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?
In 1998, Perino and McMahon moved to San Diego, where she found a job as a consultant. But within three years she was back inside the Beltway. "George W. Bush seemed like a different kind of politician, and I wanted in," she recalls. In D.C., Perino proved herself a competent, if not entirely memorable, spokesperson at the Department of Justice, and by 2002 became the director of communications for the Council on Environmental Quality. "There's nothing that really stuck out about her other than that she never wavered from the message that was supposed to be delivered," says Scott McClellan, a former Bush press secretary who helped bring Perino to the White House in 2005. "She was rock-solid, and as far as I was concerned, she was pretty close to perfect."
"People wanted to like her at the first impression because she was so attractive," says Andy Card, Bush's former White House chief of staff. "She was a classy woman, too, well-spoken, poised, well-groomed, dressed in an attractive way. Dana kind of fell into view at a time when you wouldn't have thought to see her on the radar screen. She was very much not from the Washington establishment."
When McClellan left the administration in 2006 amid Bush's tanking perception among Americans, Perino's name was bandied about for the press secretary opening. The position, instead, was given to former newspaper columnist and Fox News commentator Tony Snow, a slick conservative with a jocular manner, matinee-star looks, and something of a charmed relationship with the White House press corps. "Tony was of that [media] world, someone who'd been on the other side of that podium," Card says. "I doubt Dana was disappointed, because she never viewed it as her being passed up for the job, but rather that she hadn't been seasoned at the White House. Tony Snow versus Dana Perino was like apples and oranges. Tony was in a different place."
Perino, who'd become Snow's deputy, found her way to the center of the administration when Snow—who'd survived colon cancer a few years before—relapsed in March 2007. (He died in July 2008.) "Dana had to move on, and I think it was hard, but I also think that's when she began to form a really strong bond with the president," her sister, Angie, says. While Bush had been known for burdening friends and foes with unflattering nicknames (see: Horny, Pootie-Poot, and Turd Blossom), Bush chose "Sweet Dana" and "Daney" as Perino's monikers. In 2008, during the scrum following the famous Iraqi shoe-throwing incident, Perino took a swiveling mic to her right eye. Bush threw his arms around her. "He was more worried about me than he was about himself," Perino tells me. "That tells you more than anything about the character of that man."
By then, though, Bush's presidency had reached its nadir. The double fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq had taken their tolls, as had the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the rebuke of longtime Bush confidant Harriet Miers after her nomination to the Supreme Court, the firing of eight U.S. attorneys for political reasons, and the Valarie Plame leak case. "By the time she stepped in, it was probably an unwinnable proposition," Card told me. Says Karl Rove, Bush's former deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, and one of Perino's friends: "Dana went in with her eyes open. You never feel sorry for a warrior going into battle."
Perino had become the accidental press secretary. Early on, she was forced to stand behind a podium that was made for Snow, who was about six-foot-five. Perino stood on an apple box at the White House press gaggles until, three days after she'd taken over, an assistant press secretary told her that a cameraman had noticed her head was partially obstructing the White House logo on the wall behind her. Each day, Perino was addressing her fellow Americans with a sign over her shoulder that read "The White Ho."