The D.C. region seems to have a magnetic pull on people who work to make a difference in the world, whether it be in the federal, business, or nonprofit spaces. To learn more about one couple’s accomplishments in D.C., and the things they’ve noticed over their years of work, we spoke with Judge William Webster, former director of both the FBI and CIA, and Lynda Webster, founder and chairman of the Webster Group.
ABERMAN: Lynda. How did you come to D.C., and eventually end up where you are now as an entrepreneur running the Webster Group?
L. WEBSTER: Well, like many of your listeners, I didn’t plan it that way. I was in graduate school at a wonderful place called Thunderbird in Arizona, studying international business. And I had planned, hoped to be a CIA agent, actually. And I was recruited to come to Washington, take the tests. I even got as far as the security clearance. I thought I had aced everything, but found out a few weeks later that I was rejected. So I didn’t get in, and tail between the legs, I thought Plan B, and that was the hotel industry.
So I worked in what was about 15 years in the hotel industry, opening on the opening team of the Willard, and Four Seasons, et cetera. And that led me to meet Judge Webster at a symphony function. And about ten years later, after I’d come to Washington, I married the director of the CIA. So, as many of us know, life does not necessarily take us the way we planned, but sometimes it’s even better.
ABERMAN: It must have been a somewhat amusing moment when you thought to yourself, I came here to work at the CIA, and I married the fellow that runs it. Is that is a quintessential D.C. moment?
L. WEBSTER: I still pinch myself and I say, well, you can’t go in the front door. You go in the back door. It worked out okay. I’m proud to have had an affiliation with the agency, although just as a spouse.
ABERMAN: Bill, how about you? How did a Missouri born lawyer end up here in D.C.?
W. WEBSTER: Well, I suppose because it was where I came to work, and that was some years ago. And I was very happily engaged as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which covers six states in the Midwest, including Missouri. And the situation came along where President Carter was looking for a new director of the FBI, and for some reason or other, he thought I would be the right person. So that’s how I happened to get the opportunity to come. I wasn’t sure at the time that I wanted to do it. I was very much interested in the FBI, but I also love being on the federal bench, and doing the work of significant responsibilities. And I talked to some people that I respected, one being the chief justice of the United States at that time, who said, isn’t that a dead end? And I said, well, why? Why would it be a dead end? He said, well, you were a judge for life. This is a 10 year term, to be director of the FBI.
And that shook me up. And then I talked to another one friend, who was solicitor general of the United States, who I respect very much, a prominent African-American. And he said, well, I can’t make a reference to you, but if you ever wanted to make a significant contribution to your country, I can’t think of a better time or place than this one. At that point there were some difficulties going on, and that was enough for me.
ABERMAN: And it’s always struck me that, and you’re both indicative of this, you come here because you want to serve. And then we sort of take root. As you’ve gone through your careers, and you interact with other people, how much of a common attribute is that in our community? That people come here to serve, and then somehow take root, and become come part of the community. It that pretty common?
L. WEBSTER: Oh, I think so. I think of the time we spent here in various careers, and there’s just so many interesting people drawn to this community. You don’t come here to be a slug. There’s just so much, and one thing leads to another. I came here to work for the CIA, and ended up opening a special events company. And we started off because I cared a lot about nonprofit events, wanted to help them raise money. Neither Webster could write a big check, but I thought we can help them raise money. So as a result, I met so many people in the nonprofit world. And then, of course, we now do corporate and other events. But seeing so many incredible people working for very little financial reward, but making a difference in the United States, in this community, or around the world. It’s stimulating. It’s exciting. And every time we think about going somewhere else, we think, what would we do? There’s just so many interesting people here.
ABERMAN: And I think another thing that defines this region that I see pretty frequently is, two-career couples. I see a lot of that here. What do you think it is about our community that really encourages this?
L. WEBSTER: What do you think, sport?
W. WEBSTER: I don’t think I have an easy answer for that. I know in my own experience, the things that draw you toward one person or another have to do with common interests, personalities, character, all these other things. Washington is full of interesting people, especially if they came to serve.
ABERMAN: You know, it’s funny for me. Before I moved down here, I was a deal lawyer up in New York, at a hardcore partner law firm. At the time I was dating a woman, who’s now my wife, who worked in the Clinton administration, and at the FTC. And so, it was easier for me to move down here to get married, you know, than it was for her to move up to New York. And I remember explaining to New Yorkers that I was moving to Washington to marry my wife. And they couldn’t understand why a man would leave town and move for a spouse. But yet, I explained that to people here who thought it was the most natural thing in the world. Is that one of the hallmarks? Is this one of the reasons why this is just a better place to be a professional woman?
L. WEBSTER: At least in our world, people are engaged in lots of things, and you have to give, and you have to marry somebody who’s willing to work with you. And I tried to get George Bush, President Bush, to move CIA up to Boston where I was living. Otherwise, I would have stayed in Boston, and Bill would have moved up with me. But I couldn’t get that to happen. But people are learning that flexibility is key. Even in the government now. We were talking to Susan Pompeo the other day, at a luncheon held for her.
And she was talking about the improvements our government is making, so that couples can move together. You know, in the old days, the spouse followed her husband. And now, of course, you’ve got couples both working in government, in foreign land. So, I think the government and businesses are trying real hard to make it work, at least in this town, and I’m assuming other places. We strive to do what Barbara and George Bush once said in a book. You know, both members of the marriage need to go 60 percent. And I think that’s a good mantra. And not that we achieve it, but some days Bill goes 60, and sometimes I go 60. And some days he goes 75. It just works.
ABERMAN: It seems the town has really changed. Is it 9/11? Was that sort of a breakpoint, do you think, for our region?
L. WEBSTER: Well, I think there are several things you could look at and why we’ve changed. I mean, some people go as far back as the Kennedy Center. That added an element of sophistication, brought a lot of culture. In our life, at least in my life, 9/11 was pivotal. My company was privileged to work with the family board in raising the money, and doing a lot of events around the 9/11 memorial. I also saw, in Bill’s life, you know, the CIA and the FBI, their missions changed somewhat. I mean, the CIA was somewhat the same, but the FBI had to do a quick pivot. And many other agencies suddenly had to change and focus more on terrorism, and drop some of the other things, at least sideline some of the other things on which they were working. So, I think for at least me, and for our family, that changed a lot, because for years, we were involved with 9/11 related things.
ABERMAN: Bill, you’ve been a part of this community for a while, you’ve had a lot of different roles. Give us some of your current chronology. You came here. You joined the FBI. That was your first job here. What did you do after that?
W. WEBSTER: Well, I was here for nine years at the FBI, and we went through a number of experiences and challenges. I had enormous respect, and still have enormous respect for the FBI, and what it stands for. President Reagan asked me to move over to the CIA, which was going through some changes and other things, and to take it over, and to utilize my experience that I had as a judge and as FBI director, which I did. After that, I was back in private practice, and responding to occasional assignments, such as one that I’ve had for several years as chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
These are opportunities to do something worthwhile, to build on the experiences you’ve had, and fundamentally, to advance what we’d like to think about our government: that is, a government of, by, and for the people. And that I’m particularly focused on the rule of law, and how it affects people’s lives, and how it needs to be fostered and protected. And you do that in various ways. By law enforcement, by gathering intelligence, both pro and con on people, on what could affect people’s lives. And then other issues that come, or where your experience is helpful in reaching sensible solutions for the American people.
ABERMAN: We’ve talked about service. You just mentioned rule of law. I want to get your thoughts on the difference in tone in the political situation, the division we see right now. I mean, how do we find our way through this, and find our way to governing principles like service and rule of law? It seems very hard to me right now.
W. WEBSTER: Well, it’s apt to be. I’m not pointing my finger in any direction, but it depends a lot on the leadership, the elected leadership of our government, and what their principles are, or lack of them, or differences of how to approach them. But I think it’s important to have a few people around who keep reminding us that we are a government of laws, not of people, but of laws. That we respect the law, the laws are there, the Constitution is enormously respected, but sometimes not well understood. And the more that we can do to make that clear is not just the role of the courts. The courts have a tremendous responsibility in deciding issues of that kind. But generally, bringing the American people to focus on what’s best for them, under the rule of law, as is announced in decisions with the courts and other places.
ABERMAN: Now, we’re not talking about what I find sometimes when some people talk about rule of law. What they’re suggesting is, I want to use the rule of law to further my own particular agenda. You know, it’s sort of the people that scream the loudest about rule of law often aren’t interested in the rule of law. You’re talking about law and rules as being about an objective sense of right and wrong, something that’s larger than a particular person.
W. WEBSTER: That’s true. But it’s also a way of coming to decisions, of coming to issues where people may disagree or people may agree, but how to do it in a proper way that is consistent with the Constitution that served us so well for X hundred years. And that’s where an understanding of the law and its principles becomes very important, and a respect for that. Which, sometimes we may not want to do something for our personal reasons, but the rule of law dictates a different direction should be taken.
ABERMAN: Lynda, you’ve been a part of this community as well. You came here to serve, you see various people in different capacities. How do you think we’re doing on communicating this sense of an objective right and wrong, or there being fundamental guiding principles, as you interact with people in the business community here, or younger folks that you’re running across, with your various hats on at the Webster Group?
L. WEBSTER: Well, I’d like to think of myself as the eternal optimist. But right now, I think I’d give us a C on that one. And I’m not sure, I don’t think anybody has the magic bullet on what we might do to change things. I think Bill hit the point on leadership and inspiring leadership to say, hey, folks, let’s come together. I worry a little bit about this area. It’s an exciting, amazing area. But I think because there’s just so many people coming in and out of it, maybe we’ll never have a chance to be a Chicago, or New York, or a St.. Lewis, and feel that community bond that other cities enjoy. That said, because we have so many interesting, hardworking, smart people, I think we can still get a lot of things done. I miss the community feel, although I have to say, thank goodness for our sports teams, that seems to have brought us all together.
ABERMAN: It’s interesting. I think that in some ways, we suffer because we’re three geographies.
L. WEBSTER: Yeah, absolutely. I think you hit it on the head.
ABERMAN: Back in the late 70s, when I first came here to college, it felt like a very transient community. People would come in for the administration, and then they’d leave. Now, maybe it’s because I spend most of my time in entrepreneurship and business and economic development, but it seems like people stay here longer now.
L. WEBSTER: Yeah. It’s a great place to be.
ABERMAN: You haven’t retired. We were talking about this during the break. You didn’t go back to St. Louis, Judge Webster. You stayed here.
L. WEBSTER: In fact, one of the reasons we didn’t go back, I think, is something worth noting. Bill does not look 96, but his next birthday, he will be 96. Yet he’s still an active member of the community. I have to credit Milbank, his law firm, for hiring him, bringing him in long after most lawyers were retired, because they know that people like my husband, and others in this community, have a lot to add to the discussion. Not only of law in his case, but in the community. And a lot of towns, a lot of cities, don’t seem to value the elder statesman, or the older person, as much as we do here in Washington. That’s one of the reasons we stayed, and I think the reason a lot of people we know have stayed, because they can still participate. Their views and their experience are richly valued.
ABERMAN: Contextual meaning is so important if we’re going to survive as a democracy, and if you don’t pay attention to those that have developed experience, you’re just in a sea of nonsense.
L. WEBSTER: Exactly. History matters.
ABERMAN: Before I let you go, I just have one small question. Bill, I’ll start with you. What advice would you give to our young listeners who are thinking about getting ready to marry a career focused woman?
L. WEBSTER: Learn to cook.
W. WEBSTER: Well, I would say that kind of advice is difficult to give in a structured way. I’m not sure you’re asking me a question about romance or versus professional activity. These things all work their way out. But I think I’m not used to a tough question like that.
ABERMAN: After all these years, and the way you’ve kept the country safe for so many years, we finally found a question that was too hard. Well, I wouldn’t say we hit hard journalism here, at What’s Working in Washington, but I hope you feel like you’re among friends.
W. WEBSTER: Well, Lynda and I have been wrestling together for 29 years. And there’s always a new experience, in a good way.
ABERMAN: Well, I must say, seeing you both here in the studio with me today, your affection for each other is obvious, and your respect. And I think that’s the most important thing for all of us, is to model and look out for each other, whether it’s our spouses or friends. There’s always an opportunity to learn. And Lynda, I like your 60 percent idea. I think just giving a little bit extra to it to be accommodating is probably wonderful life advice for all.
L. WEBSTER: Well, I stole it from a couple that did pretty well in marriage, though. I won’t take the credit for it. But I think it’s good advice for everyone. And, I think, patience. I mean, just good old fashioned patience. Sometimes you take a deep breath and say, we’ll figure this schedule out, or we’ll work dinner out, or something. Whatever things come up, or the travel schedules. I mean, just take a deep breath, and be patient.
ABERMAN: I think those are words to live by. Lynda Webster and Judge William Webster, it was great having you.