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.
On Thursday, she complained to CNN after anchor Rick Sanchez showed video of foreign leaders shaking hands with one another but not with Bush. "He seems like the most unpopular kid in high school that nobody liked, the one with the cooties," Sanchez said. Perino says the president had shaken hands with the leaders earlier. CNN says his show will air a clarification today.
She felt burned in July when Agence France Presse reported that she was "disappointed" by the International Olympic Committee's decision to ban Iraq from the summer games. Perino actually said she was disappointed for the Iraqi athletes. "It was like wildfire," Perino recalls. "How do you correct every single story once it's online?"
Sometimes Perino supplied the match. CBS's Mark Knoller asked her last year about a Hillary Clinton campaign ad charging that American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were "invisible" to Bush.
After initially declining to comment, Perino said Clinton's charge was "absurd" and called it "unconscionable that a member of Congress would say such a thing." The response generated big headlines, prompting Clinton to fire back.
"I took the bait," Perino admits.
From her vantage point, the rise of the blogging culture has damaged journalism. With mainstream reporters posting blog items throughout the day, "it's snappy, sarcastic. It doesn't necessarily engender trust between the reporter and the press people." And she sees the growth in "analysis" pieces as an excuse for some reporters to vent "what their feelings are about an issue."
Everyone, she says, feels pressure to compete in the insta-news culture. When Bush met with Obama at the White House earlier this month, the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC and others quoted anonymous sources as saying the president had tried to link a free-trade pact for Colombia with passage of an economic stimulus package -- which Perino denies. One reporter who didn't run with the story told Perino she got in trouble with her bosses.
The soft-spoken Perino can take a hard line when it comes to defending administration policy. When a reporter asked last week about reports that Obama's team plans to review techniques for interrogating terror suspects, Perino said that the methods were used "to protect the country from possible imminent terrorist attack. We did not torture." Administration officials have acknowledged water-boarding suspects, and critics, including John McCain, have said that is torture.
"I absolutely feel comfortable with what I said," Perino says now.
Perhaps the biggest change during her tenure has been an easing of tensions in the briefing room. Perino was troubled by the years of contentious sessions between the reporters and Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan and the late Tony Snow, whom she served as deputy.
"It made me uncomfortable," she says. "I don't think it was helping us win arguments. It just wasn't my style. I realized that's just not me and it's going to come across as fake."
Reporters agree that Perino has lowered the temperature. "She's affable and amiable and pleasant, unless she feels a reporter has been out of line," CBS's Knoller says. "The thing is, she doesn't hold grudges."
"At the beginning, there were times when she showed signs of being a little brittle," says NBC correspondent John Yang, but he says that has changed. "I find her very helpful away from the podium. She really gets what TV needs."
But the White House has paid a price for her politeness. Confrontational briefings make news. Sharp sound bites get replayed on television. By adopting a kinder and gentler approach, Perino has limited her ability to drive the administration's message at a time when interest in the incumbent was already waning.
When Obama visited the White House, Perino gave her successor, Robert Gibbs, a tour of the West Wing and explained how she does the job. After Bush leaves office, she plans to spend a few weeks as an AIDS relief volunteer in Africa and hopes to find a politically related job in Washington.
As last week's briefing was winding down, one reporter noted that Bush hasn't held a news conference since July and asked whether he was done with such sessions.
"Are you eager to have them back?" Perino asked.
She made no promises.
How's the transition faring? "President-elect Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with the enthusiastic support of the left wing of his party, fueled by his vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq and by one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate," says the New York Times.
"Now, his reported selections for two of the major positions in his cabinet -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy F. Geithner as secretary of the Treasury -- suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues."
Doesn't it feel like Obama is already president? (Especially when the Geithner leak sent the Dow up 500 points on Friday?)
"With a series of forceful actions in recent days, amid an almost unprecedented set of challenges, Barack Obama has taken an unusual step for a president-elect: attempting to alter the country's perilous course even before he takes office," says the Los Angeles Times.
"The most dramatic example came Saturday, when Obama announced a far more aggressive economic stimulus plan than previously promised -- a two-year program to add 2.5 million jobs that he said represented 'an early down payment on the type of reform my administration will bring to Washington.' "
David Brooks notes a certain homogeneity in the picks:
"Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.)."
The list goes on.
But Brooks (University of Chicago) is actually deeply impressed by the appointments.
Is Obama headed for Mount Rushmore? Jonah Goldberg says that's a tad premature:
"Newsweek, Time, the Washington Post, 60 Minutes and, of course, The O Network (formerly known as MSNBC) have all run wild with this stuff. Depicting Obama as FDR or Lincoln has become a staple of the self-proclaimed 'objective' media. I was on Fox News the other night to throw some cold water on this Obama-as-Lincoln stuff. Alan Colmes of Hannity & Colmes chastised me, asking if we shouldn't give Obama 'a chance to actually spread his wings and fly a little bit' before disparaging him.
"Fine. I actually agree with that. Conservatives should not denounce Obama's performance before he's had a chance to, you know, perform. But, shouldn't we also hold off on comparing the guy to FDR and Lincoln before he's done anything? Obama hasn't even taken the oath of office yet, and it's already an unfair right-wing attack to say that Obama isn't on par with Lincoln and FDR. What's next? Will it be slander to say Obama's a carbon-based life form? Will the Secret Service investigate you if you're overheard saying you think Obama's merely 'OK'?"
But the New Republic wants him to leap into action right now:
"To be sure, Obama has good reasons -- both constitutional and political -- for keeping this distance [from the administration]. As Obama and his aides have been saying since the moment he became president-elect, there's 'only one president at a time.' Having been attacked for being presumptuous during the campaign, Obama now seems loath to exceed the limited authority he has at the moment. What's more, without any official power at his disposal, it would be risky for Obama to take positions on matters over which he has no real control . . .
"But this, of course, is no ordinary transition -- and Obama must not treat it like one. The cautionary lesson here comes from the Herbert Hoover-Franklin Delano Roosevelt transition of 1932-1933, during which neither man acted with any real decisiveness on economic matters and what looked like the beginnings of an economic recovery instead became the single worst stretch of the Great Depression."
The magazine says Obama should push for an auto bailout and a stimulus package.
Hillary may have her strengths as secretary of state, says Peggy Noonan. But she brings some baggage:
"The downside is equally obvious: To invite in the Clintons -- and it's always the Clintons, never a Clinton -- is to invite in, to summon, drama that will never end. Ever. This would seem to be at odds with the atmospherics of Obamaland. 'Loose cannon,' 'vetting process,' 'financial entanglements,' questions about which high-flying oligarch gave how much to Bill's presidential library, and what the implications of the gift are, including potential conflict of interest. More colorfully, and nostalgically: people screaming through the halls, being hired and fired, attacking the press, leaking, then too tightly controlling information, then leaking, and speaking in the special patois of the Clinton staff, with the famous dialogue evocative of David Mamet as rewritten by Joe Pesci.
"Will she go rogue? Will the rogue go rogue? . . .
"Is she floating it to box him in and leave him embarrassed if he ultimately goes elsewhere? Are Mr. Obama's people floating it knowing a) she wanted it, b) but it won't work because Bill will never give up all the information required in an FBI full field investigation, and c) hey, that's the best of both worlds, an offer that was made and a reality that thwarted it. Not our fault! And she stays in the Senate, dinged, her power undermined again."
Finally, Mike Kinsley sounds a little peeved at the blogosphere:
"Aggregation has become a hall of mirrors. 'Did you see Romenesko this morning? Yeah, very interesting. He's got a link to a piece in LA Observed that links to a column on the London Times website where this guy says that a Russian blogger is saying that Obama will make Sarah Palin Secretary of State.'
" 'Wow. Sounds true. Where did the Russian guy get it?'
" 'He says it was in Romenesko.'
"And if readers are suffering from information overload, imagine the new life of political writers. First, they have to be totally up to speed to make sure that some blogger or newspaper competitor hasn't already made the point or reported the factlet that they intend to write about. Second, they have to be fast, fast, fast to beat that other fellow to the punch. This has always been true in journalism and used to be considered part of the fun. But it's less fun when half the people in the world could now be that other fellow.
"Third, while an article a day used to be a typical reporter's quota (or in the leisurely precincts of newsmagazines, an article a week), reporters are now expected to blog 24/7 as well."
Tell me about it! But that's the world we live in. No more use whining about that than complaining about the advent of television.
Obama Adulation Watch
Associated Press: "Many women recoil at the thought of baring their arms in sleeveless dresses or blouses, but not Michelle Obama -- half of the fabulously fit new first couple."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."