On a recent weekday morning, I drive to Carly Fiorina’s house in Northern Virginia, about 40 minutes from Washington. She lives in a gated community down a driveway so long that it’s lined with its own streetlamps. Her $6.1 million house sits on five acres, with unobstructed views of the Potomac River. After I park my car, she lets out her two Yorkshire terriers, Max and Snickers, to greet me.
As I walk into the huge foyer with a sweeping staircase, Fiorina takes my coat, while her dogs run in circles and yip. (“They think they’re bigger than they are. Don’t dissuade them!” she later jokes.) Together, Fiorina and her husband, Frank, make for a warm, friendly couple. They look younger than two people in their 60s: both trim, energetic, and smartly dressed. Frank has gone out and bought donuts for us, still wrapped in a yellow box, which Fiorina keeps offering me. Are you sure you don’t want any coffee, juice, or water? she asks. They treat me like I’m a new neighbor who’s stopped by to watch Sunday football.
Eventually, Fiorina and I head upstairs to her study, where we talk about her (potential) presidential plans. She has been signaling for months that she may run, and I want to hear more about her brand of politics. When I ask how she would distinguish herself from the current crop of Republican candidates, she says: “Well, I think I’m different in every respect. Clearly, I bring a different experience set. I bring a different perspective. As a result, I speak about the issues just differently. I think I tend to focus on solutions and results. I think I have a different voice.” Asked what would be her path to victory—what states, for instance, would she win?—she says, “Well, I think it is hard for everyone to see how it will go down. We’re all consumed with politics all of the time. We don’t know what the field is yet. We’re a year away. No one has officially declared. I think there is a lot that is going to unfold.”
Fiorina offers no shortage of these generalities about her possible political career—until the conversation turns to Hillary Clinton. At that point, she becomes much more animated and detailed. “I think her clumsy attempt to channel Elizabeth Warren and say, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that businesses create jobs’ was not just clumsy, it belies a lack of understanding about the way the economy works,” she says. Fiorina also criticizes the former secretary of State’s handling of the Benghazi attack and predicts that Clinton “will play the gender card over and over again, which is unfortunate but predictable.”
For Fiorina—the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, whose only previous attempt at elected office was an unsuccessful 2010 bid to displace Sen. Barbara Boxer—going after Clinton has proved to be a fruitful tactic. Last month, she got high marks and substantial media attention for a speech she gave at the Iowa Freedom Summit. Speaking alongside other GOP hopefuls, she unleashed a zinger at Clinton that played well with the conservative crowd. “Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe,” she told the audience. “But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something. You see, Mrs. Clinton, flying is not an accomplishment; it is an activity.”
Fiorina had written the speech by hand on the plane en route to Iowa, but she didn’t add that Clinton line until a few hours before she took the stage. It proved to be a great decision. “Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker stocks rise after Iowa appearances,” trumpeted a headline in The Washington Times the next day. “Carly Fiorina: The GOP’s weapon against Hillary Clinton?” asked Fortune shortly thereafter.
Underlying all this praise for Fiorina is a sense that, as the only Republican woman who is likely to run for president, she might be uniquely able to criticize Clinton without drawing charges of sexism. “The most effective way to criticize a woman is to have another woman do it,” a Republican strategist told Time last year.
This logic (however gendered and arguably sexist) may well get Fiorina an initial hearing from the Republican electorate in the months to come. But if that initial hearing goes well, then the tough questions will begin: Why is she running for president? What is her essential message to GOP voters? And, beyond an ability to lambaste Clinton, is she actually a good messenger?
“Carly has this kind of a sense about herself that she has something definitive to give,” says Ken Khachigian, a lawyer who was an adviser on her 2010 Senate campaign. “Obama jumped ahead of everyone to be president based on his story. She has her story, too.”
THE DAY AFTER I VISIT her house, I spend five hours with Fiorina as she shuttles between appearances. The first event takes place on the ninth floor of the Hay Adams hotel, where she is speaking to a crowd of roughly 60 people at an annual policy breakfast sponsored by the Legacy Political Fund, a conservative PAC. (We later run into Republican Sen. Pat Toomey just outside the event and Sen. Marco Rubio in the hotel lobby.)The major problem with Fiorina’s unsuccessful 2010 bid against Sen. Barbara Boxer of California was that she let Boxer’s campaign define her as an out-of-touch CEO. (David McNew/Getty Images)
When I get there, Fiorina is standing at the podium. On the left is an American flag; behind her, through the ballroom’s wall of windows, you can see one of the best views in Washington: a panorama of the Washington Monument, the White House, and the Treasury Department.
Fiorina tells a story she has told many times before about how she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in medieval history and philosophy. She pauses, so everyone can chuckle at the foolishness of these impractical majors. “All dressed up, nowhere to go!” she says, poking fun at herself. She enrolled in law school, hated it, and quit after a single semester. “And, now I’m really unemployable,” she says. So, she finds a job as a receptionist at a nine-person firm where she typed, filed, and answered the phone. “I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was just trying to pay the rent,” she says.
Even though I know the arc of her story, it is still fun to listen to her. Everyone else in the room seems to agree: No one gets up for more coffee or eggs from the breakfast buffet. No one around me casually scrolls through email or Facebook. For a few minutes, she owns this room.
Fiorina isn’t just good in group settings. She’s also a skilled one-on-one retail politician. (Later in the day, we go to Fox News together, where she is as kind to the makeup artists—asking one about her cabbage diet—as she is to Ed Henry, the network’s chief White House correspondent.) This talent may trace back to her childhood. When she was growing up, her family moved so often to accommodate her father’s legal career—he was a law professor, a law school dean, and a conservative federal judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit—that Fiorina ended up attending high school in Africa, California, and North Carolina. The upside of such constant change, she writes in her memoir, was that it taught her to always ask people questions as a way to make friends and learn about a new place. Much later, she writes, “I learned this is a great management tool.”
After dropping out of law school and after her stint as a secretary, Fiorina eventually got her MBA and for about 20 years worked in various sales, marketing, and strategy jobs for telecommunication giants AT&T and Lucent Technologies. Then, in 1998, a reporter for Fortune came to Lucent to interview Fiorina and a coworker for a feature on the most powerful women in business. At the time, Fiorina was president of Lucent’s Global Service Provider division. Though her group was responsible for churning out roughly $19 billion in revenue annually, Fiorina wasn’t exactly a household name. Yet when the Fortune piece came out, she was ranked in the No. 1 slot—ahead of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Fiorina topped the list, Fortune wrote, because she “sells no less than ‘the things that make communications work’—big-ticket networking systems and software for telephone, Internet, and wireless-service operators in 43 countries around the globe. In short, she’s at the center of the ongoing technology revolution that’s changing how we live and work.”
After that, recruiters for major companies started calling. The call that intrigued Fiorina most came from Hewlett-Packard. Soon enough, she was the company’s new CEO—the first to come from outside HP, and the first female head of a Fortune 20 company.
When Fiorina took over HP, Frank retired from his own career as an AT&T executive. Unable to have children herself, Fiorina had helped to raise her husband’s two daughters as her own. Now, Frank opted to stay home, support Fiorina, and travel with her—a move that Carly’s own father did not approve of for the first few years, Frank says. “It was a very practical consideration,” Carly recalls. “By the time I was named CEO of HP, we either would never see one another or something had to give. It had to be his decision, and I’m grateful that he made that decision.”
IN HINDSIGHT, the HP board of directors made an unusual choice by picking her; she’d never run a company, and she had a marketing, rather than an engineering, background. “I thought she was one of the best saleswomen in the world from Lucent, but she was over her head at HP. I don’t think she had the technical and management skills,” says Mark Anderson of Strategic News Service, which covers Silicon Valley.
Fiorina also did not anticipate the attention that she would receive as the first female CEO of HP. When a reporter asked about her gender at the press conference announcing her appointment, she replied that “the glass ceiling doesn’t exist,” a moment she recounts in her memoir. Even now, she doesn’t seem particularly hung up on the idea of gender. (When I ask her to name some Republican politicians she admires, she initially names all men—George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan.)
From almost the start, Fiorina’s tenure at HP was controversial. The Fortune article and her own energetic manner propelled her to such a level of celebrity that, at times, it seemed to overtake her work at HP. “She spent a lot of time on the road and being photographed with the products, except that none of the products did very well,” Anderson says. She appeared on the cover of business magazines, traveled around the world to meet HP employees and customers, and did the voice-over herself for a new HP ad that was intended to both rebrand and pay homage to the company’s entrepreneurial origins. She also oversaw a controversial merger with Compaq, and fought a very public proxy battle that pitted her against one of the children of the company’s founders.
For Wall Street, though, the most salient fact about Fiorina was the bottom line. During the five-plus years that she led HP, the stock price decreased by more than 50 percent. HP’s third-quarter earnings for 2004 missed the company’s projected forecast by a wide margin.
In February 2005, the HP board fired Fiorina. The next day, the company’s stock rose by 6.9 percent, and The Wall Street Journal reported that some employees reacted to the news of her dismissal by holding champagne toasts.
Accounts of why she was fired differ depending on whom you ask. Fiorina blames her departure on a number of factors, none of them of her own making. She was an outsider and the first female CEO of the company, she points out; plus, the HP board was dysfunctional. (Two board members left roughly a year and a half after Fiorina’s departure because they were implicated in a massive scandal involving the investigation of leaks of confidential information.)
But what about the company’s weak financial performance? “Yes, there were data points that the press strung together. But what the press missed at the time, and what is factually clear when you go back and look, is the context,” Fiorina says. “So, the context was that virtually every technology company’s stock was down at the very same rate—Oracle, Cisco, you name it.”
Her detractors, and much of the business press, told it differently. Venture capitalist Tom Perkins (who pushed for Fiorina’s ouster as a board member and later quit, dismayed by the leaking scandal) says she got fired because she was such a high-flying, big-picture CEO that she did not have time to execute her ideas. “The board thought she was doing too much herself and wanted her to hire a few executive vice presidents,” he says. “It turned into a standoff, which Carly lost with the board. It did not have to be this way.” (Years later, with the relationship mended, Perkins hosted a fundraiser in California for Fiorina’s Senate race.)
Fiorina’s HP tenure is a well-known story in the business world, so I called a few professors who study companies and CEOs for a broader assessment. I wanted to know how they would grade her leadership, a relevant question for someone who wants to be president. “If I reserve F for somebody who is stealing, I guess a C or C-minus,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management. “Had she not gone in there, it would have been a much better company. You can’t argue that it’s better for her leadership.”
FIORINA DEPARTED HP with a $21 million severance package. She took six months off, wrote a memoir called Tough Choices (not to be confused with Clinton’s Hard Choices), and hit the speaking circuit. From almost the start, Fiorina’s tenure at HP was controversial. (JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images)
The day after she left HP, Fiorina tells me, President Bush called and asked her to come to the Oval Office to talk about possible positions. (She also says that during her HP tenure, in 2004, Bush had offered her the post of Homeland Security secretary. A Bush spokesperson could not confirm or deny that an offer was made.) But her first major foray onto the political stage came in 2008 when she worked for the McCain campaign as an adviser. It was then, she says, that she realized how much she enjoyed the campaign trail. “I’ve always drawn my energy from people. I find it really fascinating and interesting and fun to be able to be out there and talking about what is going on in their lives,” she says. This worked fairly well until she told a TV anchor during a routine appearance that neither McCain nor his running mate, Sarah Palin, could run a major corporation. After that, senior campaign adviser Steve Schmidt said that she was never going on TV for the campaign again.
Fiorina endured personal challenges around that time as well. In early 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (She’s healthy and cancer-free now, she tells me—and in the best shape of her life.) Then, in mid-October 2009, her younger daughter, Lori, died alone in her apartment at the age of 35. Fiorina does not like to discuss it, except to say that “she struggled with addictions, and they overcame her.” A few weeks later, Fiorina announced her run for the Senate seat from California held by Boxer.
Friends say that when Fiorina was coming up through the business world, she never expressed any interest in politics. “Politics never came up. It really didn’t,” says Kathy Fitzgerald, an old friend of Fiorina’s from their Lucent days. “She never said, ‘Someday I want to be president of the United States.’ ” In fact, Fiorina failed to even vote during the 10 years she lived and worked in New Jersey, according to a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle investigation. Fred Davis, one of her former campaign consultants and a well-known GOP ad man, puts it this way: “I don’t think Carly had an innate love of politics, as a little girl, like Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell. It was like being the CEO of something new, big, and important.”
When I ask Marty Wilson, the manager of her Senate campaign, why he thinks Fiorina was initially drawn to politics, there’s a long pause on the line, so long I believe that we’ve been disconnected. “I’m not sure of her motivation,” says Wilson, who has also worked for former California Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “She gravitated toward public policy and built up some friendships with various public figures like Senator McCain. One thing leads to another.”
Behind the scenes, the campaign got off to an odd start. Accustomed to running a major global corporation, Fiorina treated early brainstorming sessions like boardroom presentations, with PowerPoint slides and organizational charts, say two people involved on the campaign. It seemed unnecessary since, at that time, just a handful of people worked for her.
While Fiorina may have a longtime marketer’s sense of how to improve the GOP’s image, it’s not clear how good she is at marketing herself.
Fiorina certainly excelled at the personal part of campaigning. Rachel Michelin, who runs the nonpartisan, nonprofit group California Women Lead, remembers watching Fiorina tell a crowd in a local high school gym the story of how she started her career as a secretary. “I watched the women, and that really resonated with them,” Michelin says. At a different event, Fiorina impressed Michelin by showing up and knowing all about her group ahead of time. “She had done her own homework and took the time to know what we were about,” Michelin recalls.
But the major problem with Fiorina’s 2010 Senate campaign—in addition to the fact that she was a pro-life Republican in a solidly liberal state—came from the way she let Boxer’s campaign define her: as an out-of-touch CEO. One pro-Boxer ad, for instance, featured a stat that Fiorina had laid off 30,000 workers and shipped jobs to China—followed by a clip saying she was proud of her HP work. Fiorina’s campaign never got out from under these attacks. “It’s fair criticism to say that we didn’t respond adequately,” Fiorina tells me. “There were people [on the campaign] who really thought that the only thing we needed to do was to focus on Boxer’s record, and I think that was wrong in retrospect. We needed to focus and clarify mine as well. Live and learn.”
Those charges certainly will come up again if Fiorina joins the presidential race. “Carly needs to work diligently to avoid the Mitt Romney complex and not be tagged as an out-of-touch one-percenter,” says Jeff Corless, the political director of her 2010 Senate race.
I press Fiorina on this point after the Hay Adams breakfast. How will she fend off attacks that she’s wealthy or out of touch in 2016? “Well, we’re not as wealthy as Hillary and Bill Clinton, not by a long shot, which is important to remember,” she shoots back from her corner of the Jeep. “You’re right, the class card is one the Democrats play, but Hillary and Bill Clinton are worth a lot more than Carly and Frank Fiorina, so that will be an interesting thing.”
Fiorina ended up losing the Senate race by 10 points. She and Frank left California and moved to Northern Virginia to live near their daughter, Tracy, and their two granddaughters, now ages 18 and 10. Fiorina threw herself into official Washington. She served as vice chair in 2012 for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now is chair of the American Conservative Union Foundation. She’s not even running for president yet, and already her days are filled with TV appearances, work for the nonprofits on whose boards she sits, and time spent on her PAC, the Unlocking Potential Project—which has raised $1.8 million, so far, and employs 15 staffers and consultants.
UNLOCKING POTENTIAL isn’t just the name of Fiorina’s PAC. It’s one of her signature phrases—a gentler version of the conservative concept of Americans helping other Americans, instead of just leaning on big government. I first encounter “unlocking potential” in her 2006 memoir. Today, it is an integral part of her stump speech. The idea is that she advanced from secretary to CEO because others saw potential in her that she originally did not see in herself. Everyone has potential, she argues, as she tries to paint a more inclusive portrait of the GOP. Like any good marketer, it seems, Fiorina has her taglines—and she will repeat them relentlessly until you remember them.Fiorina, chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, speaks at last year’s CPAC. She is slated to speak again at this year’s conference. (Rex Features via AP Images)
Indeed, as I spend time with Fiorina, it becomes clear to me that, more than anything else, her ideas about the Republican Party boil down to a set of marketing goals. Fiorina isn’t trying to reform the party ideologically; she is a standard small-government, less-regulation, pro-life Republican, and doesn’t seem especially interested in moving the party to the left or to the right. For her, the challenge facing the GOP is the need to market itself differently. “If you’re a single mom struggling to raise two kids, and Republicans are talking about smaller government and less taxation, you don’t understand what that does for you. In fact, you suspect, if that’s all you hear, you think that hurts you,” she says. “We don’t finish the sentence for people. I don’t think our policies are wrong. I think we don’t connect them in personal ways to people’s lives.”
She adds: “I think in his heart, Mitt Romney is a good man with great empathy. “… But for whatever reason, that didn’t come across. I think he’s not the only one who has talked about, ‘Well, if people are on government handouts, they’re not with us.’ That is not only disrespectful and dismissive of those people, it’s not true.”
One major irony for Fiorina is that, while she may have a longtime marketer’s sense of how to improve the GOP’s image, it’s not clear how good she is at marketing herself. In the wake of her HP firing, she lost the PR battle (fairly or not) with her former bosses. And by defining Fiorina as an out-of-touch CEO in 2010, Boxer essentially out-marketed her.
Still, Fiorina has another quality that, after spending time with her, I began (in an odd way) to find impressive: a self-confidence that seems to override any and all countervailing evidence. It’s a trait that you often notice in powerful or power-hungry men, but it’s rarer to encounter that degree of self-assurance in a woman. For instance, Fiorina sees the fact that she has never held elected office as a strength, not a weakness. “There are a whole bunch of people who feel like you don’t have to be a professional politician to hold office,” she says. “I’m not the first person on the presidential stage who has never held office. Look at Herman Cain or Ben Carson. I think they have caught fire because people are looking for something different.”
Not everyone buys this logic. “She’s obviously a gifted and capable woman. But every president of the U.S. since the founding of the Republic has fit of one of three criteria,” says Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican political consultant and pollster who is working for Sen. Rubio. They have been either “a Founding Father, a heroic military commander, or a current or former major political officeholder. Every single one. If you can’t check one of those three boxes, you’re better off demonstrating your political talent for an office other than for the most important job in the world.”
Her close friends acknowledge Fiorina’s supreme self-confidence, but they view it as an admirable quality. “I think every person has their wonderful side and their not-so-wonderful side,” says Deborah Bowker, a close friend since 1988 who recently traveled with Fiorina to India. “It is hard for me to hear people characterize Carly in a negative caricature. Part of it is that she’s super smart, strong-willed, and very attractive. If you’re a woman and you’re all those things, unfortunately, people want to find negatives.” Her close friend Kathy Fitzgerald puts it another way. “I don’t know how many politicians or business executives you have interviewed,” she tells me. “I’ve never met any of them who don’t have some amount of ego. You don’t want the shyest kid in the room to be the leader.”
Fiorina says she will decide if she’ll run in late April or May. This conveniently coincides with the release of her second book, Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey. (Displaying a marketer’s flare for suspense, she refuses to tell me the title of the book. Amazon, however, lists the title on its site.) This second book will cover the years since she left HP. When I ask about specific moments in her life during our interview, she sometimes falls back on the refrain that she will cover it in greater detail in her book—a classic marketing move if ever there was one.
If anyone seems to have any reservations about a potential 2016 run, it’s Frank. After all, he has watched his wife get fired from HP quite publicly, lose a Senate race, and become the subject of thousands of news article and headlines. “It bothers me to have people bad-mouth her,” he says as he sits at their kitchen counter. “It bothers me that she is going to work very, very hard throughout these next couple of years. We’ve been through a lot. I worry about that sometimes. I worry about her winning.”
Carly Fiorina does not seem worried. One current bit of conventional wisdom about her holds that she will run for president simply to position herself as a potential vice-presidential nominee or Cabinet secretary. Absolutely not, she tells me. “Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong,” she says. “If I do run and do this, I’m running to be president.”
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