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?
These days, George W. Bush, whom Perino lovingly calls "Forty-Three," is everywhere. He's in her newspapers, on her television screen, in her e-mail inbox. There's Forty-Three talking about the ranch in Crawford; there's Forty-Three discussing his next speech; there's Forty-Three joking about Obama's Nobel Prize; there's Forty-Three....
"Oh. My. God."
Perino and I are walking in D.C. one afternoon when she freezes on the sidewalk. There's Forty-Three at a bus stop.
Well, not Forty-Three the man, but a photo of him looking out a helicopter window at Hurricane Katrina's devastation. The shot—a gray-haired W., bathed in light, hands clasped like a guilty kid waiting for the Catholic school nuns—became a sort of shorthand for the detachment and mismanagement that came to characterize his eight years in office. This time, the photo was being used in an advertising campaign for a national HIV/AIDS project.
Perino stares at the sign, which is the size of a movie poster. "AIDS IS D.C.'S KATRINA," it says. Perino stands there, frozen on the sidewalk. "It doesn't make any sense," she tells me, pointing at the sign. "I mean, oh my God."
Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter who took some public shots from Perino late last year after writing a book that claimed Forty-Three hadn't been conservative enough, likens her "to those Japanese soldiers who were found hiding in caves a decade after World War II." Just like them, he says, "Dana still thinks she's fighting the war." McClellan—whose tell-all book ended his relationship with Perino—told me that his former deputy was having a hard time letting go, just as he had when he left office. "She'll come around, eventually," he told me. "It'll take her a year before she can separate herself."
Getting Perino to open up about most anything—whether or not it had to do with the Bush administration—had proven difficult. Over breakfast one morning, I asked about John McCain and Sarah Palin. She responded by asking me if I'd ever considered a job in television. I told her I had a face for radio. "No you don't," she cooed. I was flattered. A day later, I asked the same question. Again, we talked about my prospects for working on TV. "I could write a book on the 101 ways to say 'no comment,' " she'd say later.
I wanted to ask her what it meant to be a conservative in America; I wanted to know about her boss, and what had gone right and wrong in the administration, and how she survived that last year in office. She wanted to tell me that she'd just spotted Michael Chertoff at Burson's offices. "He's a great American," she told me.
Perino wouldn't say whether she ever disagreed with a presidential decision ("I wasn't at the podium representing the Republican Party; I was there representing the United States of America"). She wouldn't talk about her obvious attractiveness ("Really?"). She wouldn't discuss her personal ideologies, including whether she supported abortion rights ("I don't share my personal views"). Time and again, she brushed me off with a sentence and a stare, as if she were still at that podium, daring me to ask another question.
At the Starbucks below the Burson-Marsteller offices one day, I ask whether she disagrees with anyone in the Republican Party. "Tom Tancredo," she tells me. I ask why. "His rhetoric, for one," she says. "He's looking at life in such a black-and-white way, and he's being offensive to people who come to America and want to achieve the American Dream."