By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"I don't know why in particular they have chosen to do that -- they have given her a tough assignment," Glantz said. Though she added, "I'm pleased to see the face of a woman representing the administration."
But Dunn was against Obama before she was for him. Back in 2002, Blair Hull, an unknown but wealthy former securities trader in Chicago, scored a coup just by hiring Dunn, a nationally recognized operative, to be the media consultant on his wild-card bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Hull said that, in the formative days of the Illinois primary, he disclosed to his campaign adviser some unseemly and potentially damaging details of his bitter 1998 divorce from Brenda Sexton.
"Her advice was not to make it public," Hull, who now runs Matlock Capital, an investment company based in Chicago, said of Dunn.
Hull took the advice, among that of other consultants, and ultimately spent $28 million, with Dunn directing the campaign's message and communications. She also, according to Hull, "spent a significant amount of time" on the phone and in "private meetings" with the candidate's ex-wife to develop an "appropriate response" should an embarrassing 1998 police report come to light.
"I thought Anita was a smart, talented woman and I was impressed by her professionalism," said Sexton, recalling that Dunn reached out to her and set in motion a plan in which Sexton agreed to express support for her ex-husband and acknowledge a contentious divorce as ancient history.
But as the March primary neared, rumors percolated that something terrible lurked in Hull's sealed divorce papers. Only about three weeks before election day, the documents were unsealed and the Chicago newspapers pounced, revealing Hull's verbal and physical abuse of his wife. At first, everyone stuck to the "contentious divorce" script, but with the scandal chipping away at his lead, Hull soon denigrated Sexton herself -- in debates, through surrogates, in television ads -- as a gold digger. The simple statement Dunn had coached Sexton to recite was no longer operable.
"She did not deal with that issue very well," said Hull, referring to Dunn's approach to the problems with his ex-wife. "She should have brought it out initially. But then her year-and-a-half of work wouldn't have happened. Why not get paid until the finish line?"
Hull's candidacy sank, allowing state Sen. Barack Obama to come from behind in the polls and win the nomination. In the general election Obama faced Jack Ryan, who dropped out late in the race when his own unsealed divorce papers revealed that he had tried to force his then-wife to perform public intercourse in sex clubs.
A few years later, in 2006, Hull said, he was not surprised to see Dunn show up as a consultant on Obama's leadership PAC, Hopefund.
"She is very professional and talented," said Hull, now a vocal Obama supporter. "That she could take someone completely unknown in politics and have them leading the race with three weeks to go is remarkable."
In the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Dunn at first left the Obama team because her longtime client Bayh was mulling a run. When the Indiana Democrat decided against it, she stayed neutral while her firm's singularly lucrative client, Michael Bloomberg, considered a quixotic candidacy. Finally, she joined up with Obama, who by then had become a political phenomenon.
In a campaign with few women in positions of power, Dunn's stock rose. During the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, for example, Dunn found herself surrounded by an all-male senior staff excitedly going through Obama's schedule of events. According to a person familiar with the episode, the men grew adrenalized each time the candidate was expected to speak in a basketball gym or big arena. Later in the meeting, the men -- considerably calmer -- turned to the topic of Obama's problem retaining the support of women voters.
Dunn told her colleagues she wasn't surprised about the gender gap, according to this person, who asked not to be quoted speaking about the private meeting. She then instituted a plan that took Obama off mighty pedestals and put him at more picnic tables. The hemorrhaging of women voters soon slowed. Her firm signed up with Obama in the general election.
After Obama's election, he wanted Dunn as his communications director. Pfeiffer had effectively filled just that role in the campaign and transition, but Dunn had decades more experience.
Only she didn't want it. Dunn has explained that she promised her 12-year-old son that she'd return after the campaign. She missed her family, including her husband, Bob Bauer, the Obama campaign lawyer perhaps best known for sneaking onto a Clinton conference call with reporters to demand that Hillary's spokesman -- and his own client in private practice -- communications director Howard Wolfson, "stop attacking the caucus process." Getting back to her lucrative firm, of course, might have had something to do with it, too.
The administration reluctantly accepted Dunn's decision, but asked her to help them find a suitable substitute. And by suitable, they meant a woman.
Many consultants and staffers in Washington had expected deputy communications director Pfeiffer, who had worked under Dunn in the Bayh, Daschle and Obama shops, to get the job. According to people with knowledge of the process, Stephanie Cutter, a former deputy communications director in the Clinton administration, who played a major role in the 2004 Kerry campaign and successfully handled press for Michelle Obama during the campaign, was also approached for the job, and expressed interest.
Both Pfeiffer and Cutter were disappointed when Obama passed them over for Ellen Moran, executive director of the women's advocacy group Emily's List -- a Dunn suggestion with connections to Obama power brokers David Plouffe and David Axelrod. As a consolation, Pfeiffer was made the lone deputy communications director, and given the opportunity to sit in on high-level meetings.
In April, Moran abruptly left to become chief of staff to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. This time the president succeeded in persuading Dunn, who had a strong reputation as a manager, to come aboard. And now, as she nears the end of her tenure, she has submitted to the kind of exposure that she has long eschewed in her circuitous career.
Glenn Beck, the alternately rabid and weepy commentator, targeted Dunn's remarks on his television show, which flashed Dunn's face on the bottom of the screen under the title "White House Watchdog."
"Anita, you enjoy the show," he said. "She's watching from her office right now. It's her job now. Hopefully we don't keep you up too late tonight doing whatever it is you are now doing with taxpayer money."