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Valerie Plame: smart, private, 'Waltons' fan

Who was that CIA operative, whose outing by a columnist has shaken the White House and sent a reporter to jail? Despite tons of ink about the increasingly intriguing (and complicated) Plame affair, the human being at its center remains largely obscure, in part because she shuns reporters. So Floridian called those who know her best.

Published August 7, 2005

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson were featured in a 2004 Vanity Fair magazine spread.
[Getty Images]
When Valerie Plame was dating Joseph Wilson, she revealed her true occupation. His response: “Is your real name Valerie?” They married in 1998.


She was born in 1963 in Anchorage, Alaska, where her father, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was stationed.

As a girl, she loved puzzles and dolls.

At Lower Moreland High School outside Philadelphia, she ran track.

She was the leader of a group of preppie, high-achieving friends.

The first few years of her life, she lived on or around military bases.

She told her parents she wanted to serve her country.

She was fiercely competitive at games like Sorry! and Monopoly, and sometimes (but not usually) cried when she lost.

She idolized her brother, Robert, a Marine 16 years her senior, and once tried to set him up with her grade school teacher.

When her yellow parakeet refused to come down from a tree, she was in tears until Robert whistled it down.

She loved it when he tickled her, even though she cried, "No! No!"

Her dad, Samuel, worked in the National Security Agency.

Her mom, Diane, still keeps a framed painting of a horse Valerie made as a girl.

As a fifth-grader, despite a so-so singing voice, she made her mom beam by belting out Daisy, Daisy to audition for a high school production of The Sound of Music.

She got the part.

Her parents kept a spic-and-span house.

They gave her a strict curfew, always knew where she was and carefully monitored her TV habits.

She wouldn't necessarily volunteer information that got her in trouble, but if they asked her a question, she told the truth.

She loved The Waltons.

Her favorite book was Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie.

She had a canopy bed, but no rock 'n' roll stars on her bedroom wall.

Her mom, a former teacher, never wanted to know Valerie's IQ and was satisfied to know she scored above 130 and "was smart enough to be and do anything she wanted."

She traveled a lot in Europe with her family.

In her teens, she worked as a waitress in various places, including a stint at a dude ranch near Yellowstone.

Her parents gave her an old Mustang her senior year at Pennsylvania State University, where she studied advertising.

She worked as a marketing manager at her college paper, where she is remembered as "a real nice girl."

She married and soon divorced her college boyfriend.

While waiting to get into the CIA, she worked a dull job at a D.C. department store that confirmed her longing for a challenge.

As a new recruit at the Farm, the CIA's training facility, her skill with an AK-47 stunned classmates.

She got master's degrees from the London School of Economics and the College of Europe in Belgium.

She speaks French, Greek and German.

With the CIA, she had nonofficial cover, or NOC, status and used a fake job title, meaning she lacked diplomatic protection if exposed overseas. Said to be the agency's creme de la creme, NOCs reportedly handle and recruit foreign agents.

She lied even to close friends and family about what she did.

In February 1997, she met diplomat Joseph Wilson, who was soon to be divorced, at the Washington, D.C., home of the Turkish ambassador, where she reminded Wilson of a young Grace Kelly and left him "hopelessly smitten."

She told him she was an energy consultant in Brussels.

"Ladies don't date married men," Plame told him when he tried to hold her hand.

She nervously confided her true occupation to him during their courtship, prompting his question: "Is your real name Valerie?"

The same year she met Wilson, the CIA brought her home to headquarters from overseas out of fear that double agent Aldrich Ames might have spilled her name to the Russians.

At HQ, she tracked weapons proliferation.

She married Wilson in April 1998 at Washington's City Hall, with her parents as the witnesses.

She gave $1,000 to Al Gore's presidential campaign in 1999.

She avoided talking politics.

She has a temper if you push the right buttons, but you have to push hard.

Even then, she remains dauntingly logical.

The balcony of her home in the Palisades area on the fringe of Washington has a spectacular view of the Washington Monument.

When she was decorating her kids' bedrooms, she shopped at Target.

She likes sales.

She drives a Prius hybrid, believing it socially responsible.

She is a great neighbor.

She told her next-door neighbor, Victoria Tillotson, she was an economic consultant to foreign countries.

"We live such quiet lives compared to them," Plame said, straight-faced, to her husband, when Mr. Tillotson mentioned he had once been a government lawyer.

When Mrs. Tillotson mentioned her granddaughter was having trouble sleeping, Plame suggested relaxation exercises that involved envisioning a sandy beach while flexing the toes and feet.

It is unclear whether the CIA taught her this.

When Mrs. Tillotson leaves town, she entrusts Plame with her pets, house key and alarm code, and has no fear Plame will misplace them.

In seven years as a neighbor, Plame has never knocked on the door to borrow sugar.

She keeps her house intimidatingly neat.

Even the walls are mind-bogglingly clean.

When Mrs. Tillotson wondered what the secret was, Plame brought her a box of Mr. Clean Magic Erasers and refused compensation.

She brings the Tillotsons chocolate from Harrods in London.

She worried whether she'd make a good mother.

Her stepson has described her as "relentlessly cheerful," but after giving birth to twins in January 2000, she descended into a bout of postpartum depression that lasted months.

As a result, she became active in postpartum support groups.

Jane Honikman, who works with her in those groups, thinks of her as "your normal suburban housewife (with) a big sunshiny smile" and cannot picture her with an AK-47.

She still calls her brother to vent; he still calls her "Val."

She reads to her twins every night.

She doesn't hold grudges, except for maybe against columnist Robert Novak & Co.

When Novak outed her as a spy in July 2003, she worried whether she would have any friends left now that they knew she'd been lying to them for years.

She attends the same church, but not the same service, as Republican mastermind Karl Rove.

Once exposed, she took greater care with her hair and lip gloss, knowing everyone would be staring.

Valerie Plame is her real name.

She wishes you hadn't heard of her.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Sources: Interviews with Samuel, Diane and Robert Plame; Victoria Tillotson; Candace Heckard; Jim Marcinkowski; and Jane Honikman; and The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity by Joseph Wilson

[Last modified August 4, 2005, 12:44:05]

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