Earlier versions of this article, including the print edition of Thursday's Washington Post, incorrectly said that Anita Dunn advised President Clinton.
Profile of Anita Dunn, White House Communications Director
Wednesday, October 14, 2009; 8:24 AM
Earlier this week, Anita Dunn inserted two words into the conservative electronic echo chamber: Anita Dunn.
With her CNN appearance on Sunday attacking Fox News as "a wing of the Republican Party," the White House dispatched its communications director to make one of its most aggressive salvos, in part because she alone in the communications department can withstand the blowback.
"She's tough, she knows how to handle herself in the national media, she's not intimidated by it and she enjoys the fray," said David Gergen, a former White House communications director. "It surprised me to see Anita Dunn out there, but if you are going to do it, go with your pro, and she's your pro."
Inside the youthful Obama administration's communications shop, Dunn, 51, is valued as a D.C.-certified grownup, a mentor whose battle scars, survival skills and librarian glasses perched atop her blond hair give her gravitas. It's one thing to have championed Obama's election, but she's the only one in the inner circle who's actually worked against him.
Long a shunner of the spotlight, Dunn, who declined to comment for this article, would only sign on in April as an "interim" chief, with an end-of-the-year expiration date on her current tenure. But giving up nominal power in the White House allows Dunn to do the dirty work that ultimately assures her staying power inside the administration.
A source inside the White House, who was not authorized to speak about strategy meetings, said Dunn went out front against Fox first and foremost because it was her job, but also because it potentially gave the administration the opportunity to distance itself from the flap with the Roger Ailes-led news channel once she leaves the communications job.
When she does leave, the focus inside the White House will be on her replacement -- and one key question: Should another Washington veteran get the job or will any of the underlings, chief among them her deputy and protege, Dan Pfeiffer, 33, be deemed ready?
"There is no 'Communications Director for Dummies' book that you can read," said Bill Knapp, Dunn's partner at the firm Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, from which she has completely recused herself since joining the White House. "I worked on the Obama campaign. I believe in the power of youth and energy and change, but it's really important to have people around who have wisdom built up from experience."
Dunn served as a junior aide in the Carter administration before joining Sen. John Glenn's failed presidential bid in 1984 and also working for Bill Bradley, then a New Jersey senator. She took a leave of absence from her firm to help Bradley in his 2000 primary challenge against Al Gore, for whom Squier Knapp Dunn also worked. And then with her party out of power in the Bush years, Senate Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Evan Bayh called on her expertise.
Dunn specializes in rescue missions. Gina Glantz, who managed Bradley's presidential campaign and is now a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics, said she remembered that when the former basketball star and candidate suffered an irregular heartbeat that sent him to the hospital, Dunn took control of the situation. She developed the damage-control message and armed senior campaign staffers with a list of influential reporters to call.
"She organized it," Glantz said. "She stepped up and said what to do."
Glantz expressed surprise at seeing Dunn out front, especially in the potentially explosive role of the administration's antagonist against Fox News.