The “And the Good News Is…” Interview
with Kam Williams
Dana Marie Perino was born in Evanston, Wyoming on May 9, 1972, where she grew up herding cattle at the crack of dawn on a cattle ranch. In college, she moonlighted as a country music DJ while majoring in Mass Communications. And after graduating from Colorado State University-Pueblo, she went on to earn a Master’s in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Dana made history as the first Republican female to serve as White House Press Secretary. After seven years in the George W. Bush administration, she was recruited by the Fox News Network to co-host a new show, The Five, which has become one of the most highly-rated programs on cable TV.
Christians in word and deed, Dana and her husband, Peter, devote considerable time to philanthropy causes, traveling to Africa on numerous occasions to volunteer with charities ranging from Living Hope to Mercy Ships. The former is a faith-based organization working with AIDS victims, while the latter is a state-of-t
he-art floating hospital which sails down the Congo River to bring free medical care to desperate people living is some of the poorest countries in the world.
Here, she talks about her life and career, including the time spent as President Bush’s official spokesperson.
Kam Williams: Hi Dana, thanks for the interview. How are you?
Dana Perino: I’m pretty good, thank you.
KW: You know, I feel like I already know you, from seeing you on The Five everyday.
DP: That’s one of the favorite things I hear a lot on the book tour. I think that’s a huge compliment to The Five.
KW: Even though I’m very liberal, I still enjoy the show, especially because you and Greg Gutfeld aren’t predictable in terms of your political stances.
DP: I know what you mean. Bill Shine, an executive at Fox, once said, “Who would’ve ever thought that it’d be Dana Perino always defending the unions and the TSA?”
KW: Or coming to the defense of Obama administration White House Press Secretaries. What were your expectations, when you agreed to do The Five?
DP: When we first started, we didn’t think it was going to be a permanent show, based on the way it was pitched to us. They said it was only going to run for six weeks. I said okay, because I didn’t really have anything to lose. And I didn’t want to have an act, since all I know how to be is myself. The good news for me is that Fox has let me be that person. It’s been great for me, actually.
KW: I think the show has really humanized you and allowed you to blossom. Most people probably had you pigeonholed very narrowly, after only seeing you as the mouthpiece for the Bush administration.
DP: And who knew the show was going to be so much fun?
KW: It reminds me a lot of The McLaughlin Group.
DP: You’re not alone in that. Gutfeld says our show’s like The McLaughlin Group.
KW: I’m going to be mixing in readers’ questions with my own.
DP: Oh, good!
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: What is the primary message you want people to take away from your book?
DP: That you don’t have to have attended fancy prep schools growing up, or gotten an Ivy League education, or have your life completely planned and mapped out to enjoy a great deal of personal and professional success.
KW: Patricia also says: You became the second female at your former position at the White House. She’d like to know what advice you have for women trying to break the glass ceiling, given that there have been so few females, historically, in such government positions as White House Press Secretary, Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice. She’s wondering if you think some obligatory measures should be taken ensuring parity between the genders?
DP: I don’t. I think I was the right Press Secretary at the right time. I know that I was chosen because President Bush felt I was the best person for the job. I’m also very encouraged by developments in Washington, D.C., a place where women in government can advance even more than in private corporations. If you look at the number of females who have been chiefs of staff and undersecretaries under the past two administrations, the chances of a woman succeeding there are very good, and I think that corporate America is trying to catch up. And that’s happening not just in terms of political positions, like the one I held, but with the bureaucracy as well.
KW: Scott McLellan, the White House Press Secretary who hired you, wrote a book which was a scathing indictment of the Bush administration after he resigned from the post. Did his memoir make your job even harder, and how did that betrayal affect you emotionally?
DP: One of my favorite passages in the book is where I recount the lesson in forgiveness I was re-taught by President Bush.
KW: I was astonished to read that President Bush had urged you to forgive him.
DP: That’s how President Bush lives his life. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to explain what I saw: he was focused on his job and he lived his faith. One way to succeed is to make sure you’re forgiving of little things… even big things. Certainly, that was a betrayal by Scott McLellan. And it made my job harder for about a week. But, at that point, when the president heard that I was still tied up in knots over it, he called me into the Oval Office at 6:40 in the morning and asked me to try to forgive Scott. That just took the weight off of my shoulders. But what really helped me continue to do my job well the most occurred later that day as I was leaving the White House, when President Bush said, “By the way, I don’t think you’d ever do this to me.” So, he was a good enough manager to know that I was tied up in knots because I was concerned about his press coverage, and about how I was going to deal with the briefing. But then I was also worried about my special relationship with him, and that the closeness and access I needed in order to do my job well was going to be curtailed. So, what he was doing was taking the time to assure me that that access was not going to be curtailed, and it certainly wasn’t.
KW: What’s your best memory of the late Tony Snow, your immediate predecessor as White House Press Secretary?
DP: He was a giant of a Press Secretary. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my life was from him on his last day at the White house. I was very nervous, because I’d be taking over the next day, and he’d been so popular and so great at the job. I didn’t know how I was going to measure up. He was 6’5” and I’m only 5’ tall. He made me stand up, and he put a hand on my shoulder, tilted my chin up, and said, “You are better at this than you think you are.” I sort of made light of it at that moment. But it did hit me, after getting through two weeks of briefings and finding my rhythm. I thought, “Oh, that’s what he meant. I don’t have to be like him in order to be good at this job. I just have to be myself.”
That’s a theme that recurred throughout my career in Washington, and was also true with Roger Ailes at Fox News. I wasn’t really ready, but he gave me enough time to come out of my shell.
KW: Speaking of your height, how do you feel about the way Greg always teases you about being tiny whenever he does the intro to the show?
DP: I love it. One of my favorites was when he said, “She uses toothpicks for ski poles.”
KW: Finally, Patricia says: As an executive at Random House, what would you say helps distinguish a great book from an unknown writer?
DP: I think trust between the editor and the writer, and a belief in the project. Word of mouth helps as well.
KW: What inspired you to get involved with the Mercy Ships, and doing so much volunteer work in Africa?
DP: Initially, it was when President and Mrs. Bush launched the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS relief. So, I knew of the program for a long time, and I was familiar with the statistics, but I had never been to Africa until I went with them in February of 2008. I was really touched by the whole experience. I told my husband that I’d like to go back to Africa for six months after leaving the White House. He whittled that down a little and we went for six weeks. Volunteering and advocating for poverty alleviation, maternal health and early child development on a global scale are very important to me. Later, when I learned about Mercy Ships, I decided I’d like to see it for myself. And Peter, ever the trooper, came with me to the Congo. While we were there, we shot a video that reached millions and millions of people, letting them know about Mercy Ships. I was so proud of that.
KW: I think a lot of people were very impressed by your doing that, especially since so many Democrats are convinced that Republicans only care about the rich?
DP: That’s a shame! It surprises me that people might think that, because when they publish the charitable donations each year you see that, across the board, conservatives give more. The AIDS relief program was started by President Bush, in part, because of encouragement from Evangelical Christians who felt a moral obligation to save a continent that was about to lose an entire generation of people. And now, Bono starts his concerts by asking everyone in the audience to thank President Bush for saving ten million lives.
KW: Documentary Filmmaker Kevin Williams says: It seems like the past several White House Press Secretaries since you left the job have been much more combative and antagonistic towards reporters asking tough questions. Do you think that’s the result of the recent jobholders’ nerves wearing thin or of a fundamental change in the role of the White House Press Secretary?DP: I would say that there was a great deal of tension as well between the press and my two predecessors as well. But I don’t necessarily need to comment on other people’s styles. I would just say that I didn’t feel that it was very productive or helpful to the people of America for the White House Press Secretary and the press to be at each other’s throats everyday. That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. They had a job to do; and I knew it was an important one. And I had a job to do, too. So, I tried to meet them halfway. I saw 50% of my job as advocating and defending the United States of America through the eyes of the Bush administration. I saw the other 50% of my job was defending and advocating for the press so it could maintain its access to the president. I don’t understand the antagonism we see today, or why this administration has cut off some access, like they did with photographers. President Obama is so handsome, he never takes a bad picture. So, they didn’t need to antagonize the press with that piece. In Chapter Six, I write about how swallowing sarcasm and carrying yourself with dignity and grace will make you more effective as a communicator than fighting all the time.
KW: Kevin has a follow-up: Is it fair for people to see an unhealthy relationship between the political class and the press at the White House Correspondent's Dinner? Did you enjoy the so-called Nerd Prom?DP: Hate's a strong word, but I hate the Nerd Prom and I have not been back since 2008. Big group events don’t suit me well. I’m not impressed by meeting celebrities. And one of the things that disappoints me about the dinner is that it is meant to celebrate the young people who are being awarded scholarships. Yet, the guests sitting at the tables won’t shut up long enough to allow the young people to enjoy their moment to shine.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: What would be the most important piece of advice you’d give to an incoming Presidential Press Secretary?
DP: I think I would pay forward the advice I got from Chief of Staff Andy Card, o say a little prayer of thanks every morning before the Marine opens the door to the West Wing for you, and it will set your day off on a better foot.
KW: Children's book author Irene Smalls asks: What is the toughest challenge you faced at the White House?
DP: I'd say the accumulation of stress and intensity, and the overwhelming amount of work we had to do. If I got to go back and do it over again, I would have taken better care of my health, because I really let things spiral out of control, and I think I would've been a better Press Secretary, if I'd focused on taking better care of myself.
DP: I had long hair for a long, long time prior to the White House. Now, I have the benefit of professional help in getting ready to appear on The Five. But I loooooove to wear a ponytail.
DP: That we would recognize that we are so blessed to have been born here, and that we are an exceptional nation with a great deal of responsibility in the world which we need to take seriously. And that we need to live our lives with joy, because that's what was intended. And that we would come together and recognize that our problems are solvable. We sometimes just lack the will to solve them.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
DP: [Chuckles] I'd just like to share my favorite piece advice from the book: Choosing to be loved is not a career-limiting decision. My marriage has helped me in my career more than perhaps anything else I could've done, despite leaving an enviable career-track in Washington, DC when we had nothing.
DP: I'm almost finished reading “All the Light We Cannot See,” which is a novel about World War II. I'm also reading “Munich Airport” by Greg Baxter.
Another book by him I loved was “The Apartment.”
DP: Last night, I listened to the new soundtrack from the TV series “Nashville,” a show which is like a combination of “Dallas” and “Fame.” [Laughs]
DP: My husband and I love steak with some sort of vegetables. But I'm also very good at making a dish I call Blue Cheese Heaven, which is stir-fried vegetables with blue cheese crumble melted served over sourdough toast with horseradish spread.
DP: I didn't really learn a lot about fashion growing up in Wyoming, so I'm a little intimidated in Washington and New York at times. I'm lucky that I found a young designer named Bradley Scott who takes such great care of me. Whenever I have a special occasion, I pull out one of his dresses.
KW: When you look in the mirror what do you see?
DP: An older version of myself. [Laughs] I have found a way to be joyously content. I don't see myself as worried, or stressed or fearful anymore, like I use to. I also used to see a very hard-edged person when I worked in the White House, although that wasn't the kind of Press Secretary President Bush wanted me to be. And it wasn't good for my marriage either, so I tried to be the way I believe God intended my life to be, which is a little more joyous.
DP: I think it's very hard to leave those arguments in the Briefing Room. But I was very much supported by President Bush and the White house.
DP: I would like the feeling of serenity to be shared by more people in the world.
DP: My earliest, childhood political memory was watching the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. My earliest memory was riding a pony my grandfather bought me named Sally at the ranch. I loved that pony.
KW: Would you mind giving me a Dana Perino question I can ask everybody I interview?
DP: Sure: What keeps you up at night? President Bush used to ask that of other world leaders because it would help him understand what their anxieties were so he could work better with them.
DP: I remember very well when I was dumped in college by this guy I'd dated for two and a half years. All of a sudden he failed to show up one Friday night; and I never saw him again. I got the flu and was feeling sorry for myself until my friend Andrea said, “We gotta get you up and outta here.” And we started going to these country music bars in Pueblo. We'd danced with every guy but go home with no one. She and I are still such good friends. That experience taught me that you can survive a broken heart.
DP: I think I'm quieter at home. I need time to think, and I need time to read which isn't an indulgence but part of my job, since I get a lot of galleys
DP: I actually believe it is optimism, not the unrealistic, Pollyanna sort, but the type that enables you to keep striving to achieve in the face of adversity.
DP: As kind.
DP: Some credit cards and an I.D. And you know what I carried around in my wallet for five years? A scrap of paper with my sketch of an outline for this book I wanted to write. For some reason, I never threw it away, even after the first publisher I approached said the book would never sell. When I showed it to the one who did end up publishing the book, he said, “Leave this with me.” And he even wrote my proposal, because he believed in it so much.
DP: Would you believe it? Well, I loved talking with you, Kam.
KW: Same here, Dana. It's been an honor. Like I said, I love you on the show because you're not a predictable, hack Republican spouting the party line, but a very sensitive and intelligent person who obviously thinks for herself.
DP: Thank you, Kam, you made my day!