by Karin Tanabe
Growing up outside of Groton, Connecticut, Beth Wilkinson was a self-professed girly girl who spent more time en pointe than rolling in the dirt. Fast forward a few years and she was taking down some of the toughest men in America. What happened? “It was in part how I grew up: near a Navy base with a father who was a nuclear submarine captain. I don’t know how I got into all these tough guy cases. If you enjoy prosecuting then you see drug cases and violent crimes as things that really warrant your time.”
Now EVP and General Counsel for Fannie Mae, Beth tells us she was a ballerina who entered the Army. “I grew up middle class and went to Princeton on an ROTC scholarship. There was only one other such woman, and I really wasn’t too fond of it at first.” She admits her aversion to the program was superficial: “I didn’t like putting on my uniform.” When Wilkinson was a junior she decided to ditch the fatigues for frocks and called up her father to break the news. “He said ‘you can’t quit. You’re not rich like the other kids. You’re not trying. If you were, you’d be getting something out of it.’” Beth now sees it as one of the best things her father ever did for her. She stayed with ROTC until graduation and took an educational delay from her service, earning a JD from UVA before heading to the Pentagon.
Beth in her office holding a picture of her family. “I’m in an old mommies club,” she tells us. She’s being literal: It’s a group of women who had their kids when they were older and get together to talk about everything from work to kids and shoes.
“There were benefits and challenges to being a woman at the Pentagon,” says Beth, who entered the angular halls at the ripe old age of 24. “There was some institutional sexism—the attitude that since women don’t serve in combat they are not doing the most valuable job in the military. Sometimes that sunk into the ethos. In the end you have to do the work and prove yourself, and it overcomes most of the preconceived notions.” Wilkinson went from the Pentagon to New York where she served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District. From there she came to DC as Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General and Principal Deputy for Terrorism and Violent Crime. Her career as a prosecutor culminated with the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
They really were talking about work while we snapped this. Beth pictured planning the day with Christine Reddy.
For the trial Beth moved to Denver for two years. “It was very draining emotionally. There were 168 people killed. I remember a little boy who was five and too young to testify. He had lost his grandfather. He became violent in school and had to go to therapy where he would build a building and knock it down. Here was a child in Florida deeply impacted and because of his violence, impacting the children around him. It was a very simple way of seeing how the bombing influenced the entire country. People never got over the fact that a US citizen would kill their own. After all the years working on the case, I still don’t have a good explanation.” After the trial Beth became involved with the Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Initiative - a bipartisan committee of death penalty supporters and opponents who believe that the risk of wrongful executions in America has become too high. “McVeigh and Nichols had very good counsel. The judge was very careful to allow them to have all the resources to put on a good defense.” Wilkinson testified in front of Congress, the Senate and House on the death penalty and the importance of good counsel. “There are many states where the poor and minorities are tried without good defense and sentenced to death. I am not against the death penalty, but I believe that every person should be vigorously defended.”
With a court drawing of the Timothy McVeigh trial.
Wilkinson left the government after the McVeigh case. “It was hard to top but it was also hard to keep up that emotional intensity.” She went to Latham & Watkins and finally slept every night. “It was fascinating to see the impact of these cases on individuals. You depersonalize it quite a bit when you’re a prosecutor. And I learned a lot about business.” That is when Fannie Mae came calling. “It was an interesting challenge to come after the throes of crisis,” says Beth, who arrived in February 2006 when Daniel Mudd had just been named permanent CEO. “The culture is changing, and we have open and constructive discussions. It is very hard to change corporate culture. It seems like it is in the walls, in the water somewhere.”
Beth says that she could not have tried the McVeigh case and been a mother at the same time. Now that she has three small children with husband David Gregory, Chief White House Correspondent for NBC News, she feels very lucky to be at Fannie Mae, “a great place for a working mom.” And what of those Army boots? Well, it seems they have been traded in for Manolos. But the lessons she learned in them are still marching on.