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A Jan. 11 Style article incorrectly said that Clay Johnson, the former head of personnel in the White House, and President Bush were friends from Midland, Tex. The two became friends while attending boarding school and college together.
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Dina Powell, the West Wing's Hire Power

"The trick is," says Bolten, "that she is very good and open while taking information in and completely discreet about letting information out."

And politic: The president, she says, "is the best recruitment asset." Her staff, she says, "is fantastic." She will not brag except to say she is "very proud" of the diversity of the administration, which, she adds, "is not diversity for diversity's sake."


White House personnel chief Dina Powell with the president and vice president in the Oval Office. (Paul Morse -- The White House)

Powell, who is married to public affairs executive Richard Powell, and has a 3-year-old daughter, always seems to have been mature beyond her years. She worked her way through the University of Texas by serving as a full-time legislative assistant to a state senator. After graduation, she took an internship with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), intending to go on to law school. Instead, she moved over to work in the office of fellow Texan Dick Armey, then the House majority leader. "We immediately recognized her brains and her ability," says Armey, "and then her charm, and finally, I think somebody noticed she was gorgeous, too."

Later, she went to the Republican National Committee, where she coordinated congressional affairs and helped lobbying offices that wanted to recruit Republicans. When Johnson came looking for assistants who knew Washington, "I kept hearing her name," he says. After he hired her at the start of the president's first administration, "she took off like a rocket."

A fluent Arabic speaker who has traveled to the Middle East for the administration, Powell has the sort of personal story that appeals to this president. Dina Habib came to America when she was 4. She spoke no English.

Her father, a captain in the Egyptian army, and mother, educated at the American University in Cairo, "wanted their daughters to fulfill their potential," says Powell. "They were so young, and they left everything behind. . . . They threw me into school, and I remember being so sad that nobody understood me." Coptic Christians, the family settled in Dallas, where they had relatives and a church. Her father drove a bus, then opened a convenience store. Her mother worked by his side. Together, they insisted their daughters retain their heritage.

"I so desperately wanted a turkey and cheese sandwich with potato chips," says Powell, laughing, "and instead I always got grape leaves and hummus and falafel, not even in a cool brown paper bag. And now, of course, I appreciate so much that I did."

She likes to tell this story when she speaks in Arab countries, heralding the opportunities she had as an immigrant. On a trip to Egypt in August, she was impressed with economic reforms underway. "There is more to do, but I saw a great optimism," she says. "The desire for freedom is in every human heart, and that's not an American freedom. They feel that. How we communicate that is critically important. That's what I have learned the most."

"She is such an effective spokesperson for us, because she speaks Arabic and is an Arab woman and can stand up as a role model and as somebody who can defuse some of the misperceptions," says the vice president's daughter Liz Cheney, a former State Department official who recruited Powell to get involved in State Department initiatives for women in the Middle East. "She can lay out what our policy is and defend that at length."

At a World Economic Forum event in Jordan last May, Powell told those gathered that the United States may seem insensitive to other cultures "largely because we know the joy of freedom and we fervently want this gift for everybody. . . . So enthusiastic is our desire to help that we sometimes forget to stop and listen to others."

In trying to communicate the president's vision for the Middle East, Powell speaks out of her own experience as an Egyptian-born woman now in a democracy. "Freedom and opportunity are the best way to defeat terrorism," she says. "I know. I've lived it."


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