Feature

Dana Inc.

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?

January 2010

Since leaving the White House last year, Dana Perino has run herself ragged. On Mondays she's up before 5 a.m. at the Washington, D.C., row house she shares with her husband, Peter McMahon. By 6:20, she's in a car that takes her to the Fox News Channel's D.C. bureau, where she gives analysis of the weekend's news events. On Tuesday afternoons, she takes the train to Fox's New York City studios, where her punditry has expanded beyond Hannity's show and she delivers commentary on everything from Obama's Afghanistan policy to Sarah Palin's new book.

In between, it's all Dana Inc., all the time: She's perpetually tapping away on her BlackBerry or her laptop, writing opinion pieces for National Review Online and Politico, Twittering ("A THIRD Stimulus? Get Real!"), planning mentoring seminars for up-and-coming Beltway women, or writing her own speeches for the chicken-dinner circuit from Omaha to London. If that weren't enough, she's got a plum gig at international public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller, where she's contracted to work 27 and a half hours a week (though she often doubles that) as the firm's chief issues counselor and one of many rainmakers. "I think I do all this stuff because I don't know what I want to do yet," she says. "I always figured when I was out [of the White House] that I'd open up a yoga studio."

Instead, she's launching her newest project, Danaperino.com, which she envisions as a one-stop shop for her wares, including, hopefully, a book. She coyly wonders what the book's subject would be, as if there were a doubt. "I guess it could be about [Bush] and how he's nothing like the perception some people have," she tells me as she fiddles with her BlackBerry. "I want people to know the Bush I knew. I don't know, what do you think?"

Before I can answer, she's up and heading for the door, on to another meeting. This time it's with a speaker's group that's booked her for a policy speech in Atlanta with former Bill Clinton strategist Donna Brazile, whom Perino considers "one of my good friends." An hour later, Perino's behind her desk at Burson-Marsteller.

In many ways, Perino—who's spent a majority of her career in Republican politics and has an undergraduate degree in communications from the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University-Pueblo) and a master's in public-affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield—is something of a misfit at Burson, a buttoned-down, Ivy League firm run by Mark Penn, a former strategist for Bill and Hillary Clinton, that teems with Democrats who've served at the highest levels of federal government. Even Perino's office—bland white, save for a few desktop photos of W.; his dad, George H.W.; Perino's husband; and the couple's dog playing in the water outside Bush Senior's place in Kennebunkport, Maine—is starkly different from the glass walls and framed diplomas that define the rest of the three-floor office.

When Burson came calling shortly before her White House tenure ended, Perino didn't necessarily plan on working in corporate America, though she'd had jobs in private PR practices before her work in the Bush administration. Even today, behind her desk, she appears remarkably blasé about her place in the D.C. food chain. "I was kicking around a few ideas, and this came up," she says. "Marlin Fitzwater told me that your first job after the White House isn't what you end up doing for the rest of your life, and I thought, 'What the heck, I'll give this a shot.' "

While hiring Perino was a "get" in the incestuous world of Beltway business, Burson has not escaped intense scrutiny. In particular, a few weeks before I met Perino, Penn had been accused of using his position as a Wall Street Journal contributor to fish for business. The alleged ethical lapse was used to question a litany of Burson's practices, most of which centered on its choice of clients. Last year, AIG, the insurance giant that received federal bailout money, hired Burson, leading MSNBC's Rachel Maddow to call out the firm on other PR nightmares, including Blackwater Security, former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. "When evil needs public relations," Maddow quipped, "evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed-dial." In the midst of a public battle (Penn kept his Journal column), Perino turned the attack on her boss into an affront on herself. Maddow is disingenuous, Perino told me. "She has no respect for me. I don't talk about her. I don't think about her."

Perino's very public loyalty to her two most recent bosses has earned her points in Washington, even among people who don't agree with her politically. "Dana's maintained her reputation in this town," says Josh Gottheimer, a 34-year-old former Bill Clinton speechwriter who now is Burson's executive vice president worldwide. "We're not running a political campaign here. She's a smart, good person who had the toughest job out there. To work for a president with a 30 percent approval rating says something."

When I mention the 30 percent comment to her later, Perino bristles. "But did he ever have a chance after the [2000] recount?" she says, conveniently ignoring the 90 percent approval rating Bush enjoyed post-9/11. "I wish I could have done more for him. But [the administration] was not a failure."

In her white-walled office at Burson, Perino shuts her door, joins a conference call, turns on Fox on the television behind her, and pulls out a folder with a sheet of acetate. The call drones on for nearly an hour, and Perino appears bored. She's here, but she looks as if she's somewhere else. Maybe she's thinking about W., about her next Fox appearance, about something as mundane as the last time the dog was taken for a walk. Or maybe Perino's thinking about her branding potential. She decides to work on her signature, which she writes over and over, like a sixth-grader doodling on her English book. "Dana, Dana Perino, Dana M. Perino...."

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