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?
If I seemed at ease with her, it's because I knew Perino a little better than most—or at least I thought I did. We'd grown up a few miles apart in Parker in the 1980s, went to the same schools (she's five years older than I am), were both editors at the high school newspaper, and shared some of the same teachers. We also share the same political party—not that that's surprising, since we come from a county (Douglas) that hasn't gone for a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Baines Johnson. Needless to say, we had a lot in common. I figured having a leg up on her past would help me gain some insight into what her future might look like.
Perino's ascent of the political ladder had been remarkable mostly for the speed with which she climbed. What made conservatives in Douglas County proud was that she had come from the same Western stock as they had and was educated in public schools that were generally ignored in the country's power centers. She'd gone to D.C. as the antithesis of the Washington establishment and had wriggled her way inside.
In fact, talk to anyone who was around her and it was apparent that Perino was going somewhere, even as a little girl. She was born in Wyoming in 1972; when Perino was six, she visited the White House with her family. After she got home, she went searching for a milk-delivery box and an American flag. Her mom found her outside. Perino was in the driveway, standing on the box and waving the flag.
"What are you doing?" her mother asked.
"I'm going to work in the White House," Perino told her.
In a place like Parker in the 1980s—an exurban outpost with few kids and even less to do—it was easy to identify the go-getters, and Perino did her best to stick out, even if she'd been largely apolitical up to that point. At Ponderosa High School, she was senior-class president, a star on the school's speech team, and a member of the National Honor Society. "Dana was nonstop," her mother, Jan, says. "It got to the point where I stopped keeping track of all the things she was doing."
At home her father, Leo, who now owns a convenience store just northeast of downtown Denver, took charge of her political upbringing; he had her read the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post and debate current events at the dinner table. "It was always about ideas, why people thought the way they did," Leo says.
Perino graduated high school in 1990 and enrolled at Southern Colorado on a speech scholarship, in part because the school would give her the opportunity to cover the Colorado Legislature as a student journalist and she could spin records as a late-night DJ for a country music station.
After her college graduation in 1994, she enrolled in a graduate program at Illinois Springfield, where she covered the state Capitol and breaking news for the regional CBS affiliate. One night, a boy was murdered in the city, and Perino was assigned to interview the child's mother later at the trial. She realized she couldn't do it. "That was pretty much the end of my career," she says.
Perino also learned something else about herself: She was a Republican.
"I'd go into the newsroom where there'd be people talking politics, and I looked around and realized that I didn't believe in anything they said," Perino says.
Her push into Republican politics came on the heels of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, a time when the GOP was trying to reidentify with its conservative base. Perino, who'd finished her graduate program in 1995, waded into the political mainstream with Colorado Representative Scott McInnis, a moderate Republican and then a relative newcomer to federal politics. Perino moved into a basement apartment a few blocks from the National Mall and started her job as a low-level aide to McInnis, taking guests on White House tours and answering phones.
After a few months she got an offer from Representative Dan Schaefer—a conservative from Colorado's Sixth District—when his press secretary resigned. Perino accepted, and her first act of business was getting Schaefer to comment on the pending retirement of Democratic Representative Pat Schroeder. "He asked me what he should say," Perino remembers. "Here I am, just out of school, and I've got a congressman asking me for advice. That was really huge for me."
Two years into the job, Perino returned to Colorado on a business trip. On her way back to Washington, she sat next to a man who'd been eyeing her as they walked down the jetway in Denver. "I see this cute, tiny blonde with this little ponytail swinging back and forth—she was gorgeous," McMahon recalls. "I'm thinking, 'There's no way I have a chance with this woman.' I mean, seriously, look at me."
The pair dated long-distance for less than a year. Perino then moved to England to be with McMahon, even though that meant abandoning her burgeoning career. "The only thing that worried me was what my parents would say," she recalls. "My mind was made up, and I took the chance." The pair lived together for a few months in McMahon's house in the north of England. They bought their dog in Scotland and then eloped. "It was a shock," Leo Perino says, "but you could see the happiness on her face. That's all I needed to know."