Sometimes truth is more interesting than fiction. Christine Fox was a defense analyst working at the Navy's legendary fighter school in Miramar, California when a Hollywood producer decided she'd be the perfect inspiration for Tom Cruise's love interest in the 1986 blockbuster "Top Gun." But that was just the start of Fox's incredible career -- she'd go on to become the most senior woman at the Pentagon, serving under multiple defense secretaries. In this episode she talks about her role in the "Top Gun" legacy, and what it means to her to have been a trailblazing woman in national security.
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Hope Hodge Seck 0:01
Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm Hope Hodge Seck. In Top Gun, the 1986 blockbuster that cemented America's love affair with naval fighter aviation, the hot shot pilot Maverick, played by Tom Cruise loudly serenades a beautiful blonde woman in a bar, only to find out the next morning that she has his brilliant new instructor. Because this is Hollywood, things heat up fast and a romance ensues. But as it turns out, in this case, truth is more interesting than fiction. The instructor, Charlie, played by Kelly McGillis in the film, was inspired by a legend in her own right, Christine Fox, a maritime air superiority specialist who did instruct at Top Gun and who would go on to become the most senior woman in leadership in the Pentagon. Ms. Fox is very clear about the fact that she is not Charlie in real life, and no, she did not date students. But the lore of this movie continues to follow her. In fact, if you search for Charlie from Top Gun on Google, it's her picture that pops up first, next Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise in flight suits. So let's disambiguate, and take some time to hear from the real Christine Fox, in her own words, on her own terms, about her incredible career. Christine flex. Welcome to the show.
Christine Fox 1:17
Thank you. It's great to be here.
Hope Hodge Seck 1:19
So you're a trailblazing former senior leader at the Pentagon and a policy director at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. And every so often, people want to ask you a question about a cheesy Tom Cruise movie that came out in the 1980s. It kind of feels like an episode of "Not My Job." And with apologies, I'm going to ask you some of those exact same questions. How did you come to inspire the character of Charlie from Top Gun and what was your involvement with the film?
Christine Fox 1:46
Yes, so I was I started my career as an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. CNA had a program where they assign people who are technically trained, so I have a math background, to on-scene positions with military commands, primarily Navy and Marine Corps but some other commands as well. But this was a Navy command to do on-scene analysis. So my job was to go to Miramar and support the the wing that was there which was fighter jets and early warning aircraft, the E-2C, and do analysis of their tactics and help them. This was back in the Cold War, be sure that they could prevail in case the Soviet Union came out and attacked an aircraft carrier. And so that was my job, was to do analysis. So I was there busily doing analysis, and my fighter buddies started telling me Hollywood is coming to Miramar. And they're getting all excited and I was paying no attention whatsoever, because I'm doing my job, right. So one day I got a call to report to the admiral's office. So I work directly for the admiral who is responsible for this wing of aircraft and people. And so you know, it wasn't the first time that they'd asked me to come up and talk to the admiral. But usually I knew why, I knew I had reason or had done something wrong or he wanted me to take on a new project. So I asked the staff, what do you want to see me about? "Just get up here, get up here now." So I did, and they're laughing and giggling when I walk in the front office, I have no idea what's going on. And I go into the admiral's office, and there is the admiral sitting there with some of the famous people, like Bruckheimer and so forth, and they're talking about the movie and the admiral says, "See, I don't understand what your problem is, just model her after my CNA rep." And I'm like, "What just happened?" They look at each other and they say, "Yeah, that'll work." And he says, 'OK, Christine, thanks very much." And I was dismissed. And that was that. I walked back to my, my little [inaudible] where I was working at the command and I'm thinking, something big just happened here, but I don't really know what it was. So I called my boss back in Washington and told him what was going on. And he said, "Well, OK, thanks for telling me." and that was it. So from that point on, I had really no say in whether or not they would model the character of Charlie loosely, I have to emphasize this, loosely, after me. But, but it did happen. And I did spend time with Kelly McGillis. I spent a full day with her talking about my work there showing her around the base, introducing her to people. And I did get an opportunity, she called me over to the set once to to do a little consulting, which is was kind of funny. It was, if you've ever seen the movie for those of you who are listening who have seen the movie, there's a scene where she walks into the hangar, it's her opening scene, and she's wearing black seamed stockings. And, and so she called me over to the hangar where they were filming and I walked in, and she comes right up to me and she sticks her leg out and says, "Would you wear these stockings here, to go to work at Miramar?" And I said, "You know, I don't wear black-seamed stockings to work on a regular basis here in Fightertown." And she said, "See, I told you!" And they said, "And we don't care." And so she did her scene with her black-seamed stockings, and I got to hang out at the hangar that day. That was about it.
Hope Hodge Seck 5:22
At least you had a little bit of solidarity there.
Christine Fox 5:24
A little bit. Yes.
Hope Hodge Seck 5:25
So did you go and see the film in theaters when it came out? And what did you think of it?
Christine Fox 5:30
Yeah, I did. It was funny experience. So I was part of my job for CNA was to sometimes go out on carriers and support real-world analysis, right. So I'm doing analysis, they're flying and so forth. So I was on an aircraft carrier for a major exercise. It's called RIMPAC, Rim of the Pacific. So all the Pacific nations get together, right? RIMPAC. So I'm on the carrier supporting RIMPAC when the movie comes out, so I did not want to go to the movie with all the fighter guys, right? So we pulled into port in Hawaii just before the exercise actually started, and I so I went off and saw it kind of in the dark by myself. But yes, I saw the movie and then I had to go back on the ship, where my name was Charlie for the rest of the exercise and there was really no getting around it.
Hope Hodge Seck 6:25
That is amazing. And I always love talking to what I would call non-celebrities, which is most of us, who have had some brush with fame and Hollywood, because it always does seem to change people's life a little bit. First, you know, how has your connection with this affected your life? I mean, do you always just have to answer these annoying questions? Do you regret this part of your story at all? Have you made your peace with that?
Christine Fox 6:49
Yeah, thanks for asking that question. You know, I don't regret it in any way, shape or form. But it has been astounding to me that it has hung with me for so long, it is a question I am always asked. I do think that in an interesting way, because the movie was so popular with the aviation community, and that they all know, you know, before I even meet people, they kind of know that I had this weird relationship with Top Gun and it gives me an instant "in" to talk to people in the aviation community. And, and it's just kind of hovered in a powerful way that I had no expectation of. My fear was it would be a terrible movie, and they would all hate it. And they would all associate me as a female analyst supporting the fighter community with a failed movie for the rest of my career. And I'd be done, right? The opposite happened. They love the movie. And so because I was associated with it, it's it's given me sort of a little weird kind of in with a community that I did nothing to deserve. I think the in should have come from my analysis, not the movie, but it happened.
Hope Hodge Seck 8:09
So you're decidedly not Kelly McGillis' depiction of Charlie, you've made that clear. There was one line I really liked, though, from your 1985 People Magazine profile, which is that people can hear you coming because you're the only one whose heels click. And it was so evocative for me because I spent some time in the Pentagon myself. And I usually try to remind myself to wear flats when I go over there because I feel so conspicuous walking around in clacking heels and a skirt. So I immediately knew what you're talking about. You're, I've read, six feet tall, you're given the call sign legs, probably as a result of that. And you've spent a lot of your career in this male-dominated environment. So what was your approach to being in that space? Did you kind of lean into the things that made you different? Or just how did you think about it?
Christine Fox 8:57
When I started my career, I didn't really focus on it. And I know that sounds bizarre and unexpected, I think today but I was so incredibly fortunate growing up that I was an only child of older parents and my father was a nuclear engineer, Navy. And, and he just always told me that I could do whatever I wanted. It was not a question. It was more "What do you want to do," than "No, you can't do that." "No, you can't do that" was never a part of our conversation, which was an incredible gift to me that I didn't appreciate until I got in these situations. Right. So I show up at Miramar. I'm the first female CNA rep they ever have. They weren't thrilled about it. I remember one day, I wasn't there very long, and I was walking down the hall in the space where I worked and one big fighter guy comes out of nowhere and steps right in front of me and says, "You don't belong here and we don't want you."
Hope Hodge Seck 9:58
Oh my word.
Christine Fox 9:59
My thought was, wow, he's got a problem, which is bizarre when I think back on it, I think, wow, I should have been terrified and run away. Right, that's really the normal reaction. But I think my father's voice was in my head saying. "You can do whatever you want." What's his problem? And it was incredibly, like I said, it was a gift. Because I think if I hadn't had that upbringing, if I hadn't had his support, I don't know what I would have done, right. But it went away pretty fast. Because the the aviation community, they're incredibly smart, and incredibly dedicated. And this was the Cold War. And they really thought every time they deployed that they could die. And if I could help them, they wanted the help. And so most of it went away pretty quickly, and after a few months, I don't think they would care if I was green with three eyes. Oh, they would have made a lot of comments about being green with three eyes. They make a lot of comments about everything, but it wouldn't have affected my working relationship. So as long as I had the opportunity to contribute, and they gave me that opportunity in spades, it was some of the most rewarding work I have ever had the opportunity to do. I guess I just let it go.
Hope Hodge Seck 11:16
It's such a product of the era, right? I mean, I can't even envision you know, a senior officer or leader coming up to a woman today and saying, "We don't want you here." It's just sort of the the unapologetic attitude of the era really. And I remember there was a quote, I think from a Navy captain in that People story, talking about how smart you are, and that's something that he typically doesn't really look for in a woman, which is just really astounding. So I wanted to ask you to reflect on the changes that you've seen in your career, you know, is it as you came up in the ranks and time passed. Did things change in a meaningful way? Is it just the attitude is there, but the the expression is different? Or have things gotten easier and more friendly and more accepting?
Christine Fox 12:04
You know, I have thought a lot about this really excellent question, Hope. And, on the one hand, I think it's amazingly different. As you said, just now, it's inconceivable to you to have somebody come up and say, "We don't want you, you don't belong here." I had one captain in those days say to me, "If you got sick and were to die, would CNA send us a man to replace you." I mean, he actually said that, right. I just looked at him and I said, "I don't know, I think that send the most qualified person. But don't worry, I feel great." And I walked away, right, which is one of my triumph moments. And I've just laughed about it. But again, that would never happen today, nor should it. It wasn't OK then, it's not OK now, and it wouldn't happen now. So does that change? Yes, that has changed and it's changed for the better. On the other hand, I don't think women feel that they have as many opportunities to achieve whatever position they want today as I would have thought they would have from where I started. So there's been positive change. But I don't feel comfortable saying that it's been as much as I would like to be able to say has occurred. I think it's been a little slower than I would have expected.
Hope Hodge Seck 13:27
Going back to your career for a second. So you continued on at the Center for Naval Analyses and eventually became the president. And then in 2009, you move to become the director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, at the Pentagon. Can you talk about that particular career transition and how your new role at CAPE contrasted with your previous naval-focused work?
Christine Fox 13:50
Sure. So first, I mean, it was, I loved my time at CNA, I loved doing ops analysis. I loved being involved with the military operators. And I had a pretty deep understanding at that point of military operations. So the opportunity to go to the Pentagon and take the CAPE job was going to push me in all new ways. And that was both exciting and terrifying. I had to interview with Secretary of Defense, Secretary Gates for the job. I never thought I'd meet a secretary of defense in my whole career, the thought that I'd meet one never occurred to me. I interviewed with one and then I worked directly for not one but three. I was a part of their small group the whole time I was in the Pentagon of people that they would meet with to talk about, the senior-most issues of the Pentagon and, and the thought that I would ever, ever have that opportunity, it was just mind boggling. And I remember when I interviewed with Secretary Gates, he asked me why I thought I would be right for that job. This gets a little bit back to that that woman's issue, I'm sure I violated every single solitary piece of advice one could ever get in a situation like that. But I thought about it and I said, "Honestly, Mr. Secretary, I'm not sure I am right for this job. I'm an ops analyst. I'm not a program analyst. This job is about program and budget. I be honored to do the job. I'll do my best, but I don't want to let you down." It was a very honest, from the heart answer, but I could tell the moment I said it, he was taken aback. He just sort of sat back. Secretary Gates is just wonderful. He's one of my heroes. And he thought about it. He thought about it for a while. Then he looked at me and he said, "You know, Christine, we're at war. And knowing something about operations seems like a good thing. So you're in." And it was, it was sort of a stunning moment, but it does kind of reflect that I really, I wanted to do the best job that I could, but it was a big change for me. But it was also a great opportunity because it was a job that was based on analysis, I'm an analyst. That's what I do. It's, I'm wired to do it, I'm trained to do it. I've done it my whole career. And I had the privilege to work for three secretaries, all of whom wanted to know the best answer we could give them, the right answer to the degree that we could give them a right answer. There's often, on some of these complex issues, multiple answers, but at least they wanted to do the best possible thing that they could and they relied on analysis and me and CAPE to give it to them. And that was an incredible privilege that just I again, I never thought I'd get, but it was a wonderful opportunity.
Hope Hodge Seck 16:41
We'll be right back.
Amy Bushatz 16:45
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Hope Hodge Seck 17:26
Moving forward a few years you actually served as Acting Deputy Defense Secretary from 2013 to 2014. Ahead of Bob Work, I believe, coming into that position. And so in that role, you were the senior woman in the entire Pentagon, which is and was a heavily male institution. So obviously, you know, I get that you're there to do the job end of sentence. And you're the right person for the job. But being you know, the senior woman and really a trailblazer in that position, does that come with any sort of responsibility or burden that you felt? What did that mean for you?
Christine Fox 18:02
So, a couple thoughts. One, by the time I took that position, I had been working in defense and national security for so many years. I had lots of great relationships. So the way things work, right, the Vice Chairman and the Deputy Secretary of Defense are partners in so many things. The Vice Chairman when I was deputy secretary, was lieutenant, was sorry, he was Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, who I knew first as Lieutenant Jaws Winnefeld at Miramar when I started my career. So Jaws and I grew up together from the very beginnings of our different careers. He's an F-14 pilot, I'm an analyst but here we are in the Pentagon deputy secretary and vice chairman. So that was great, right? I mean, I had great relationships, we have a lot of mutual respect for each other and so my environment at the seniormost levels was incredibly positive. Secretary Hagel treated me like a partner. Sandy Winnefeld was my partner. We, the service chiefs and I all knew each other and so that was great. So I didn't think a lot about it again, until I started visiting commands as Deputy Secretary. So when you visit a command as a deputy secretary, it's routine that people at the command have the opportunity to get their picture taken with the deputy. Right so it's very, it's a thing. It's all staffed. I have like six people working for me that plan this. There's the flags, I stand in front, they line everybody up. It's a, you know, hundreds sometimes of people. I've got coins, I shake their hand, they take the picture, people usher them in and out, right, it's very fast. So here I am doing this and the first one that I did was it in an Army base and it was a lot of enlisted people and I look down the line there's not many women. First thing that got my attention, not many women at all. And then I saw one, down pretty far back, kind of here face look kind of like she was thinking hard about something. And as she got closer because, you know, we're, whipping through, I could see she's she's kind of getting ready for something. And she gets up to me and that, you know, you shake the hand and then my staff is trying to push her away and she won't go. She stands there and holds my hand, kind of plants her feet on the ground and looks at me and says, "Thank you." I was like, thank me? And that's what I said. I said, "No, thank you, thank you for your service." But I mean, she just, she couldn't go and then they finally she went on it was like, "Wow, that was so powerful." So then I go on a ship, I go on an LCS, this is an officer group. The same thing happens. Still not many women. And again, one woman. You can see her kind of getting her courage up, does the same thing. Shakes my hand, holds on, like for dear life and says, "Thank you." So this was very impactful to me. I mean, how can how can you ignore something that powerful? The fact to those women that there was a woman in such a senior position told them that they can do it too. So what it did for me is it made me willing to talk to you on a podcast about this very issue. I didn't like talking about women's issues, right? I know women that are sort of alone and do these things. I'm sure you know this. I mean, it's not comfortable for me to talk about some of these things. And always just wanted to ignore it. I just I'm, I'm an analyst, not a woman analyst. I'm an analyst. Leave me alone, don't talk about the gender stuff. I have to talk about the gender stuff, because if it was that important to those women, to have somebody like me in the deputy job, then we have to talk about it. Because it's not gone, like you asked at the very beginning, it's still with us.
Hope Hodge Seck 22:04
That is so powerful. I wanted to linger on this question for just a little bit longer, because to bring things up to the present day, much has been said recently about the fact there that there is a particular dearth of female Pentagon leadership right now. In fact, my friend Aaron Mehta over at Defense News reported that just three of 60 Senate-confirmed roles at the Pentagon are now filled by women. And he noted that there have only been a little over I think, 70 female leaders in the building's entire history. So you know, this has never been an area of particular strength, but people are kind of raising the alarm right now that women are leaving and not being replaced. So how concerned are you about kind of the state of things right now? And do you have any thoughts about how to address or fix it, if we should?
Christine Fox 22:52
Well, I do think we should. I think that again, I was very fortunate when I was in the Pentagon. From my personal background I had lots of colleagues and friends that I had known for a long time, but also, there were other women. I served with Michele Flournoy, for example. And there were very, very supportive leaders. I served with Secretary Carter Ash Carter, I, you know, Leon Panetta, my goodness, what a wonderful leader, Secretary Hagel gave me the opportunity to be Deputy Secretary. And I've already talked about Secretary Gates. So I was surrounded by this very gender-neutral kind of thing. If you could do it, they wanted you on the team. And a supportive environment, but you go a little further down, and that's not the environment. And that's what I've learned, that you have, you can have very senior supportive leadership. And that's critically important. You've got to have that. But you've got to also take the steps to make sure that that supportive attitude goes all the way down, because that's where we're losing them. They start and they get frustrated, or they don't feel that they have opportunities or the policies are supportive of their needs, and they don't stay. And I think that's not just a Defense Department challenge. I think that's true in lots of fields. It's certainly true in tech fields. It's true in STEM education. It's true in a lot of areas where women have so much capability. And the way I think about it is the nation is losing. We have all these talented people, men, women, name it, right, any category of person with talent, that we're just not tapping because we don't know how to reach them, to talk to them, to to create an environment where they feel that they can thrive. And I think that that is a problem and I don't think it's hard. I think you just need to be a little bit better at listening and and a little bit better at talking about what does it take to make an environment where you feel that you can thrive. And I don't think we're there yet. I think we've learned to watch our words. Nobody's going to say today, "I don't want you here." Or, "If you died, would they send me a man?" No one's going to say that, but doesn't mean they don't think it. So you have to just keep working on it.
Hope Hodge Seck 25:15
So you're currently the assistant director for policy and analysis at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. What a cool position. How and why did you make the transition from DoD to your current role? And can you talk a little bit about what you're now working on?
Christine Fox 25:33
Sure. It is a cool position. I have really great position. So I decided to go to the Applied Physics Lab, first of all, because I met our director, Ralph Semmel, who was my boss, and we had a fabulous conversation and he gave me the opportunity. So first, I had the opportunity to go, but I decided that it was a good opportunity for me because I left the Pentagon pretty convinced that technology was the key to our national security in the future, not just the U.S., but globally. And leadership doesn't really understand it at a deep level. Now, that's a vast oversimplification. If you look at someone like Ash Carter, Secretary Carter completely got, you know, everything there was to do about technology. But I think he's, he's more an exception, an awful lot of our leaders are not deep, technically, at least not in the new fields like artificial intelligence, and quantum and biotech and all of these things. And it's it's hard stuff. And these are people who have to make decisions about such a broad range of issues, geopolitics, they have to make budget decisions, they have to make personnel policy decisions. How could we possibly expect them to understand everything there is about quantum and how to get it on the right path, right. But I think we have to figure this out because I think technology is key to our futures. So by going to a place like the Applied Physics Lab, I have the opportunity to work with all these incredibly smart technologists, scientists, engineers, researchers and learn about the technology but more importantly, help them connect their knowledge with some of these larger issues that I think we're facing. And so my projects are about technology policy trying to help understand what should we do to better invest any even limited S&T dollars? What's the right way to invest in them? What technologies are going to propel us forward the fastest? How could we more rapidly adopt those technologies in the Defense Department, and I am also very interested in some of the unintended consequences of ignoring technology. I think that technologies like bio and artificial intelligence and others frankly, without real attention at a policy level, they have some risks to us. I use the example as many do, of the internet. When the internet came out, it was just wonderful, right? Oh, we're connected to everybody and I can get any information. And now we have cyber warfare. You never thought about cyber warfare when the internet was first coming out. Now we have to think about it each and every time we do anything. So what are those consequences, potentially for the new technologies? Then what are the ethical and human dimensions of them, like human enhancement technology? How are we going to, appropriately with the U.S. value system, introduce that into our culture? And then how are we going to exist in a world where there are different value systems and others are introducing it differently? So these are the kinds of problems I worry about, and I get to work on at the Applied Physics Lab, which is great. It's, it's just a wonderful opportunity.
Hope Hodge Seck 28:51
Well, that's exactly what we've been talking about in recent episodes of the show. So it's kind of nice how these topics dovetail and I think your work is fascinating. And the more I learn about it, the more frightened and excited I am for the future.
Christine Fox 29:06
It's a good attitude. That's good, frightened and excited. Those are great, great things.
Hope Hodge Seck 29:12
So we'll wrap things up here with a little bit of a lightning round, some some shorter questions for you. First of all, what advice would you give to early-career women or even students seeking to enter the field of national security?
Christine Fox 29:26
So my advice, national security or not, for anybody, is to figure out what you love to do. Make sure you're good at it. And be honest about that, right? Because you're always going to do best in your career if you're good at it. And then once you figure those two things out, just do it. And I would like the words of my father to be in everybody's head. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't do something. That just should not be on the table. Go into every situation, and just do your best and don't wait let anybody tell you, you shouldn't be there. If you're doing it, do it. And don't let anybody deter you. And I think if you can possibly take the attitude that if they are in your face, it's their problem. It will help you get through them.
Hope Hodge Seck 30:13
That's awesome. Of all them the many jobs and roles you've held, what has come the closest to being your dream job, if you can pick one?
Christine Fox 30:20
I can't pick one. That's an unfair question. OK, so I've had so many. So when I was younger, and perhaps more adventure, so my dream job was being able to fly in airplanes and ride on ships. And so that was my dream job, then. I think that certainly the Pentagon was a fantastic experience. I could never trade it, but I'm kind of living my dream job right now. So it's great.
Hope Hodge Seck 30:47
What's your favorite Navy fighter aircraft?
Unknown Speaker 30:49
Oh, you can ask me that. And all my friends are gonna hear it. They're gonna hate my answer. But I have to say it's the F-14 because it's the one I studied. It's the one I worked with. It's the one I did so much of my career was around the F-14. So I have and it's the one I flew in. So I have to say the F-14, even though I know I spent a lot of time on Joint Strike Fighter and it's going to be great.
Hope Hodge Seck 31:13
You're not alone there. Finally, I have to ask, Are you going to watch Top Gun 2 when it finally comes out?
Christine Fox 31:20
Of course I am. And this time there will be no stress involved. It'll be much more fun.
Hope Hodge Seck 31:28
Well, it has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you and such a cool conversation. Thank you so much for your time.
Christine Fox 31:35
Thank you for talking with me. It was great and best of luck with this series.
Hope Hodge Seck 31:39
Thanks so much.
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