Michele Flournoy, the highest-ranking woman in Pentagon history, went to Beverly Hills High School with 1970s teen idol Shaun Cassidy and did her homework on the set of television’s “The Odd Couple,” where her father worked as a cinematographer.
Today she sits in her office in the Pentagon’s E Ring of top officials bathed in a green glow from the high-tech security equipment that creates a sound screen to prevent eavesdropping. It’s a requirement for the job: Flournoy is one of the most powerful people at the Pentagon, the woman in charge of thinking about how and why the United States fights wars.
On the surface, her personal trajectory is somewhat incongruous. She went from living in one of the most madcap subcultures in the country — 1970s Hollywood — to one of the most guarded — the Pentagon.
But she came by her passion for public service honestly. Her uncle once mentioned in passing that her father was some sort of World War II hero. “But my father never talked about it,” she said recently over a dinner of palak paneer at an Indian restaurant in downtown Bethesda. “And he died when I was just 14.”
Soon after, Flournoy’s interest in living abroad — she spent a summer during high school in Belgium — and her fascination with the nuclear arms race of the Reagan years took her far from the sitcom sets of Paramount Studios.
Today, she holds the title of undersecretary of defense for policy. Like her father, she avoids boasting about her accomplishments, although she’s navigating some of the most vexing foreign policy challenges in the history of the Pentagon. And she’s something of a mystery to outsiders.
Flournoy’s job as a behind-the-scenes policy player is growing more public since the departure of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Incoming secretary Leon E. Panetta is seen as a Pentagon outsider and Flournoy as the voice of calm guiding the transition, those who work around her say.
At the Pentagon, her portfolio includes overseeing the deployment of U.S. special forces to help train the Ugandan military to fight rebel groups, responding to the unfolding turmoil in Yemen and Syria, implementing widespread defense budget cuts and, on top of it all, engineering the drawdown of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan.
She’s also the mother of three children younger than 14 and part of a new generation of high-ranking female leaders at the Pentagon, once such a male-dominated workplace that when she and a friend organized a lunch for senior Pentagon women in 1993, the group filled just one table.
“For weeks after it was this huge conspiracy about what we were talking about,” she said, recalling the period when she was a Defense Department official in the Clinton administration. “Fast forward to today, and you could fill an entire dining room with other key women leaders.”
More brains than bluster
Flournoy, 50, is affectionately known as The Other Michele, a reference to first lady Michelle Obama, by those who work with her. Younger women at the Pentagon say they look to her as their trailblazer. But she’s little-known outside the Pentagon and Washington’s foreign policy think-tank circles, despite the fact that many predict she will be the first female secretary of defense.
She’s tall and slender with a regal manner. She often wears pearls. Soft-spoken and understated, she is described by her co-workers as brainy rather than blustery. She talks slowly, frequently stopping to think. Her careful speaking style differs wildly from that of Douglas J. Feith, who held her job during the George W. Bush administration and came under fire for his role in building the administration’s case for the invasion of Iraq.
Her foreign policy philosophy came sharply into view when she was running the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a centrist think tank she established in 2007 along with co-founder Kurt Campbell. They co-wrote an influential policy paper called “The Inheritance and the Way Forward,” which urged “common-sense pragmatism” and realistic objectives when working in places such as Iraq rather than a more typically liberal interventionist approach.
She’s a centrist but a supporter of the Democratic Party. In the think-tank world, she’s known as a “liberal realist” who supports the principled use of force but is also wary of being blindly interventionist.
Flournoy’s to-do list this month includes formulating a “10-year plan that gets us out of the in-box to say where does the military need to go as an institution . . . even as it gets smaller because of budget cuts.”
Or, as she put it one morning in the spacious green-hued office that she calls her aquarium, “I feel like the policy job within the Pentagon is to help the secretary [of defense] keep looking over the horizon.”
She works long hours but says she sometimes gets home in time to have dinner with her family and hear about her children’s day. “But once they go to bed, I get out the laptop and work at the kitchen table.” She doesn’t spend much time networking or at Washington parties.
“Unlike most people in Washington, she’s not always checking her BlackBerry or looking for the most important person in the room,” said Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and a longtime friend who introduced Flournoy to her husband, W. Scott Gould, a former naval reservist and deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Campbell, who describes himself as “an extrovert,” and Flournoy, who doesn’t describe herself at all unless pressed, are said to be opposites by people who work with them. When they formed CNAS, liberal bloggers called them the “perfect Washington think tank royalty,” because the effort was seen as powerful and their personalities worked well together.
They didn’t suffer fools gladly, a former co-worker said,and mentored many rising foreign policy stars. CNAS became a virtual farm team for high-ranking defense jobs in the Obama administration, former co-workers said.
“Kurt was the frontman. Michele and Kurt are the yin-yang,” said John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is now CNAS president. “She’s controlled steel. But there’s a lot of iron in Michele Flournoy. She doesn’t say that much. But what she says, she means, and it matters.”
Motivated by his memory
The story of her father’s unsung yet distinguished military history may help explain Flournoy’s modest style.
The truth about George Flournoy’s World War II service was uncovered by a fellow at her think tank in 2008. He first heard about the mystery surrounding her father’s military record from Flournoy during a drive they took to Carlisle, Pa., to attend an Army War College lecture.
“She casually mentioned the lack of records on her father as something that always interested her,” said Jaron Wharton, an Army major who is now a White House fellow. “I really just ran with it from there and was able to get a copy of his original records.”
Wharton discovered that Flournoy’s father saved his entire crew by safely landing a plane — although he had no flying experience — during a nighttime bombing raid in Germany after the pilot and co-pilot were wounded.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Wharton presented Flournoy with a box displaying all of her father’s awards in 2008 at a surprise ceremony that her family attended.
Flournoy, who is known for being extremely poised and rarely showing emotion, ended up “crying my eyes out,” she said. “It just totally surprised me, and what a gift for my children.”
Flournoy’s father never got to see her graduate from Harvard and later study international relations at Balliol College at Oxford. He died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack, and the family struggled financially without him. Her mother was an aspiring actress and singer before her marriage. After his death, she did “many jobs with the elderly and in banks,” Flournoy said.
But she purposefully moved the family into a modest two-bedroom apartment just within the Beverly Hills school district, because it offered such a good education.
On summer breaks from Harvard, Flournoy worked for Time magazine, covering such back-of-the-book features as “the gelato craze and swinging singles health clubs,” she said with a laugh. At one point, she thought she really wanted to be a journalist.
“But I couldn’t decide which side of the interview I wanted to be on,” she said. “Ultimately, it became about being able to go deep on the substance.”
Flournoy’s foreign policy ambitions flourished at Oxford, where she remained mindful of her father’s legacy. “You feel like you are living for two. To honor the memory of an incredibly loving parent,” she said.
Her mother, who died years ago, was always very proud of her, Flournoy said. But, smiling softly , she added that she once tried to interest her mother in what she was working on — a Pentagon military study called the “Bottom-Up Review.”
“She tried. But my field was completely foreign to her experience,” she said.
Leading by example
It’s hard to find anyone who’ll say anything negative about Flournoy.
She’s addicted to Starbucks, Wharton offered lamely.
She wasn’t the best softball player in the “think tank softball league,” another former co-worker said. (Although she’s known to exercise a lot and mentions that she recently woke up at 5 a.m. to squeeze in a DVD by “Biggest Loser” fitness guru Jillian Michaels.)
Supporters say Flournoy leads by example and seems most fulfilled when she’s mentoring young people, especially a new generation of women at the Pentagon who are recognized as the top minds in defense today.
During a recent awards ceremony hosted by the Pentagon’s Senior Professional Women’s Association, Flournoy gave the keynote remarks and listened to women describe a “Mad Men”-style era when women were advised by their mothers to learn to type in case their ambitions didn’t pan out.
Kathleen “Kath” Hicks, who works under Flournoy on defense strategy, said there was a time at the Pentagon when older women were afraid to put photographs of their children on their desks lest they not be taken seriously. Hicks, who also has three children, called Flournoy her role model.
“Michele Flournoy does a lot for women in this field just by being an example,” added Alice Friend, who was Flournoy’s special assistant and now works as a senior adviser to Hicks, who was honored that day.
When asked whether she hopes to become the first female secretary of defense, Flournoy once again proves to be her father’s daughter.
“Thinking of how we use the military to protect national security and advance American interests and how we take care of our military is honorable work,” she says quietly. “I’d love to keep working at it as long as I can.”
But maybe the book on her nightstand is more telling. It’s called “How Remarkable Women Lead.”
“It’s about a leadership model that was deduced from interviewing lots of women leaders,” she says. “It’s really interesting.”
By Emily Wax
November 6, 2011