Washington is a town obsessed with power—how it is acquired, how it is used, and especially who wields it. In some ways, the answers are intuitive and obvious: by poll, in policy, by the president on down. But as we all know, there is more to the story. The noise of outside advocacy groups, the push and pull of conflicting interests, and the often-invisible impact of money all affect the use of power.
(FULL COVERAGE: Washington's Women)
Although Washington is still a long way from gender parity, women are gaining more top positions (in Congress, on the Supreme Court, and in the administration) every year. A lesser-told story is their rise outside D.C. officialdom. Some of Washington’s most influential women, such as Nancy Pelosi, have the renown that accords with their station. But many others—for example, Sharon Soderstrom, the chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or American Insurance Association President Leigh Ann Pusey—wield less-visible authority.
So we asked our Political Insiders—174 experts from a range of D.C. specialties—who they think are doing the most to shape this town. From their suggestions, a National Journal panel of reporters and editors compiled a highly unscientific list of 25 of Washington’s most influential women. We left off some obviously important people (such as Valerie Jarrett and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), because rather than pick three Supreme Court justices, for instance, we wanted to include women from all facets of Washington life. Many of these women talked to NJ about their (slowly) increasing share of power, the work/life balance everyone here struggles with, and other obstacles that women must still overcome.
Jackie Calmes has covered three presidents during her journalism career, but the simple act of approaching Air Force One still gets to her. “It’s such an iconic symbol of the power of this country,” she says. “To me, it’s like the American eagle.” Now, she covers the White House for the world’s most influential newspaper, one to which the Obama administration pays close attention.
As a little girl, Calmes would tell anyone who would listen that she was going to be the first woman president. Over time, she realized that there are two kinds of people when it comes to politics: the participants and the observers. She decided to become the latter.
After graduating with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, the Ohio native headed to Texas where she covered politics for six years before making her way to Washington in 1984. Calmes, 57, has reported on Congress, presidents, and elections for Congressional Quarterly, The Atlanta Constitution, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2008, she started at The New York Times, where she is currently the White House correspondent.
Gerald Seib, now the Washington bureau chief for the WSJ, submitted Calmes’s articles in 2005 for the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Reporting on the Presidency. He attributes her victory to her ability to write about politics, policy, and economics. “She takes serious subjects seriously, without taking herself too seriously,” Seib says. “That makes her both good and a lot of fun to work with.”
Calmes has this advice for young women: “Have a goal, make it your north star, all the while knowing you’ll have to make adjustments and trade-offs along the way.” Calmes’s own life adjustments came with her two daughters. She has no regrets that she chose to juggle children and a career. “I’d never say I had it all,” she says, “but I came as close to it as I could have hoped.”
By Brianna McClane
Hillary Rodham Clinton
In the 1980s, when she was the first lady of Arkansas and chair of her husband’s education-reform commission, Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered her findings to a group of skeptical state lawmakers. Rep. Lloyd George, the tobacco-spitting epitome of Arkansas’s good ol’ boy tradition, sprang to his feet and shouted, “Gentlemen, we have elected the wrong Clinton!”
He was the first to say so, but not the last.
In the next three decades, Hillary Clinton—smarter, tougher, and more get-it-done pragmatic than her talk-it-out husband—engineered Bill Clinton’s climb to the White House and later reached for that pinnacle herself in 2008. She is now a successful secretary of State who has traveled tirelessly to a record 100 countries in the service of her trusting boss, President Obama. She is, hands down, the most influential woman in Washington.
It’s been a long road. She was a liability in 1980 when voters tossed Bill from the Governor’s Mansion and an asset in 1982 when she willed him to a career-reviving return to office. Her loyalty saved his political career during sex scandals in 1992 and 1998. Her rigid and cloistered leadership of the 1993 health care debate harmed her husband’s presidency. On matters of politics and policy, Hillary Clinton was one of the most influential first ladies in U.S. history.
Rivals in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton and Obama went on to establish a strong relationship built more on mutual respect than friendship. Obama admires her work ethic and loyalty, and believes that her fame burnishes his foreign-policy agenda. In their shared worldview, defense of democratic rights (Libya) is tempered by cold pragmatism about what U.S. power can achieve (Syria and Pakistan). The secretary argued privately for more troops in Afghanistan and Iraq but faithfully executed the decision to wind down the wars. Clinton, 64, will not serve a second term at State, but her influence is bigger than any title, if for no other reason than this: She is the most credible successor to Obama.
Spokesman Philippe Reines says that Clinton didn’t have time to discuss her most-influential ranking with National Journal. “If she rates the list again next year,” he said in an e-mail, “she’ll have nothing but free time.” Don’t buy that. I’ve covered the Clintons since the mid-1980s—long enough to know and respect Hillary Clinton as much as anybody in Washington. Long enough to believe that America will get another chance to elect a woman long ago tagged the “right Clinton.”
By Ron Fournier
Dianne Feinstein occupies that rare and enviable space for a politician: She’s both popular back home and powerful in Washington. The California Democrat is running for her fourth full term in the Senate this year, but running is an overstatement. It’s more of a saunter. She hasn’t faced a serious challenge in a decade, and she finished atop a 24-person field in June’s open primary, with her closest rival a woeful 37 percentage points behind. In an interview, she conceded, “I think there’s a very good chance I’ll be reelected” this year.
That electoral security has given Feinstein, 79, the freedom to operate as a political player in Washington. These days, she chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee at a time of drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and counterterrorism intelligence-gathering. A moderate Democrat from a very blue state, she has shown a willingness to buck the party line, such as calling the recent “avalanche of leaks” of classified intelligence “very disturbing.” The issue had been mostly seized on by Republicans accusing the White House of doling out details for political gain.
But Feinstein has managed to stay in favor in the highest echelons of the Democratic Party. It was in her living room, after all, that Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton met face-to-face in 2008 for the first time after Obama became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. And as chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee in 2009, she presided over Obama’s inauguration ceremonies.
Throughout her tenure, she has been a Senate bellwether, sometimes on legislation and sometimes, as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, on whether judges will be confirmed. “I’ve always felt that the thing that counts is being very practical,” Feinstein says.
By Shane Goldmacher
This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.