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Dana Perino: Press Job Like Herding Cattle

Monday, 14 Dec 2009 12:59 AM

By Ronald Kessler

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As a youngster, Dana Perino would wake before the crack of dawn, saddle up, and help herd cattle during summers on her grandfather's 12,000-acre ranch in Wyoming.

Today, she still rises before the crack of dawn but drives to the White House in a black Jeep Liberty and tussles with contentious White House correspondents as deputy press secretary.

Is the job like herding cattle?

"In a way," Perino tells me in her tiny office on the first floor of the West Wing. "You have to be very alert. You have to be ready to move on a moment's notice. You have to be very flexible, and you have to sort of guide with a gentle hand. There's also a lot of teamwork. Cattle drives require a lot of teamwork among your family and your friends and your dogs."

Hailed on blogs as gorgeous and sexy, Perino, 34, was praised by both reporters and White House colleagues as she temporarily took over as press secretary while Tony Snow was undergoing treatment for colon cancer. More recent tests show Snow's prognosis is better than his doctors originally thought, NewsMax has learned. With Snow back this week, Perino will continue to brief reporters periodically.

When Snow handed over the reins to her on March 27, she appeared worried and tense. She dutifully delivered the news that the surgery he had just undergone uncovered cancer on his liver and elsewhere. As she announced Snow's condition, she broke down in tears. Losing the battle with her emotions, she quickly ended the briefing.

Over time, she became more graceful and relaxed, with a pleasant but controlled smile. She has girl-next-door good looks, blond hair, greenish-blue eyes, and a high forehead. But what you notice when she is interviewed on TV is her expressive delivery. You stop and listen for her interesting nuances of emphasis. She doesn't project the total confidence of the polished newscaster, and as a result, she inspires more trust.

In terms of her ability to rapidly fire out pertinent facts, she is the female Sean Hannity.

"I think I've learned from Tony a little bit in terms of style and delivery, but I think he and I have different styles," Perino says. "It was about a week into the briefings that I decided that I was going to stop comparing myself to Tony Snow. Because I will never be as good at the podium as Tony Snow. He's obviously one of the best secretaries to hold that position. And I just decided I would try to be myself and try to get through it as best we could, and advocate for the president, to whom I am 100 percent devoted."

Perino stands just under five feet, one inch. When she briefs on a regular basis, the podium is lowered, as is the bas-relief of the White House that hangs in front of the blue curtain behind her. If filling in for Snow, she stands on a box. But her style is anything but diminutive.

Perino is more likely than Snow to take on reporters who overstep their bounds. Decades ago, reporters understood that press briefings were to convey and clarify news. Questions were asked to elicit information.

Now that briefings are televised, reporters use the opportunity to preen before the cameras and badger the briefer — conduct that years ago editors considered unprofessional. In those days, if reporters wanted to uncover their own facts, they could engage in investigative reporting, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did during Watergate.

Cut the Chit Chat

At a recent briefing, when syndicated columnist Helen Thomas launched a broadside against the war in Iraq, Perino cut her off, asking if she had a question. "Do you want me to answer the question, Helen, or do you want to ask questions?" Perino asked her.

"You repeat yourself so much that..." Thomas said.

"So do you," Perino interrupted, then called on another reporter.

"I think people don't understand how it can be very distracting when she [Thomas] asks questions," Perino says. "I mean you start to answer, she just keeps talking. She talks during your answers to other people, and I think Tony has a better tolerance for it, but I get very distracted. And so I did ask her to give me some breathing space there. But," Perino says, "I get along with Helen really well. I respect her greatly. Obviously, she has done a ton of work, and especially for women, it's really amazing what she's been able to do in her life. I respect all women who came before me to blaze trails into the workplace for us."

Having dispatched Helen Thomas, Perino in effect called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a liar. But she did it in such a moderate tone that many didn't realize it. After Reid announced that the Iraq war is "lost" and that he took that message to the president, John Roberts of CNN asked Perino what the White House thought.

"Well, it sort of shocked my system," Perino said. "I had seen Harry Reid at the White House the day before, in which those sentiments were not expressed, and his comments about the war being lost are in direct conflict with what commanders on the ground are saying and General [David H.] Petraeus said yesterday, that in his express opinion we have a lot of work to do, but we're seeing some signs of hope with the Baghdad security plan. It makes you wonder if this is his true feeling that he believes the war is lost, then is he going to have the courage of his convictions and be willing to suffer the consequences and actually de-fund the war?"

While Perino can be tough, she also engages with reporters whose questions seem thoughtful. She will say, "I see your point," then present a crisp, detailed rebuttal, often citing op-ed pieces and newspaper articles to buttress her case.

News Hound

That's nothing new for Perino. When she was growing up, her father, Leo Perino, expected that Dana and her younger sister Angie would keep up with current events and debate at the dinner table.

"I tried to develop the idea that there are always two sides to each story," says Leo Perino, who describes himself as a conservative. "We would each argue with our own biases, and then I wanted them to each take the other side just as vehemently. That helps you understand where the other side is coming from, and I think it developed a love of what is going on all around us."

Angie Nour, who now trains corporate leaders, remembers it slightly differently.

"My mom and I sat and watched as Dana and my father debated," says Nour, who is four years younger than her sister. "I was younger and mainly watched and listened."

While she appears daily on TV, Perino's background is not widely known. She has given fewer than a handful of interviews for stories about herself. None of the stories has included interviews with her husband, parents, or sister. In part, say colleagues, that is because of her modesty.

"She's a delightful person, completely service oriented, very smart, very hardworking, fabulous judgment," says Margaret Spellings, who worked with her in the White House before Spellings became secretary of Education. "But she doesn't take herself too seriously and doesn't take the people she has to deal with too seriously."

As White House chief of staff, Andy Card hired Perino two months after 9/11. Initially, she was associate director of communications for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"She had lots of energy, and I was taken aback by how young she looked and how petite she is," Card tells me. "But I found that she was very smart, she was appropriately confident, and she was a very good listener. But then she could come right back at you with good, strong statements. She was quick on her feet, and yet I didn't find that she was shooting from the hip. I felt as if she was listening, absorbing, and then responding. So I liked that."

Dana is "smart, articulate, and knowledgeable about administration policy," says CBS radio correspondent Mark Knoller, who has covered the White House since 1976. "She is not as glib and fast with a one-liner as Tony Snow, but she does a very capable job filling in."

Indeed, what makes Perino's responses so refreshing at times is that they are not glib. Thus, they do not seem to be canned talking points. For each subject, she has clearly absorbed an entire body of knowledge. She then articulates her own rendition based specifically on the question at hand. A touch of candor and a smile add to the charm.

"I'm not a doctor, so I probably didn't ask the right questions," Perino said when asked for details about Snow's condition.

"I think that smile calms them," says Dana's aunt, Patty Schuler, a former mayor of Rawlins, Wyo.

On the Bias

How does she stand the obvious press bias against the president?

"I don't think all the press is hostile to us," says Perino. "I do think that many have the same point of view as the Democrats, but I do believe that, especially for the reporters in our briefing room that cover us, they strive very hard to be fair."

Especially when the cameras are turned on, there will be a bit of "drama and theatrics," she concedes. But, she says, "If we can get to fair, then we win. Because we win on the merits and the substance of our arguments."

In private moments, Perino expresses more frustration. When she is in town, her husband Peter McMahon drives her to work from their Capitol Hill home, then picks her up in the evening.

"We'll go to work in the morning," McMahon says, "and we'll listen to NPR, and she'll say, ‘These people just don't get it. Terrorists are not going to go away. They are relentless. Give them an inch and they'll take a yard. If we don't fight them over there, we're going to have to fight them here.'"

McMahon, who is 18 years older than Perino, met her on an American Airlines flight. A consultant to surgical device manufacturers, McMahon had his own business in England, where he was born.

"We were flying from Denver to Chicago on August 17, 1997," says McMahon in his British accent. "I was over here on business, and Dana had been in Denver."

They were assigned seats beside each other, and McMahon remembers asking if she wanted help putting her luggage on the rack above. Perino said no, she would put it under her seat. Being petite, she likes to prop her feet on her luggage.

McMahon realized he was "sitting beside a beautiful girl," but he buried himself in the book he was reading. "I spend so much time on airplanes, I'm not the most sociable of travelers," he says.

Perino made a comment about the book, "The Tailor of Panama" by John Le Carre. A friend of hers had read it.

"Then we got talking, tracing our backgrounds," McMahon says.

Had It All

Perino was born in May 1972 in Evanston, Wyo. When she was two, the family moved to Parker, outside of Denver. Her father worked in human resources at an insurance company.

In high school, Perino was in the debating club and played the piano, later learning to play the flute. She graduated in 1994 from the University of Southern Colorado with a degree in mass communications. In 1995, she graduated from a public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield with a master's degree.

"She's one of those girls who had it all," says Andrea Aragon, her roommate in Colorado.

While attending school, Perino worked as a reporter for KTSC radio in Colorado and WCIA-TV in Illinois.

"I didn't feel like I was really good at it," Perino says of being a reporter. "I liked covering politics, but when I was in the local news market, they also had me covering anything from a house fire to murders. And while those are very important stories to tell, I was not the best one to tell them."

Perino had always been a conservative and voted Republican.

"I was intending to stay in television, except for the job just paid so little and you had to live in really small towns and be willing to move around," she says. "And I just was confused as to what I wanted to do. And an opportunity presented itself for me to work for Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado."

Beginning in August 1995, Perino worked for McInnis for almost three months as a staff assistant. Then she heard that Dan Schaefer from Colorado needed a press secretary.

"So I went from being a staff assistant to a press secretary in a pretty short time," she says. She stayed with him until he retired two and a half years later.

McMahon remembers that when he and Dana first met on the American Airlines flight, the trip seemed to be over in a matter of seconds.

"I was staying in Chicago that night, she was catching a connecting flight to D.C., and so we exchanged addresses and email addresses," McMahon says. Meanwhile, Perino offered to show him Georgetown the next time he was in Washington.

Then 43, McMahon had just divorced for the second time. While Perino dated off and on, she had never had a prolonged relationship.

"She is a strong-willed personality, and she is smart and articulate," Leo Perino says. "A lot of guys have some trouble with that."

As for McMahon, "I wasn't looking for any kind of relationship, at all," he says. "I sit beside a 25-year-old beautiful girl, and what's the likelihood of somebody like me having any success with a girl like that? Not particularly high. So," McMahon says, "I wasn't hitting on her at all. I really wasn't making any moves trying to read anything into it in the slightest. And when she gave me her details, I honestly thought it was probably just on a friendly basis — that she liked the English accent and my sense of humor."

Nothing to Lose

However, after returning to England, "I couldn't stop thinking about her," McMahon says. "I wrote her an email saying how I felt, that I couldn't stop thinking about her, that I was very impressed and struck by her," he says. "And I thought what have I got to lose? She lives on the other side of the Atlantic. I'll state how I feel. If there isn't anything there, there's nothing to lose."

McMahon got no response. But the following week, he began a one-week vacation, touring the United Kingdom on his 900 cc Yamaha motorcycle. At one point, he called his office to see if there were any messages. His assistant told him he had received a postcard from America.

"It was Dana saying how much she'd enjoyed meeting me and hoping that she would see me next time I was in the U.S.," McMahon says. "So there I was, clad in motorcycle leather, leaping up and down in the pull-off area. I was waving my fist in the air shouting, ‘Yes!'"

Then McMahon's assistant told him his email to Dana had bounced back, apparently because of a problem with McMahon's new server. McMahon immediately cut short his vacation and returned to his office so he could re-send his email to Dana.

Perino later told McMahon that when, ten days after their meeting, she had not heard anything from him, she thought she would never see him again. She told a friend that she was going to go out to lunch, read a book, and "never think about me again," he says. "When she got back to the office, my email had arrived."

Six weeks after their initial meeting, McMahon flew to Washington for a planned business trip, and they saw each other in Georgetown. Eleven months after they met, they were married in Blackpool in the north of England. They had a 10-day honeymoon on the Greek island of Santonri.

For a year they lived in England. Then they moved to San Diego, where Dana worked in communications for high-tech companies for three years.

After a friend mentioned an opening, Perino worked briefly in communications at the Justice Department, then joined the White House. In March 2006, she became deputy press secretary and gave her first briefing in August.

Snow, who recommended her promotion, says of her, "She understands government as well as anyone I know." After he told her she would have to fill in for him for three weeks after his recent surgery, Snow told her, "Dana, you're going to find talents that you never knew you had."

"Tony, I hope I can find 15 outfits," she replied.

That was before he knew the cancer had spread.

"She is really smart, has great instincts and good judgment," Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director, tells me. "She is always prepared and is really well respected by her colleagues. She is great at breaking down an issue and relentlessly pursuing the information she needs in order to respond. The president relies on her and has great confidence in her."

Ranch Hand

Since she understands ranching, Bush enjoys talking with Perino on trips together about his Crawford spread.

Beyond some nasty comments on Democratic blogs, Perino has no detractors. On Democratic.Underground.com, someone wrote that Perino is a "bambi for the cameras, a swoon [sic] for journalists." The note added that Bush has "placed this little deer before the firing lines of the press core [sic] to disarm aggressive questioning."

Perino's mother Jan, who was divorced from Leo in 2000, remembers that when Dana was six, the family traveled to Washington and took a tour of the White House.

"When we got back," her mother says, "she stood on a milk box around the Fourth of July and held an American flag and said, ‘I'm going to work in the White House when I grow up.'"

In the summer, the family would drive 400 miles to stay at Dana's grandfather's ranch in Newcastle on the edge of the Black Hills in Wyoming. Dana would "wake up before daylight and get her horse saddled," recalls her uncle, Matt Perino, who still lives on the ranch with its 500 head of cattle. "We trailed cattle 50 miles one way. You had to keep them in the bunch. You mother them back up because the calves get separated from their mothers."

Now Perino wakes up at 4:30 a.m., "shot like a cannon," as she puts it. She jumps on an elliptical trainer and reads the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or State Department briefings. If Peter is in town, he drives her to the White House. Otherwise, she drives herself. At the White House, she reads the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Times, and sometimes the Financial Times.

At 7 a.m., she meets with the rest of the press office and goes over the news. At 7:30 a.m., she attends the senior staff meeting. At lunchtime, while waiting at the takeout window of the White House mess, Perino picks up answers to a lot of the questions reporters have asked her.

"You can catch a lot of people and ask a lot of questions at the same time in one fell swoop," she explains.

After she was named acting press secretary, Perino "was thrust into the limelight more than ever, kind of immediately, and she was a little shell shocked," Spellings says. So the Education secretary, known for her Texas adages and occasional swear words, called her.

"Of course, I did not do this for attribution or getting in the press," Spellings tells me. "I said, ‘You can do this, and buck up. You know what I say, Dana. Put your big-girl panties on and deal with it.' And so anyway, she's been quoting me."

Tough Day

I interviewed Perino just after a particularly contentious briefing. Reporters were taking turns asking variations of the same questions about Iraq, enjoying their time in the limelight and hoping that Perino would go off message.

"Dana, as the timeline issue is lingering, and Americans are in the polls saying they're tired of this war, they want change, does the administration feel that there is pressure that something has to give?" a reporter asked her.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand what your question is," Perino said.

"The question is, is there pressure, is there pressure on this White House, understanding that Capitol Hill, you have people that you're talking to; the American public is saying look, something has to give."

"Of course there's pressure," Perino said. "And that's why the president kind of changed strategy in January, and is hoping that the American people and the Congress would give the new strategy a chance to work."

Then there was an off-the-wall question about coercive interrogation and how useful it was in obtaining information from Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.

"And the president has said that this was effective, former Director [George] Tenet says we got more information from him than all the other agencies were able to glean from other suspects," the reporter began. "So it takes me back to these interrogation techniques, in particular. Are they something that we're using now in the global war on terror that we won't have to use five or 10 years from now?"

"I can't look in a crystal ball 10 to 15 years down the road," Perino said. "It would be wonderful if we would believe that terrorists are not going to exist in the world 10 to 15 years from now. But I'm not going to—nobody can make that prediction."

As for questions about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and having administration members testify under oath, Perino had this to say: "I just can't see how having show trials up on Capitol Hill would be any more out of touch with what the president is doing, which is getting on with the business of the day of the American people."

"Today felt like hypothetical question day," Perino tells me afterward. She adds, "I try to lower the temperature in the room a little bit. I don't think I succeeded today. I got really frustrated, and I think they were frustrated. But the great thing is that, you know, give it 15 minutes and all this will be calm again."

Besides doing briefings, Perino is besieged by reporters looking for inside scoops or color. The Bush approach, as explained to me by Dan Bartlett, who is in charge of White House communications as counselor to the president, is to present his message publicly in speeches and press conferences.

Bush sees himself as a CEO whose agenda would be undercut by the constant leaks that occurred when his father was president. So when it comes to the press, the White House has been known as a buttoned-down operation, often unwilling to feed the press even harmless tidbits that would make their stories more colorful.

That policy was epitomized by former Press Secretary Scott McLellan, whose utterances were as repetitious as reporters' questions. Even hostile reporters find it harder to write slanted stories if they are receiving cooperation in obtaining behind-the-scenes vignettes or interviews.

Since last August, the press policy has been slowly softened.

Disciplined Communicators

"The way I would describe it is that we are disciplined communicators," Perino says. "That to me doesn't mean that we're buttoned down and that we don't try and talk to the press. I personally have a pretty open philosophy about trying to talk to the press, and so does Dan Bartlett," she says.

Perino adds that one way to explain policies and decisions is to explain the processes that led to them. "And that sometimes involves providing a little color. So we've tried to do a little bit more of that."

Perino has another meeting to attend. She looks at her desk, piled with briefing books in white binders.

"I don't like to work this way," she says. "I like to be a little bit more organized."

As she walks out the door, she is checking emails on her Blackberry while asking her assistant, Kimmie Lipscomb, to call her husband to let him know I'll be calling. She receives 600 emails a day.

How does she manage it all?

"My husband is very clever, smart, very handsome, so supportive of me given this job and these hours," she says. "He does almost everything at home. He takes care of the shopping and the errands and the laundry, and he also has a full-time job."

"It always amazes me when people say, ‘Well, my husband doesn't know how to do the laundry,'" McMahon says. "How complicated is it to put clothes in a washing machine and throw some soap in? I don't iron much, though."

Some friends called from England to say they saw Dana on TV, and she is famous.

"I say that to her, and she kind of shakes her head," he says. "She's not in it for fame. It's not about her, it's about the president and the message. I think that's one of the reasons she does such a good job; she's all about business. It's not just a job. She does it because she really cares."

Asked what Perino's favorite pastime is, McMahon says, "Shopping for expensive shoes." When they can get away, the two enjoy the mountains. In 2005, they vacationed in Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.

By the time Perino gets home, it's between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.. She barely has time to eat the food McMahon has bought at Safeway.

Sometimes, she walks Henry, their Hungarian hunting dog. When Perino says to the dog, "Tell us what you think of John Kerry," the dog runs off and fetches flip-flops.

"It only took half a dozen times of Dana showing him for him to learn that," McMahon marvels.

By 9:30 p.m., Perino is in bed and resting up for another day of herding the White House press corps.

Dana's father now works in a grocery store he and several friends own in Denver.

"I saw her on TV tonight," Leo Perino says. "I was with customers, so I didn't hear what she was saying. I have a photo of her near a security camera. I work in a liberal area, but everyone says she is so articulate, she is so smart. I'm pleased to see my child get up there and do so well. I taught her to be strong and to let people know where you stand. She certainly does that."

Pamela Kessler contributed to this story. Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of NewsMax.com.

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