As you can imagine, I usually have no trouble persuading people to be on the cover of TIME. In fact, I spend much more time explaining to politicians and celebrities why I decided not to put them on the cover. So it was a refreshing, if frustrating, experience when I called FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley in July and asked if she would cooperate with us for a profile about her in our 9/11 anniversary issue. She gave me just about the flattest no I've ever received. "There are so many people more deserving," she insisted, including her colleagues in her Minneapolis, Minn., field office. I said that I understood, but that I might be calling again before the end of the year.
In the fall, we began to pursue the idea of linking Rowley with Enron's Sherron Watkins and WorldCom's Cynthia Cooper as Persons of the Year. In a year that saw our trust in American institutions tested so severely, what better way to capture that news than to profile three ordinary people who in extraordinary ways tried to restore confidence in business and government? Sherron Watkins had warned Enron chairman Ken Lay about the company's shabby accounting, only to learn later that one reward considered by Enron was her firing. Coleen Rowley wrote her now famous memo blasting the FBI for how it handled the Zacarias Moussaoui case, only to receive threats for being "disloyal." And Cynthia Cooper exposed illegal bookkeeping at WorldCom, only to be alternately screamed at and patronized (and lose nearly 30 lbs. in the process).
All three had great tales to tell, but Watkins and Cooper were almost as adamant as Rowley in not wanting to speak with any reporters. Thanks to Chicago correspondent Maggie Sieger, who persuaded Rowley, and staff writer Amanda Ripley and reporter Amanda Bower, who spoke with Cooper and Watkins, the three agreed to a joint interview in Minneapolis on Dec. 7. "Rowley was intrigued by the chance to meet Cooper and Watkins," says Sieger. "Here were two other people who had tried to do the right thing, not for personal gain but to correct a wrong."
The journalists nonetheless were nervous the night before the interview, when the three women would meet for the first time. How would Rowley, famous for her fanny pack and 20-year-old suits, get along with Watkins, who was bemoaning a lost airline bag containing an Hermes scarf? Would Cooper, who had stayed fiercely private since her name was leaked over the summer, have anything to say to anyone?
The worries were groundless. Cooper and Watkins hugged upon meeting, and during the interview the next day (where they refused to allow a tape recorder, testing Bower's shorthand skills), the three became protective of one another; at one point, Cooper suggested that something Rowley said should be off the record.
In all, Sieger ended up spending five days with Rowley, during which she drove around Rowley's hometown of New Hampton, Iowa, with her. Bower flew to Houston, had dinner with Watkins and her family, toured the pricey suburbs (where Watkins pointed out the mansions of disgraced Enron executives Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow) and visited Watkins' childhood home in nearby Tomball. Ripley hung out with Cooper and her husband in Jackson, Miss., and visited her mother in nearby Clinton, where she still lives in Cooper's childhood home.