Making News At the White House

Perino, the White House deputy press secretary and a former Hill aide, has been thrust into the spotlight as a substitute for the ailing Tony Snow.
Perino, the White House deputy press secretary and a former Hill aide, has been thrust into the spotlight as a substitute for the ailing Tony Snow. (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dana Perino first began tearing up as she approached the White House pressroom Tuesday morning, moments after learning from her boss, Tony Snow, that his cancer had returned.

"I took a few deep breaths and thought, 'I've got to get myself together,' " the deputy press secretary says. But as she gave reporters the news, Perino started sobbing.

Three hours later, her face freshly powdered and every strand of her neat bob in place, Perino crisply fielded questions at a televised briefing. She answered some queries about Snow's condition, deflected others, and at one point said modestly: "I'm not a doctor, so I probably didn't ask all the right questions."

At 34, the former Capitol Hill aide has been thrust into what can be a harsh spotlight, but for now seems to be coping without too much squinting. While she lacks Snow's practiced ease before the cameras, Perino projects an earnest, ever-polite demeanor, like an airline ticket agent who keeps smiling as irate customers demand to know why their flight has been canceled.

Perino recalls Snow telling her last week, before the cancer diagnosis, that he would be out for three weeks after surgery, adding: "Dana, you are going to find talents you never knew you had."

"Tony, I hope I can find 15 outfits," she replied. Now she may need a few more.

Perino has been flooded with calls of support, including one, she says, from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who told her: "Put your big-girl panties on."

Reporters say Perino was fairly green when she joined the White House press office staff in 2005, but now give her high marks.

"She's an exceptionally normal person, and in some ways that's refreshing," says Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's White House correspondent. "I don't think she's entirely comfortable with the very public setting of the briefing room. On the phone and face to face, she's much more confident and robust. Tony has leaned on her very heavily."

Says Jim Axelrod, a White House correspondent for CBS: "She's very thorough and very quick about getting back to people. Very often you get the great sound bite from Tony, but the actual follow-up, the in-the-weeds information, that'll come from Dana."

At Monday's briefing, reporters were pressing Perino about President Bush's offer to allow White House officials to privately testify before Congress, with no transcripts being made, on the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys. When Perino cited a television interview with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to buttress her point, Axelrod pounced.

"You have the attorney general saying something that appears inconsistent," he said. "And then you say, ah, but look at the transcript of CNN . . . "

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