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.
Prior to her promotion, Perino received her fair share of attention from Washington observers. In an April item, snarky blogger Ana Marie Cox, the woman behind Wonkette.com, dubbed her an "icy sexpot" — a description that Perino, who's only the second woman to hold the post (following Bill Clinton-era flack Dee Dee Myers), reacts to coolly. With such spotlight time guaranteed to increase, she tries to deflect interest to the president and lower expectations about her performance.
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"I don't bring the star quality that Tony brings," she says. "I don't bring the self-assurance that he has in front of the television cameras. But I do strive to be accurate and informative and have a little bit of fun." She understands that reporters might see treating her like a piñata as a good career move. "Every person in that room who has a TV position wants to get on the air that night," she points out, "and only those moments get on air." However, she thinks the situation might improve on her watch: "There's a little bit of grandstanding, maybe, but I felt like there was a little bit less when I was doing the briefings. Maybe I just don't have the capacity, or I don't spar with them like Tony did. He likes a good debate. I like to get on and off the podium quicker — give the answer and represent the president and his views as best I can."
In a March Rocky Mountain News piece, Perino revealed that she's trained her dog, Henry, to fetch a flip-flop after being prompted with the statement "Tell us what you really think about John Kerry" and to bark in response to a question about whether anyone "thinks that Bill Clinton should be in jail." When asked if she's taught Henry to do anything when she mentions NBC's David Gregory, who seemed to love getting into verbal battles with Snow, she replies, "No, but that's an interesting thought for this year." Then, after a chuckle, she says, "I actually like David a lot, and I think if anyone actually looks at his reporting, it's among the most fair of any journalist." She displays similar restraint when discussing the White House press corps in general, emphasizing that she wants to cultivate a relationship with them that's both "good" and "respectful." But she's demonstrably more enthusiastic when talking about accompanying President Bush on his recent trip to Iraq. "To meet our troops was just wonderful," she says, "and I really, really admired the Iraqi security forces I met. I felt like, I'm pulling for you guys. They want peace. They're working hard for it."
With only sixteen months left in President Bush's final term and the media already obsessed with the 2008 election, the current administration sometimes seems like yesterday's news — but Perino isn't buying it. "People have been saying that since 2006, and that hasn't happened yet," she argues. "I think that's because of the kind of president he is and the times we're living in." She feels that "there's a lot left to accomplish," and she's glad she'll be around as a witness. "There will always be the private sector, but there's only one opportunity to work for President Bush."
Talk about being a glutton for punishment.