorina’s stated bill for leadership. Perhaps previewing how McCain will run against a self-anointed change agent without eschewing the concept of change in a nation squirming at the status quo like Ritalin-deprived children in the back of a station wagon, Fiorina struck out: “If you really want to change something you have to understand it,” she said. “You have to know where the bodies are buried. You have to know what levers to pull. John McCain understands how Washington works and that’s not a downside. It’s wonderful for Barack Obama to talk — ‘I’m going to change Washington!’ — but, frankly, he doesn’t understand how it works. And you can’t change some unless you know where the pressure points are. John McCain knows all that and has demonstrated his ability to tackle entrenched interests.”
No doubt, the picture of McCain tackling unspecified “entrenched interests” may sound to many conservative ears somewhat akin to how Bill Clinton’s promise to put 100,000 new cops on the street sounded to Hunter S. Thompson when he and P.J. O’Rourke met the future president at a Little Rock restaurant in 1992. “I was up all night persuading Hunter this was not a personal threat,” O’Rourke has recalled.
Nevertheless, when asked what she believed McCain’s major economic initiatives would be, Fiorina laid out a solid palette of free-market shades from moving forward with free-trade agreements along the lines of the inexplicably maligned, perhaps derailed Colombian agreement to chiding Democrats for employing “very disturbing” protectionist rhetoric and “playing on people’s fears” to keeping taxes low on individuals, nonexistent on the Internet and reduced for companies spearheading next generation innovations.
There was also feel-good talk of encouraging green technologies and nuclear energy, restructuring unemployment programs to include more training for workers in increasingly marginal industries as well as reforming public education by bringing “the discipline of competition and the power of parental choice to the education system in a big way,” which just so happens was the topic of Fiorina’s 1989 MIT Master’s thesis, “The Education Crisis: Business and Government’s Role in Reform.”
UNFORTUNATELY, OUR DISCUSSION took place a few hours before McCain’s change of heart on mortgage bailouts, so I was unable to query Fiorina on this point. Time ran out before we could get to foreign affairs as well. One gathers from her book she probably has a fairly savvy take on the challenges we face: In 1969 she lived in Ghana where her father was teaching constitutional law in the wake of revolution. “I saw how difficult building a nation was,” she writes, “when smaller but more powerful tribal loyalties conflicted with the larger but more abstract idea of a nation.”
It’s a timely observation, whether we’re talking about Iraq or a fractious Republican coalition. How it will all turn out remains to be seen, but sitting in the Hilton lobby last week it seemed fairly obvious that McCain was lucky to have Carly Fiorina aboard.
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