Why Won't Whitman Meet the Press?

Has Meg Whitman come down with a case of Palinitis? 

On Tuesday, the former eBay CEO and current candidate for California's Republican gubernatorial nomination swung by a Union Pacific train facility in Oakland—and invited the press along for the ride. In politics, this sort of invitation generally implies that the candidate and the correspondents will interact at some point. But not, apparently, in Whitman's case. When the aspiring pol concluded her stilted chat with railroad officials, the press corps, which had been dutifully recording the conversation, began to pepper her with questions. Whitman stiffened, and a strained smile froze on her face. Her eyes darted to the back of the room. 

"Yeeaaah," Whitman said. "I think we're not going to take questions this very minute."

"Why is that?" shouted the reporters.

Whitman forced herself to laugh, but otherwise she was speechless. Suddenly, staffers began to herd the press corps out of the room while security guards set up screens obscuring Whitman from view—as if she were, in the words of one observer, "a museum piece to be 'watched' by reporters" but never questioned directly.

The worst part? The entire excruciating ordeal was caught on tape. And aired on TV. And posted online. And filed away for a future attack ad.

For Whitman, this is only the latest in a series of blocking maneuvers meant to limit her unscripted (or potentially unflattering) media exposure to the bare minimum—a strategy also employed by Sarah Palin during her early days on the 2008 campaign trail. Whitman has refused to release her tax returns, declined to debate her primary challengers, and avoided newspaper boards and policy reporters. When I asked to talk to the candidate for my NEWSWEEK story on CEO politicians, her spokeswoman didn't respond for several days; when she finally got back to me, it was only to say that Whitman was unable to spare even five minutes of her week to chat with me. A day later, the story was put on hold, so I sent Whitman's staffer a message asking whether we could schedule something for the following week. No response. Two followup notes also went unanswered. And I'm hardly alone in being stonewalled. In fact, it took columnist Debra Saunders five months of requests to land her first interview with Whitman—and she's a conservative. From California. 

In one sense, Whitman's reticence is understandable. The relentless churn of cable news requires reporters to treat every trifling development as if it were some sort of momentous event, so politicians in general are becoming more and more scripted. And then there's California, a massive state where retail politics is largely irrelevant and television advertising is king. Why, the thinking goes, should Whitman risk giving the press the sort of gaffe it loves to blow out of proportionespecially if straying from the script isn't even necessary to get elected? Why not just spend another $10 million on commercials and call it day? 

The problem is that the silent treatment almost always backfires. When Palin stumbled in back-to-back interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric after months of evading nonpartisan news outlets, her image among independents was ruined. Voters didn't have anything but gaffes to go on. The risks for Whitman, of course, are different. As the most successful businesswoman in America, she can probably survive a network news interview. But her corporate C.V. creates its own challenges. Since time immemorial, candidates from the business world have consistently made the same pitch: "I know how to balance a budget. I know how to create jobs. I can turn the economy around." Whitman is no exception. But voters have no way of knowing whether what worked in a corner office will work in government—especially if the CEO in question has no previous political experience. As a result, the campaign itself—the way it's managed, the way it's funded, the way it responds to challenges—becomes the ultimate measure of how well the candidate in charge will govern. Plenty of Americans thought Ross Perot looked attractive on paper. But when they saw how the billionaire businessman chose to lead—airing chart-heavy infomercials, bouncing in and out of the race—they simply couldn't imagine him in the White House. Same goes for former CEOs Al Checci and Bill Simon: both campaigned for California governor, both crashed and burned.

Californians know the Democratic nominee, Jerry Brown; he served in Sacramento from 1975 to 1983. But they don't know Whitman, which means they're basing their sense of how she'd run the state in large part on how she's running her campaign. When voters see her freeze in fear at an "open press" event, it sends exactly the wrong message: that she is imperious, that she is trying to buy the election without actually engaging, that she lacks the improvisatory political skills necessary to negotiate with union leaders, persuade recalcitrant legislators, and respond to public anxieties. That, in other words, she is a top-down ruler trying—unsuccessfully—to transition into a bottom-up business. By avoiding the press and sticking to the script, Whitman is telling the Golden State that she's not ready to govern.

These impressions may be inaccurate. In many ways, Whitman is a very promising candidate. But as former New Jersey governor (and Goldman Sachs co-chairman) Jon Corzine recently told me, "the CEO controls compensation and promotion and one's longevity at a company. Even if you don't use that tool it's always implied—and the organization responds because of it. But it's the other way around in government. You're accountable to the people 'below you.' They're not accountable to you."

The sooner Whitman resigns herself to this reality, the better off she'll be.