Republicans acknowledge rising star Meg Whitman

[26 August 2008]

By Peter Hecht

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Last week, on live national television, the world witnessed Meg Whitman’s celestial ascent in the eyes of John McCain.

Rick Warren, famed author and “Purpose Driven” pastor of the Saddleback Church, asked the presumptive Republican nominee to list “the three wisest people” he would “rely on heavily” in his administration.

McCain named General David Petraeus, “one of the great military leaders in American history,” and John Lewis, a civil rights leader who “can teach us a lot about the meaning of courage.”

Then he brought up Whitman, an executive who helped turn a fledgling auction site for Beanie Babies and PEZ dispensers into an Internet giant with nearly 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenues.

“It’s one of the great American success stories,” McCain said. “And in these challenging economic times we need to call on the wisdom . . . of people like Meg Whitman.”

Now McCain is calling on the former eBay president and CEO to deliver a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn..

Her appearance Sept. 4 only adds to the political buzz for Whitman, 52. She is a rumored 2010 California gubernatorial candidate and is also drawing speculation as potential surprise pick as McCain’s vice presidential nominee.

Whitman, who led eBay from 1998 to early 2008 and amassed a personal fortune estimated at $1.4 billion, politely brushes off talk of any personal political aspirations.

“My number one job is Sen. McCain’s campaign,” she said in an interview. “I haven’t decided at all what I will do after the election.”

Asked about McCain’s remarks and the vice-presidential talk, she said: “I don’t think I will speculate on that today. He has a lot of very good people to choose from and I know he will make a great choice.”

But she conceded that her 20-year-old son, Will Harsh, was quite impressed after they sat down in their Atherton, Calif., home Saturday to watch Warren interview McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

When McCain called Whitman one of the wisest people he knows, she said: “We looked at each other and said that’s quite an honor. He was genuinely thrilled.”

Whitman will address the GOP convention in a Wednesday session entitled “Prosperity.” It will also feature fellow California technology executive and former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina.

While Fiorina is the “Victory 08 Chairman” for the Republican National Committee, Whitman is one of McCain’s national co-chairs and a top economic advisor.

Fellow McCain national co-chair John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, said McCain’s comments affirmed “the trust and the chemistry” he saw develop between the candidate and former eBay executive.

Whitman first went to work as a fundraiser for McCain’s GOP rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The Harvard Business School graduate was a past vice president of Romney’s Bain & Co. firm.

Chambers said Whitman’s inclusive management style and their shared “understanding that high tech can literally change the future of companies and countries” helped her bond with McCain after she joined his campaign.

She also provided McCain cachet _ and cash _ in Silicon Valley. She raised $2.5 million for him in a day at her home, drawing guests curious about both the candidate and the host.

“The rumor all over Silicon Valley is that Meg wants to run for governor,” said Internet publishing executive Tony Perkins, one of those at the May event. He said Whitman was “definitely in command,” introducing McCain to donors and hailing him in opening remarks.

“She was very articulate with a very strong presence. I think it’s safe to bet that she has political ambitions,” Perkins said.

But Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said the executive who turned eBay “into an international juggernaut” is not a self-promoter.

“She has done it is such a humble, non-showy way,” Guardino said. “She doesn’t seek the limelight. She just does the work.”

Whitman, who is married to neurosurgeon Griffith Harsh IV, said she had little time for politics when she was working to “take eBay from a start-up to a grown-up.”

But she donated money to fellow eBay executive, Steve Westly, for his 2006 Democratic primary run for governor. And when former colleague Mitt Romney called her for his presidential campaign, she signed up.

“I said, ‘For you, Mitt, I’ll get involved,’” she said.

Whitman said she was then drawn to McCain because he was “one of the leading voices in the Senate against taxing the Internet.” She also embraced his plan for tax cuts for research and development.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s chief domestic policy advisor, said Whitman brought the voice of an executive who knows how to create businesses and jobs.

“She seems genuinely connected to opportunities in the future and how they will help people on the ground,” he said.

In May, Whitman accompanied McCain to Finelite, a company that builds environmentally sustainable lighting systems.

She facilitated a town hall meeting featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California technology entrepreneurs. She set the thematic table by proclaiming that “innovation is the life blood of the American economy.”

Then she stepped back and let McCain take over, leaving others to wonder whether her turn at politics is coming.

“She balances a sense of urgency as a business leader with the ability to have patience as a government leader,” said Chambers. “If she were to be a part of government, do I think she would be very good in that field? Yes I do.”

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