She's on Fox News several days a week. She's about to open up her own strategic communications shop. She's one of the last Bushies standing. And she was just nominated for a federal post by President Barack Obama. So what is it, exactly, that Dana Perino is trying to accomplish?
Dana Perino is staring at herself.
It's 4:30 p.m. on an early September day, and the Acela Express is speeding up the Atlantic coastline from Washington, D.C., to New York City. In the front of the business-class coach, Perino—the 37-year-old former Parker resident and last press secretary for George W. Bush's administration—is studying herself in the window through her oversized Ray-Bans. She's on her way to Manhattan, where she is scheduled for her weekly gig as a guest on Fox News Channel's Hannity, one of the nation's most popular cable talk programs.
In preparation for her appearance, Perino is compiling the holy trinity of pundits and public relations flacks everywhere: a list of talking points, evidence to support her positions, and a catchphrase. That last item is perhaps the most important in the world of shrink-wrapped sound bites. She needs something palatable for the Fox News crowd: words that are fulfilling but easy to grasp, a "Mission Accomplished," but preferably something that's accurate and innocuous. Perino's nose crinkles as she thinks.
"I've got it!" she blurts out somewhere between Philadelphia and Penn Station. "Not so fast, sunshine!" She looks at me and pushes her sunglasses onto her forehead. "Now when I say it, you have to promise you're not going to laugh. Promise?"
I smile. "I promise."
"Good," she says. Her face lights with excitement. "That's the one. Not so fast, sunshine!"
Now that Perino's come up with her catchphrase du jour, I expect her to dig back into the issues—or maybe to rethink the "Not so fast, sunshine!" line, which seems just a little bit underwhelming coming from this queen of spin. But no. She's heard the line before, but where? Maybe a movie? She's enamored of her creation, and she keeps repeating it, changing the pace of the words and her tone with each try in an attempt to jog her memory. She faces the window so she can see her reflection. "Not sofast, sunshine! Not so fast, sunshine! Notsofast, sunshine!"
An hour later, we arrive at the Fox studios. A producer escorts us past gigantic banners of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and an equally giant banner with Fox News' mantra: Fair & Balanced.
Hannity's show, a conservative yak-fest with a regular lineup of attractive, right-leaning women, is the perfect playground for Perino. Since her tenure as Bush's press secretary ended, she's been on television, in print, online, and on the speaker circuit over the past year, working to convince folks that her guy from Texas is, in her words, "a great American."
Today, her goals are more modest: to blast President Barack Obama and House Democrats on the proposed health-care bill, which, at this point, has yet to make it to the Senate. Perino's having her makeup done in a room overlooking Midtown Manhattan when Hannity—dressed in a black, oversized Under Armour polo, blue jeans, and blue and white high-tops—walks in. "Dana!" he booms. He then wheels around to face me, a guy he knows nothing about, and points: "You know this is the liberal media interviewing you," Hannity warns Perino. "Watch out."
"Sean," Perino says, "say something nice about me."
There is a pause, and then Hannity gets in my face. "Dana's one of the most talented, gifted people I know," he says. "She's a rock star. You can quote me on that."
She's also beautiful, a fact that hasn't escaped the most partisan of Internet commentators (YouTube examples: "Damn you Dana for being a sexy puppet!" and "I would let her debrief me any day...."). Even in the blow-dried world of cable news, Perino stands out as a political pixie, with short, highlighted hair, whiter-than-white teeth, and tiny features (she's only five feet tall). Even her mannerisms—strong eye contact, minimal hand gestures, and the half-cocked smile of someone with a secret she's not about to share—ooze a confident sexuality. "It's not a secret," one of her former deputies once told me. "Dana is gorgeous on camera."
In the Fox makeup room, she gets some eyeliner and blush before a production assistant leads her down a hallway and into Hannity's 12th-floor studio. Perino takes her seat on the far right of the room, behind a desk with Hannity and Fox Business Network anchor Stuart Varney. The show's producer calls "five to the big opener," and then Hannity's voice ominously declares, "The left is caught red-handed plotting to disrupt town halls."
The taping lasts only a few minutes, and the questions are entirely about the economy and Democrats' health-care agenda. Halfway through the segment, Hannity asks Perino whether Obama is powerful enough to persuade wavering lawmakers on the bill. It's the opening she's prepared for.
"I think what is more powerful is what they're hearing from their district," she tells Hannity. She's locked and loaded, practiced and confident. "If they try to ram this through, I think the American people are going to say"—and here it is, the moment she's waited for since the train—"Not so fast, sunshine."
But there's a catch: The phrase falls flat. No one's laughing or smiling—not Hannity, not Perino. Varney tramples Perino's words before they have a chance to breathe. In an instant, the moment is lost.
Ever the professional, Perino stays engaged, doesn't miss a beat. She cites a poll, gives a prediction on a "face-saving" health-care bill from the Dems, and in a few minutes the segment wraps. The white-hot lights dim, and Hannity and Perino share a high-five at the desk. An hour later, she's out the door and into a chauffeured car bound for Penn Station, ready to spin again.