The Final Days

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008; 9:37 AM

The network stars were gone, the seats half empty and the questioning low-key as Dana Perino held a White House briefing last week, her biggest announcement that the administration would try to ease air traffic for the holidays.

President Bush has faded from the news, and the past year has been hard on his press secretary as she tried to follow his orders not to defend him from the verbal assaults of the campaign to succeed him.

"We took it from all sides, and it was difficult," Perino says. "When you're that close to your boss, it's hard sometimes not to take it personally."

Perino marvels at the glowing press that Barack Obama has gotten -- "He was a great candidate, a phenomenal candidate," she says -- but warned his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, that it wouldn't last forever. "I'll give you eight months," she told him.

In merchandizing terms, Perino hasn't had an easy product to sell since taking over the podium in the summer of 2007. Bush's popularity sank below 30 percent and stayed there as the public blamed him for the intractable war in Iraq and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, among other failings. During the Wall Street meltdown, he was denounced for the lax regulation that helped fuel the market crisis.

Perino is under no illusions -- "There's no doubt that when you're more popular, your press is better" -- but says Bush's low standing became a media fixation. When the president got legislation passed, such as an extension of electronic eavesdropping authority, Perino says with a touch of exaggeration, the stories would begin, "Despite his low approval rating . . . " When he failed -- on immigration, for instance -- the stories would say, "Because of his low approval rating . . . "

Her views are obviously influenced by the barrage of negative coverage, a Democratic candidate who regularly attacked Bush and a Republican nominee who argued in one ad that "the last eight years haven't worked very well." And then there was the personal stuff.

"I stopped reading blogs about me and told my mom to stop, because it was so vitriolic," she says.

A president owns the country's biggest megaphone, but when his political clout fades, even the White House can be overshadowed. Big-name correspondents leave for the campaign trail, and it falls to the press operation to combat the perception of irrelevance.

The 36-year-old spokeswoman is conciliatory by nature, so she stops short of accusing the press of liberal bias. "When it comes to communications," she says, "Republicans have to try harder to get their point across."

For example? Perino is convinced that when positive environmental action is announced, media outlets attribute it to the Environmental Protection Agency, but when a regulatory step is seen as inadequate, they blame White House pressure.

She says it can be a battle to get a correction, such as when she pushed the New York Times to acknowledge last week that because of an editing error, the paper had incorrectly said the White House was suggesting that mileage standards be relaxed before the auto industry could receive federal loans. "If I gave you information that turned out to be false, and I balked at correcting it, you guys would be furious. You'd be shocked," Perino says.

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