Life is What You Meet: An Interview with Cheryl Mills

August 15, 2013

We had the amazing opportunity to interview Ms. Cheryl Mills last February, when she was a featured speaker at University of Virginia Women in Leadership Conference. More information and materials from the conference can be found at www.virginia.edu/womeninleadership/conference/.

What do Oprah and Hillary have in common (other than that they are two of the most influential women in U.S. history)?

Cheryl Mills worked for both of them. More precisely, she worked for both of them for love.

While many high-powered professional women—maybe even especially those with a Bachelor’s degree from the likes of the University of Virginia and a law degree from a place like Stanford—can and do make career choices that will carry them far professionally, Mills takes it a step further, racing to the top of her field while working for people she deeply respects and with whom she has developed strong, loyal friendships. Not a bad way to make career choices.

Mills, whose father was career Army, grew up on bases in Germany, Belgium, and the U.S. As an Echols Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa grad at the University of Virginia, she went on to distinguish herself at Stanford Law School, where she was elected to the Law Review.

Cheryl Mills delivering remarks on the situation in Haiti during a special briefing at the State Department, Washington, January 13, 2010. USAID Administrator Raj Shah and U.S.  SOUTHCOM Commander General Douglas Fraser stand behind her.

Her equally impressive first job as an associate at a powerful Washington law firm also reflected her social conscience: she represented school districts working to achieve racial integration via Brown v. Board of Education. Not long after, she joined Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team in 1992.

Mills moved from one great job to the next: Associate Counsel to the President during Bill  Clinton’s tenure; Senior Vice President for Corporate Policy and Public Programming at Oxygen Media under Oprah Winfrey; Senior Vice President and General Counsel at New York  University. And now, at 45, she’s part of Washington’s influential inner circle as Hillary Clinton’s trusted Counselor and Chief of Staff at the State Department.

When asked if she had seen this career coming, she answers promptly, “Of course not.” And she lets go a laugh that comes easily and often.

“I always wanted to practice law,” she says. “I thought lawyers made the world fair. I was a purist—I certainly knew I wanted to have the instrument of the law to assist me in things I chose to do about my life. It’s the only constant.”

“The things I have ended up doing,” Mills says, “are not anything like a straight path!”

From the beginning, though, what has determined her choices is also constant—she chooses based on shared values and personal admiration. Noting the powerful influence of one of her University of Virginia professors—an authority in the field of bioethics and a Fellow at the Yale-Hastings Institute, which focuses on the ethics of medical decisions—Mills speculates that, “I still think, at the end of my life, I will work at the Hasting Institute.”

Colleagues and political analysts call her a smart straight talker who brings a steady hand and a voice of reason to debates. She also has the uncommon ability to disagree without personalizing the argument.

Her career choices have not always landed her in easy places. Mills got the attention of Congress and accolades from the press when she spoke for President Clinton at his impeachment hearing. The BBC called her “the shining star of the defense team.”

Although she did not defend Clinton’s actions personally, as Deputy White House Counsel she stood up for him—and for the law—in making this statement:

“We cannot uphold the rule of law only when it is consistent with our beliefs,” she said. “We must uphold it even when it protects behavior that we don't like or is unattractive or is not admirable or that might even be hurtful.”

She went on to assert her first-hand experience with Clinton’s record as a defender of racial and gender equality: “I stand before you today because President Bill Clinton believed I could stand here for him.” A staunch defender of civil rights, including women’s, Mills stated that, in this case, she was “not worried about civil rights, because this President’s record on civil rights, on women’s rights, on all of our rights is unimpeachable.”

Extraordinarily enough, she refused an offer to become White House Counsel shortly after her appearance in Congress, despite the opportunity to make history as the first woman and the first African-American to hold the post. She chose instead to help Oprah Winfrey launch Oxygen Media.

According to Mills, after the first few issues of O Magazine, Oprah realized she had to decide whether the magazine was “really going to be a reflection of [her] and [her] values and [her] brand.” When Oprah asserted her commitment to dig in, the magazine really took off:

“So much of it was her deciding to put herself into it in a very different way. It was a good reminder to her—and to all of us—about putting yourself into something you care about deeply.

She’s enormously proud of it, and she should be.”

Cheryl Mills with Patricia Lampkin and Angela Davis at the University of Virginia following her talk.

Mills brings that same vision and purpose to her current role as the State Department’s point person in Haiti.

She began visiting Haiti in the spring of 2009, before this year’s devastating earthquake. “I have an official experience of the country and then also a personal one,” she says. “I have an affection and a curiosity. Genuinely, I haven’t met people who are more resilient. They are a good reminder that life is what you meet—and embrace it when you meet it,” Mills says.

Speaking of meeting challenges, we asked Cheryl Mills about the report in a national magazine alleging that she had advised Hillary Clinton NOT to accept the position as Secretary of State. We thought Ms. Mills might regret this advice, given that the appointment has turned out to be, according to many, a good fit for Clinton. Not to mention that Mills herself is running the show, as Madame Secretary’s Chief of Staff.

But Mills offers no regrets.

In her forthright, vital way, Ms. Mills embraces not only the idea that she discouraged Clinton from being Secretary of State, but also from everything else political.

“It is true I did not want her to take this position. But the truth is that I’m also the person who pleaded with her not to run for the Senate. She ignored me. I told her I didn't think she should run for President—she listened the first time, not the second. And I told her also that she shouldn't be Secretary of State.”

We might have been surprised by this, but Mills goes on to explain why she tried to steer Clinton away from these positions.

“I know that sounds incredible because this woman is extraordinary and has done extraordinary things in each of these roles. But, for me, she is my friend. So I think first and foremost: what is she entitled to? She’s entitled to a life she wants to lead. And she’s entitled to choose her.”

So how did Clinton end up as Secretary of State?

Mills laughs. Of Clinton, she says, “She’s a Girl Scout. If you ask her to serve, she will always say ‘yes’ because she believes that’s every person’s obligation if they are a citizen of this country.”

After Clinton ultimately made the choice to serve, Mills went right into State with her. We asked her what it’s like to be among the constellation of powerful women in Washington now.

“It makes an enormous difference to have men and women in this space,” Mills says of Washington. “When Hillary Clinton is in the Congo and she is sitting with women, she’s empowering them and empowering their voices. And when Bill Clinton goes to Haiti, he sits with women, and it fundamentally changes the way people think about those things.”

Mills refers to James Carville’s statement that “Outside of love the most precious thing you can give of yourself is labor.” It is clear from everything Mills has done that she brings both of these—labor and love—to her work.

By Virginia Moran

First Published  in Iris Magazine (Fall 2010)

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