It's 11 in the morning, and the smell of tomatillo sauce is overtaking the East Wing. Barbara Bush's press office is eating again. Breakfast? Brunch? It's green salsa, Mexican, powerful. A form of chemical warfare. The African violets could start wilting at any moment. The sound of molars and tortilla chips is quadraphonic.

"It's not true that people here don't have personalities!" says Anna Perez, the press secretary. While putting away a few chips, she's trying to defend her White House colleagues against charges of blandness. "Governor Sununu has a terrific personality. He does! He does! But remember, I married an engineer."

She's got a cartoon smile. It's an amphitheater of white teeth, a grand balcony, a standing ovation. She's laughing at you. She's laughing at herself. Perez is elegant but boffo. A gold medallion swings on a chain around her neck. Her hands move around. Her nails are short, unpolished. Her hair is a quarter-inch long -- just the way her boss hates it.

Barbara is everywhere. She smiles out from magazine covers on the walls: Life and Time and Newsweek and Ladies Home Journal. This office is no solemn shrine, though, to the Silver Fox. Here, in moments of shameless disrespect, they call her something else ...

"The National Treasure. Yep. That's what we call her sometimes," Perez says casually. "We went somewhere once -- to a luncheon out of town, I think -- and a guy used the words National Treasure three times to describe her. She just slid under the table."

"Anna's got good sense, great instincts, terrific judgment," says Mrs. Bush. "She also laughs at me all the time, which is why I have to fire her almost every day."

People used to say that Sheila Tate had the toughest job in politics -- making Nancy Reagan seem human. The same people say that Anna Perez's job must be the easiest. "She doesn't have any handlers," says Perez of Mrs. Bush. "The biggest job is just controlling the flow."

Controlling the flood is more like it. Mrs. Bush is monumentally popular. Strange things happen. At a chamber of commerce luncheon in Kansas last year, Perez and her staff arrived to an open sea of tables -- hundreds of them -- set with centerpieces in the shape of Mrs. Bush's head, and they were painted blue. The mail pours in for her: You remind me of my mother, my best friend, my great-aunt. ... "Millie's Book," astonishing as it may seem, is now a bestseller. Requests for interviews are unrelenting.

"Easily," says Perez, "20 a day."

Perez has a reputation: quick wit, short fuse, thick skin, fast put-downs. In the ground-floor press room, reporters mention her moments of stonewalling -- her famous automatic No's. Both abrupt and outspoken, she's sometimes too direct even for journalists. ("Anna shoots from the hip," says one White House correspondent, "and she's lucky she hasn't been hit by any ricochets.") Reporters, who frankly admit they are sick of Mrs. Bush's dog, also grumble that Perez is not particularly forthcoming with news and vital information: Why the apparent coverup of Millie's lupus? Why the secrecy about her recent spaying?

"The press always gives new press secretaries a hard time," says UPI's Helen Thomas, who's been hanging around the White House since Jackie and Jack. "We are always reminding them about what's in the public domain, what we have the right to know. ... I think Anna gradually understood it was better to be open, to let the story be told. It's on-the-job training."

Sometimes there's a sense that Mrs. Bush is so popular, her press office doesn't have to work very hard. Perez and her deputies -- Sondra Haley and Jean Becker -- rarely call reporters with a heads-up, some background tidbit, some spin. "In nearly two years, I can't ever remember a meeting where we've discussed spin control," says Becker. "It's just not something we have to worry about. If she ever got in real trouble, I'm not sure our office would know what to do."

"Sure there's criticism," says Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune. "Once I heard a reporter carry on with venomous wrath about how Anna's office was trying to close out the press ... and a few hours later, during a photo op with Mrs. Bush, he was right in there, hugging her."

Some job. Perez came to it 23 months ago. Since then it's been nonstop -- for $58,900 a year. The inauguration. The Hirohito funeral. Barbara Bush's bout with Graves' disease. Millie's pregnancy. The puppies. Doro's divorce. Neil's investments. Marvin's adopted son. The Wellesley speech. Millie, Millie, more Millie.

"Before, I might have said I didn't need a press secretary," says Mrs. Bush. "But I need Anna. She puts out fires. All the rumors. Look at my health -- nobody's in such good health as I am, but there are rumors every day that I'm dying of one disease or another."

Teacher's Pet

For Perez, at 39, this job is a culmination -- pinnacle of pinnacles, perfect synthesis -- of her life's work. She doesn't mind the road trips; she's a former United Airlines stewardess. She really doesn't hate reporters; she and husband Ted Sims once owned a black community newspaper in Tacoma, Wash. She understands campaigning; she worked on the Hill for eight years. She can wax enthusiastic about literacy; as a kid, she was a bona fide nearsighted bookworm. She's in harmony with the Barbara Bush ethos; she's the devoted mother of two kids. And she can gush volcanically about Bush; Perez was a class pet who still keeps in touch with her fourth grade teacher.

She adores the parties she's invited to now -- last spring at the White House Correspondents Dinner, she donned Ray-Ban sunglasses and had her photograph taken with Marla Maples; watch your lampshades everybody, Perez is a born partyer.

She is also, according to Becker, "the butt of all Mrs. Bush's jokes."

But Perez is a native New Yorker and can take it.

How?

"I'm insensitive," she says.

Former Hall Monitor

Anna Perez is in her office. It's pretty unremarkable, except that it was once Rosalynn Carter's and today it smells like salsa.

The phone rings. Rings again. Again. Perez is short with everybody, pulls the receiver away from her ear like it's contagious. "I didn't grow up with one," she explains. "We couldn't afford a phone most of the time, so I didn't grow up thinking it was ever fun."

Her mother, Kate Tips Perez -- who now lives in Dallas -- raised six kids. She describes Anna as buried in books and aloof growing up, first in Manhattan, then Queens. "She was a bright child," Kate Perez says, "and quiet -- inasmuch as she runs her mouth now."

"She was always reading," says Joy Berry, her fourth and fifth grade teacher at PS 116. "She was always a mediator between fighting kids. And she was a hall monitor. In those days kids were proud to do that."

When Anna was in junior high, her father left. She doesn't seem eager to discuss it. "He was an electrical engineer," she says quickly. "We're not close, not for decades." Her mother supported the family, with community organization jobs, then by teaching study skills. All six of her children got to college on scholarships and grants.

Kate Perez pushed Anna to apply to New York's High School for Music and Arts, one of five specialized high schools in the city. Once she got in, she studied art. "I knew it wouldn't be a career," she says. "I have a good eye, but I'm not an artist."

At Hunter College in Manhattan, Perez lived in a residence run by the Women's Christian Temperance Union for $35 a week ("like something out of Edith Wharton," she says), and studied some political science and journalism. She left in her third year to become a stewardess for United, also writing travel stories for a few magazines and shopping professionally -- she called her business Cheap Chic -- to help pay for her own overseas vacations. After four years, she moved west -- to San Francisco -- where she met Ted Sims, fellow avid reader, pilot, engineer and wretched Democrat.

She Loves Trash

Ted Sims is sitting in the Takoma Park bedroom he shares with Anna Perez and talking on the phone to a reporter. He's looking at the books on her night stand, he says. There's a certain amount of laughing. He finds a P.G. Wodehouse collection, "Paris Trout" and "Fatal Stranger," and something by Dorothy Parker. Her favorite book of all time is Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

"She still likes novels," sighs Sims, who prefers history. "Suspense stories. And she loves trash. Can't get enough. Jackie Collins -- that sort of thing. I call that trash. She does too."

"I married the most wonderful person," Perez says of the man who was so willing to expose her taste in literature. "He's warm and he's sensitive and he's all those things that I'm not."

Ted Sims is barrel-chested, calm, smart. He's got a black belt in karate. He's taking Russian lessons. He cuts his wife's hair. He doesn't mind doing the dishes. "From what I understand," says Mrs. Bush, "he holds the whole thing together." He's also the chief communications engineer at Howard University's radio and television stations, but soon plans to enter academics -- perhaps to teach next year at Howard.

"So pretty! So smart!" was his first impression of Perez. On a blind date, they went to a piano concert at the San Francisco Opera House. Months later, while flying over the mountains one night, Sims decided to marry her. He used to take women up in his private plane, he admits, just to impress them.

"Usually they'd be wide-eyed and scared -- very nervous," he says of their trip home, the tiny single-engine plane pushing through the darkness. "But when I brought Anna over the mountains -- our first flight together -- I looked over at her, and do you know that child had fallen asleep! That cemented it. Such fortitude!"

A year after they married, Sims heard from one of his cousins in Tacoma that there was a weekly newspaper for sale. "It was something," says Perez, "that I had always wanted to do." Sims remembers that he and Perez paid $5,000 for it.

Under their guidance, the Tacoma Facts, a black community tabloid, got slicker. Sims and Perez purchased a typesetting system and started breaking stories. One about discriminatory practices at the Port of Tacoma. One exposing pricing differences at local grocery stores -- milk in black neighborhoods was higher than milk in white neighborhoods. They invited Tacoma bigwigs to rate the local barbecue joints.

When Howard University tried to recruit Sims to run its television station, he says, it was a difficult decision. "But I looked at it as an opportunity to do something for a black university. And I liked that."

Cast Your Net

Perez got a job on the Hill -- for Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) -- soon after daughter Candace was born. "Anna was fine at home for a few months," says Sims, "but she's not the domestic type." In four years with Gorton, she worked her way from gofer to deputy press secretary, then left to work for Rep. John Miller (R-Wash.) as his press secretary.

Sims and Perez first lived in Wheaton, then settled in Takoma Park. They bought a house with a separate "mother-in-law" apartment where Kate Tips Perez lived for three years -- taking care of grandchildren Anthony (now 13) and Candace (now 10), as well as Sims's daughter Niambi (now 17) while his first wife was in medical school. When Kate Perez left for Dallas, Mattie Sims, Ted's sister, moved in to cook and look after things.

"When people talk about the Modern Woman," says Mrs. Bush, "about a woman who manages to balance the job, her marriage, her home life and children -- everything -- I think Anna is the perfect model. And I also think it's unusual to be so successful at it. You know how I can tell she's a success? From her kids. You've never met such friendly, smart, sweet children."

After the 1988 election, Perez was encouraged by several political pals to apply for the job as Mrs. Bush's press secretary. She lobbied heavily for it -- got dozens of Republicans and Democrats to write letters, to call. "The advice I got," she says, "since I was relatively unknown, was to make a noise. Get them to notice me." She twisted Miller's arm to call Mrs. Bush. He convinced her to give Perez an interview at least.

"We knew once she got the interview, she'd get the job," says June Miller, the congressman's wife. "But my stomach took a leap. Anna was more than just a friend of John's, she was his right arm."

Perez interviewed with both Mrs. Bush and her chief of staff, Susan Porter Rose. They mostly asked her hypothetical questions, says Perez, but she won't divulge them. When it was announced that Perez had been hired, the news accounts reported that Mrs. Bush had been looking for a minority woman.

"The best kind of affirmative action," says Perez, "is that you affirm within yourself that you've cast your net as widely as possible... . I owe dozens of people an enormous debt of gratitude, but the two people I owe big-time are the president and Mrs. Bush, because they took a flyer on me. I was a chance."

New Clothes & the Emperor

Problems started in due course: immediately. Calls to the press office about Mrs. Bush's hair and clothes were met with resistance and occasional rudeness. "Most reporters don't even ask anymore," says Perez. "It's not that the First Lady's office doesn't do hair, doesn't do clothes. This First Lady doesn't. ... It doesn't loom exceedingly large on her horizon, and therefore it does not loom large on ours."

A month after the inauguration, Emperor Hirohito of Japan died, and Mrs. Bush -- followed by a press entourage -- left for the funeral. Nobody was sent ahead to advance her press events -- the First Lady apparently didn't like the fuss -- and they seemed chaotic to reporters who had grown used to Nancy Reagan's media-genic, prepackaged trips.

The next foreign excursion -- a NATO trip in May 1989 -- was advanced. "You start to realize," says Rose, "that when you advance a trip, everybody's very grateful for the assistance."

The reluctance to release information about Mrs. Bush's health also caused frustration in the White House press room. Few details were given, unless specific questions were asked. "She really doesn't like talking about her disease," says Perez. "She wanted to do it on her own terms."

In November 1989, Mrs. Bush flew to Minnesota for a reading at the Rochester Library. The next day, it was learned that she had also visited the Mayo Clinic there for an examination. It appeared to the press that the library reading had been a ruse.

"Four or five of us complained," says Frank Murray of the Washington Times. "I did the talking. ... That was my worst moment with Anna. There was a lot at risk in challenging her, but I learned she's a decent person. And I've felt no recriminations as a result of speaking up. Of course, I've never been invited to a state dinner, so who knows."

"Somehow I thought my health was my own business," says Mrs. Bush. "Maybe that's wrong. I've been very up front about the eyesight, the double vision, about the weight loss, the weight gain. All of these are so urgently important, of course, to the world."

Plane Size and Other Gripes

Griping in the press room has toned down considerably in the past year. Perez's office may not explode with extra information about the First Lady, but the Wellesley speech -- which Perez worked on -- was a hit, the campaign trips were a success, and the media coverage of state dinners is run "like the Normandy invasion," says one reporter.

"Anna has worn well," says another. "It was baptism by fire," says Helen Thomas, "but we have a good give and take now."

Perez spent Thanksgiving in Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian press was "the highlight," she says. "Three young women -- very polite, very sweet, very demure -- but every time I turned around, they'd be somewhere they weren't supposed to be. And persistent. We called them 'The Three Little Maids From School.' "

The next day in Cairo, she rode a camel to the Sphinx at 4 a.m. with speech writer Ed McNally, so she could get some sightseeing done before a 7 a.m. meeting with the First Lady. Three days later, she was on her way to Mexico. In Monterrey, on the way to the governor's palace, thousands of people lined the streets and threw confetti and streamers. "There was pandemonium," she says. "It was a mess," she says, "but a glorious mess."

There were 39 trips in 1989. There were 35 campaign events this year. There have been 10 commencement addresses so far, and eight foreign trips. At each event, Perez has the same strategy: "I just stand aside," she says, "and try not to get in Mrs. Bush's way."

The only problem left seems to be the size of Mrs. Bush's plane. It's a military jet that seats 12 people -- just enough for her staff. Nancy Reagan flew on Executive One, the presidential backup plane that accommodated many reporters. Now requests for standard "traveling with the First Lady" stories have been met with Perez's automatic answer: "Forget it."

"I hate the appearance," explains Mrs. Bush, "of thinking I'm a big deal, having an entourage. Sometimes we arrive at an out-of-town event and there are more of my people coming out of the plane than there are people waiting on the ground to see us. Now that's embarrassing. ... But if my small plane is a continuing gripe, maybe we should look into it. But my goodness, I don't know who'd pay for it."

Lessons From Barbara

Years ago, Sheila Tate said presciently: "If I were First Lady, I would probably take on some nice animal issue so I could be photographed with puppies for the next four years." This sort of approach would never occur to Anna Perez. She isn't an image-maker. She isn't showing Mrs. Bush how to be popular in Washington. She isn't teaching Mrs. Bush anything. Millie -- lest we forget -- was Mrs. Bush's idea.

"She's taught me many things," says Perez.

Like?

"Like, standing up straight," she says. "I've learned that you treat people the way you want to be treated, and that it's hard to dislike somebody who likes you. I've learned that if your instincts are good -- and if you're honest -- then your copy is straight copy... . Your mom teaches you these things, and then you forget them. Barbara Bush reminds you."

And Barbara Bush nags her. Her hair, for one thing, is a subject of high-level harassment. Every time Perez gets it cut, the First Lady goes "crazy," according to a witness. "Yes, it's a very big issue for me," Mrs. Bush says. "I am trying to urge her to grow it out." Bush admits hassling Perez about her clothes too -- one green dress in particular. "Anna thinks it's just the greatest... . I'm not alone on the dress issue, by the way."

"You can't have thin skin and work for her," says Perez. "I tend to be self-absorbed -- more than I'd like to be -- and oblivious to lots of things. I also tend to be pretty shallow, and I find that inordinately helpful in life."

Anything she hates about her job?

"This is so weird," she starts with restraint. Then a chuckle. Then a full-house standing ovation. "I freely admit it -- I am not a dog person. We had a dog when I was a kid, it was my brother's dog. I didn't like it. I thought it smelled and was noisy and got in my way. But Millie does none of these things. She's my kind of dog. I have never heard Millie bark. She smells great. She never jumps on you. Truly. I love being Millie's flack."