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 . . . "
"I see your point, Jim," Perino said, laughing.
That -- conceding that transcripts could be useful in other contexts -- was no accident. "Instead of fighting it, I just said, 'You're right, you got me,' " Perino says. "You have to be willing to give an inch . . . and admit when you've been inconsistent with something."
But she can stick to the talking points when necessary, as when journalists asked her on Tuesday about the decision by Gonzales aide Monica Goodling to invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before a Senate panel. Instead of acknowledging the obvious -- that it looks bad -- Perino, glancing down at her notes, smoothly defended the constitutional right against self-incrimination, and kept repeating that answer. And she is conversant with the art of tortured defense, as when she said of the prosecutor firings that Gonzales "doesn't recall having a recollection about having deliberative discussions about the ongoing process over that two-year period."
Perino, who is diminutive even in two-inch heels, affects none of the world-weary cynicism of many veteran spokesmen. When telling reporters Tuesday that everyone is rooting for Snow to return to work soon, she added with a nervous laugh, "I certainly hope so," adding that if she thought he were watching at the moment, she'd "start blushing." (Snow later told Perino that she had done quite well.)
"She's enormously disciplined," says Axelrod. "Her approach is not as glib or as engaging as Tony's, but that doesn't mean she gets knocked off her mark."
White House counselor Dan Bartlett says Perino has developed a strong relationship with the president while accompanying him on numerous trips.
"She really has become the glue of the press operation," Bartlett says. "Nobody here has even flinched at the prospect of her stepping into this role during this period. She may be petite, but she brings a lot of punch to the job."
One former boss, former congressman Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), recalls initially assigning Perino, then 23, to sit near his front door and deal with complaints by constituents. "Some of their temperatures were very high," he says. "She could calm them down."
McInnis says he quickly concluded that "the kid's a star. She's very talented in communications, and should circumstances continue to be unfortunate for Tony Snow, I think she could provide the president with a seamless transition." It is not clear how long Snow, who is deciding on a course of medical treatment, will remain on leave.
Perino hasn't gotten any in-person support from her husband, British businessman Peter McMahon, who frequently travels overseas for the medical marketing company he founded and is in South Africa this week. She has been comforted, however, by the other resident of their Capitol Hill home, a short-haired vizsla named Henry.
A Colorado native whose father had her read the Denver newspapers as a third-grader and pick out articles for dinnertime discussion, Perino was on the speech team in high school and at the University of Southern Colorado. She briefly worked as a reporter for the intriguingly named WCIA in Champaign, Ill., but says: "I sort of realized the world of daily television news just wasn't for me. I didn't think I was very good at it."
In 1997, while working as a congressional press secretary, Perino met McMahon on a plane. "I loved his accent," she says. Seven months after their first date, she moved to Britain, and they were married four months after that. The couple later landed in San Diego, where Perino handled publicity for technology companies.
In 2001, after asking a friend in the Bush administration whether there were any openings, Perino was hired as a Justice Department press aide and later moved to the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.
"What's great about Dana, besides how smart and quick and funny she is, is that she really does her homework," says Jim Connaughton, the council's chairman. "She doesn't let you out of a room until she can explain an issue in plain English."
As Snow's principal substitute on the podium, Perino has been thrown into the breach before. Earlier this month, she had to brief reporters 35 minutes after a jury convicted former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby of perjury and obstruction of justice. But such occasional stints, she says, have not been of much help this week at the morning "gaggle" with reporters or the televised afternoon session.
"If you only gaggle or brief once every five months, it's like doing it for the first time every time," she says. "It's really hard."
As the first woman to semi-regularly brief White House reporters since Dee Dee Myers was Bill Clinton's press secretary, Perino had already been attracting attention. The satirical Web site Wonkette last year called her "exceedingly attractive" and said she resembled Heather Locklear, although that was a couple of hairstyles ago.
Despite the sudden attention, Perino takes pains to emphasize that she is merely a temporary replacement for Snow.
"Tony has really big shoes to fill," she says. "I'm a size 6."