Brenda Buttner

A calculating daredevil, Buttner balanced inquisitive nature with caution

On Brenda L. Buttner’s desk at Fox News sits a broken motorcycle brake handle—a memento of a crash she suffered as a beginner rider—holding down her notes and scripts, which Buttner, a graduate of the class of 1983, keeps as a warning to herself of how easy it is to fall.

But according to classmates, Buttner’s decision to keep the brake handle close at hand also epitomizes her approach to life.

“As an undergraduate, she was pretty open to try anything, but it had to be a calculated risk,” said close friend Aprille L. Lucero ’83. “Brenda would get this ‘Okay, I’m game’ look on her face—but only after she made sure she understood the level of danger she was accepting.”

Over the past three decades, Buttner’s many “calculated risks” have paid off, taking her from her days as an overwhelmed freshman to becoming not only a Fox News Channel senior news correspondent and host of Bulls & Bears, but also the first female editor of a motorcycle magazine.

A CLEAR PATH

If her inquisitive nature was any indication, Buttner was destined for a career in the media.

“She had questions about the books we read, questions about arguments with the books we read, questions about what I said, and arguments with what I said,” said Martin H. Peretz, the longtime editor-in-chief of The New Republic and an occasional lecturer on social studies.

Early in her college years, Buttner began preparing for her life as a journalist, serving as an executive news producer of Harvard’s radio station WHRB, president of the International Relations Council, and the secretary-general of a National Model United Nations (MUN) Conference.

Michael J. Levintin ’82, Buttner’s friend and fellow MUN club member, recalled the journalistic flair she brought to her life outside the classroom. While running a Security Council simulation her junior year, Buttner decided that instead of briefing the participants on the fictitious international emergency, she would inform them by pretending to be a reporter interviewing a fomenter of the crisis.

“Not only was her approach creative and interesting, but it was also demonstrated remarkable foresight,” Levintin said. “She recognized the growing role of the media in international affairs 30 years ago, a time when most information still came from diplomats on the scene instead of lightning-fast CNN updates.”

The next year, Buttner finished a social studies thesis on the impact of television on the civil rights movement, then went on to study political philosophy and economics at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.

RISKS TO REMEMBER

After Oxford, one of Buttner’s calculated risks took her to a $4-per-hour job in Reno, Nev. where she began her television career at NBC affiliate KCRL-TV.

“Most of my colleagues at Oxford did law school, or consulting, and here I was in Reno, Nevada, in large part having to hide my Harvard and Oxford background so people wouldn’t think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she said.

But like most of her gambles, Buttner’s unorthodox career choice paid off. She soon went on to host The Money Club at CNBC before moving to Fox in 2000—but not without a major pitstop along the way. While reporting a story on female motorcycle riders in 1988, Buttner decided she had to learn how to ride in order to better understand her subjects.

Though she insisted she was “awful” at first, Buttner quickly became a motorcycle aficionado, riding across the country on back roads in 1993. A year later, in another calculated risk, Buttner took a break from television to become the first female editor of motorcycle magazine, Cycle World—a move that surprised even those who knew her best.

Buttner took a “huge” pay cut when she went to Cycle World, she said, but decided she would go full-throttle and welcome whatever adventures came with the job.

“Sometimes, you have to be willing to take those kinds of risks because they can be the most rewarding parts of your life,” Buttner said. “When I talk to my grandkids, am I going to say that I covered the 2008 presidential campaign, or that I test drove 10 motorcycles around the country one year?”

Buttner, ever the careful daredevil, said that she has given up her motorcycle days now that she is the mother of two children. Today, she applies her talent for calculating risk to giving her viewers advice in the world of stocks and mutual funds. But Buttner swears that as soon as her children are off to college, she will accumulate a garage full of Ducati bikes, and again be off roaring down back roads.

Staff Writer Nan Ni can be reached at nni@fas.harvard.edu.