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I've heard one former press secretary at another agency say they'd rather die than have this job," says Dana Perino, the new White House press secretary. "And I know there's not a lot of people lining up to take the position, because they see what it's like on TV every day. But to me, it's a wonderful job."
Plenty of political observers inside and outside the Washington, D.C., Beltway would take this last comment as proof that Perino has a masochistic streak — but she's nothing if not sincere. A native of Evanston, Wyoming, who was raised in the Denver area from age two on, Perino is an unabashed fan of her boss, President George W. Bush, never missing an opportunity to toss a compliment his way. Although her interview with Westword is scheduled for the afternoon of September 11, a day crowded with ceremonies associated with the attacks that took place six years earlier, she phones precisely at the appointed time. And when she's praised for her promptness, she instinctively declares, "The president is very punctual. Usually, he's not just punctual; he's early." Moments later, as she keeps members of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's staff waiting outside her office, she says, "I really admire this president. I think he's the right leader at the right time."
Perino's got a very tough act to follow: former Fox News personality Tony Snow, the outgoing press secretary. Granted, Snow wasn't the first White House communicator with a prominent television background. Ron Nessen, President Gerald Ford's ex-spokesman, was an NBC correspondent who maintained a relatively high profile throughout his tenure, even hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live. But Nessen was typically low-key — a description never affixed to Snow. His willingness to give reporters as well as he got, coupled with the increased aggressiveness of journalists who resented the suggestion that they'd been too easy on the president in the early years of the Iraq conflict, frequently turned daily press briefings into high political theater.
When Snow temporarily left the podium in late March to concentrate on treatment for a recurrence of colon cancer, which had originally stricken him in 2005, deputy press secretary Perino filled in. But in a conversation with the Denver Post following her first solo briefing, she made it clear that she didn't covet a full-time role. "Tony is one of the best on-camera briefers I have ever seen. Anyone who comes next is going to pale in comparison," she told the paper. "I don't want to be that person."
Snow returned a month later, but chemotherapy treatments clearly took a toll on him. The only surprise in his August 31 announcement that he'd be stepping down on September 14 was his insistence that the move wasn't motivated by his health. Instead, he said he was leaving because he could make more money outside the government.
Despite her previous lack of enthusiasm about the job, Perino didn't hesitate when the prospect of taking over as the permanent press secretary presented itself. "I was humbled that they asked me," she allows, adding, "I think I'm in a good position with the experience I have, but more importantly, because of the team I have surrounding me at the White House." While she's looking forward to the challenge, she claims to be "a little overwhelmed" — a contention that would be more credible if she didn't deliver it with such brisk efficiency.
Perino speaks in glowing terms of her formative years in Denver, where much of her family remains; her mother lives in the Washington Park area, her father resides in east metro (he "runs a little convenience store in his retirement," she notes), and her sister and brother-in-law call Governor's Park home. She attended Ponderosa High School before heading south to the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, emerging in 1994 with a bachelor's in mass communications and minors in political science and Spanish. Yes, Tom Tancredo boosters: She's capable of conducting briefings en español.
From there, Perino headed to the University of Illinois-Springfield, where she earned a master's in public-affairs reporting. Upon graduation, she returned to Colorado, only to be offered a D.C.-based staff-assistant job for Republican congressman Scott McInnis. "I thought, I'm not moving to Washington," she recalls. "I had just paid all this money to get a graduate degree in reporting. But I slept on it, prayed about it, and woke up one day and said, 'I'm going to Washington.'" She worked for McInnis and, subsequently, the late Republican representative Dan Schaefer, serving as his press secretary.
After Schaefer retired in early 1999, Perino moved to England with her new husband, businessman Peter McMahon, whom she met on a flight from Denver to Chicago. Eight months later, the couple relocated to San Diego, and Perino landed a PR job. But in the summer of 2001, she says, "I told Peter that I just had to work for this president in some way, shape or form." She returned to Washington that November and "sort of worked my way up" — from Justice spokeswoman to director of communications for the White House Council on Environmental Quality to deputy press secretary by 2006.