Whitman was a vice-president of General Motors from 1979 to 1992, helping to shape the company’s response to two recessions and the globalization of the auto industry. When many executives still hoped the troubles were temporary, she argued that GM faced profound problems that threatened its future. But even she was shocked at the disaster that hit the auto industry in the past year.
In December, Whitman was just back from a meeting of the “Group of Thirty” in New York. At seventy-three, she’s a “senior member” of the financial think tank. “Paul used to be the chairman,” she says, referring to an old friend and mentor, Paul Volcker. “The two people who didn’t show up, understandably, were Larry Summers and Tim Geithner”—past and future secretaries of the treasury.
Marina, Paul, Larry, and Tim are on a first-name basis because before she was GM’s first female group vice-president, Whitman was the first woman to serve on the White House Council of Economic Advisers. That blend of business and policy experience gives her a special perspective on the crisis that’s brought her old employer to the brink of bankruptcy.
As she sees it, the Detroit automakers were hit by a “perfect storm,” in which the financial crisis, gas prices, and a “doozie of a recession” combined to lay bare long-standing weaknesses. No wonder her friends are urging her to get back to work on her memoir.