Former White House press secretary Dana Perino was used to speaking on behalf of someone else. As a co-host of The Five, she says she's really found her voice.
In September 2007, Dana Perino was appointed by President George W. Bush as the White House press secretary, becoming the first Republican woman to hold the job. Before that, though, she spent time as a country music DJ and did a stint in PR in addition to working several jobs in Washington, D.C. Six years after she left the West Wing, Perino is a political commentator and co-host of The Five on Fox News. Her new book, And the Good News Is… Lessons and Advice From the Bright Side, chronicles her life on and off the government's payroll.
My dad had a tradition with me that I had to read the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News and pick out two articles to discuss with him at dinner. I remember getting so excited to show him what articles I had chosen. I didn't realize it until later, [but] he played the devil's advocate in a gentle way that encouraged my critical thinking development as well as my ability to articulate myself in some way. We watched all the news programs. I remember playing outside when I was about 6 being nervous that I was going to miss the beginning of 60 Minutes.
Because I loved writing and reading, I thought I wanted to be an author. In junior high, I started to think about what I wanted to do. And I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to tell the stories.
What I loved about the news business was the political commentary. In junior high, I joined the speech team, which was really important. One of the events I did on the speech team was extemporaneous thinking. You were required to study the news and keep file folders full of current event topics. [In class,] we would pick a piece of paper out of a hat, and it had three current event topics. You choose one and would have 30 minutes total to write, research, and put together a five- to seven-minute speech on that topic, and have a point of view. If you think about the White House press briefings, that training was so key. Because you might find out at noon that a ship off the Strait of Hormuz [in the Persian Gulf] is being attacked by Iranian ships. And in 30 minutes, I'd have to explain this to the nation and back it up with facts and research.
I really wanted to go to a big school, and I thought I'd go to CU-Boulder. But my dad encouraged me to look at a smaller school, Colorado State University-Pueblo, and I pouted the whole way there. There was a radio station and a public television station on the campus, and they had internship opportunities. And this school offered me a full-ride tuition scholarship if I would be on the speech team. So I did that, and I got to work at the TV station.
During college, I also got some experience as a country music DJ. I worked 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. for minimum wage on Saturdays and Sundays, and waited tables the other nights of the week. It was exhausting work, but back then, you had to have some experience in radio.
I could have graduated early, but I ended up staying that extra semester because I got to work at the television station doing a show called Capitol Journal, where I went to the capitol during the Colorado legislative session for two days a week and got to do some reporting. I mean it was small-ball, junior-bear-cub reporting. But they gave me a chance.
My plan was to start working as a journalist right away. Then one of my professors told me about a small [graduate] program at the University of Illinois at Springfield [with a chance to land] an internship at the state capitol. I got accepted, and I got the CBS affiliate internship. While I was there, I started to think I wasn't sure if this was right for me.
I started realizing that when you look around at the journalism world, at least at that time, there wasn't much diversity in news. CNN was barely on the scene; there wasn't any cable news yet, so there were three network anchors. If you really want to succeed, you have to crawl your way through local markets. And the pay was terrible. The other reason was that unless I was doing the state capitol stuff, I was bored. I realized I just spent all this money to get a graduate degree — my parents had me pay for it myself — and I don't want to do that [career].
After graduation, I did what all good graduates do and I lived in my parents' basement in Colorado and waited tables. I was still looking for media jobs. There was an 800 number called Medialine you could call every day to hear to all of the media jobs around the country. Nothing was sticking out to me, and then I heard that the Colorado state Senate president was looking for a deputy press secretary. And I thought, Maybe I can do that.
When I was doing that Capitol Journal show, I used to interview this former state senator named Scott McInnis, who then got elected to Congress in 1993. It's so important to keep in touch with people over the years because you never know when it might help you. Because I knew his staff, I contacted them and asked if I could put Scott McInnis as a reference on my résumé. And they said, "If you're looking for a job, we need a staff assistant. Will you come work for us?" And I froze because I didn't want to go back to Pueblo, Colorado. But they meant in Washington, D.C.
I was nervous because taking this job meant giving up on a journalism career. That turned out not to be true, but that's what I thought at the time. I get to Washington, and I'm answering phones for six weeks. I'm not even answering the questions [from constituents]. I just passed on messages. Coors Brewing Company was hosting a party for anyone in Washington, D.C. who was from Colorado because the Colorado Avalanche was coming to play the Washington Capitals in its season opener. Coors was giving anyone from Colorado a ride to the game and free tickets. I didn't have that many friends yet, so I decided to go.
I end up sitting next to this guy named Tim Rutten, and he asked me what I wanted to do in Washington. I said, "I'd like to work my way up to be a House press secretary one day." He said, "Do you know Congressman Dan Schaefer from Colorado? He's looking for a new press secretary. You should meet him. You'd be perfect!"
My first response was, "Oh, that wouldn't be the right thing to do because Scott McInnis had given me a job, and I had only been here for six weeks." I thought it would be unfair of me. Tim Rutten, to his credit, said, "Are you out of your mind? That's how this works." He pushed me to meet the press secretary who was leaving. I meet the chief of staff. I meet the congressman. They offer me the job. But I'm so nervous about having to tell the other office that even though they brought me to Washington, D.C., that I was going to leave. Schaefer could sense it. He said, "I bet you're uncomfortable. Would it be OK if I called Scott McInnis and asked if you can come work for me?" Scott McInnis said, "Absolutely, I'm so excited for her." And he's been one of my biggest supporters ever since.
The first press call I get was from Environment & Energy Daily, I think. Congressman Schaefer was chairman of the House commerce subcommittee on energy and power. I knew the energy world a tiny bit, but I had no idea what [the reporter] was talking about. He probably thought, Here's another young Hill staffer who doesn't know what she's doing.
I had the best mentors in that office. The chief of staff, who had been press secretary and worked her way up, held my hand and gave me enough rope to do my job but not enough to hang myself. If someone from the press called, she said, "Write it down and come to me." And she would talk me through how to answer it. Then I stayed in her office as she called the reporter back so I could listen to her. I shadowed her until I could do it on my own. The people who were subject matter experts drew me pictures and diagrams of how the energy world works until it started to sink in. That was fun for me because it was kind of like going to school.
I was there for 2.5 years until I met my husband on an airplane. I had outgrown the job. At age 25, I was under the impression that what you did next defined your course. I didn't want to work as a lobbyist. I didn't know what else I wanted to do. My boss announced he was going to retire, so I had a year to figure it out. I got on an airplane and met Peter, who is from England. We were assigned seats next to each other in August 1997. I moved to England [on] Memorial Day weekend of 1998 with no career plans.
I left everything and took a huge risk for love. I stayed there about 10 months. It's freezing. It's really expensive. And I couldn't find a job, so my visa was going to run out. I thought maybe I'd go back to school again, but my husband said, "Let's go stake our claim in America." So we left in January of 1999 and moved to San Diego with nothing — no jobs, no car. We borrowed money to rent an apartment and got a used Ford Explorer.
I quickly found a job working for a San Diego city councilman. I lasted six weeks. I don't even list it on my résumé. I felt like I deserved more respect than he gave me. I was the only one with a steady job, but my husband convinced me to quit. I went to work at a small political consulting firm, then a medium-size PR firm, then I worked for Porter Novelli, which is a big international PR firm, so I felt like I was working my way up.
Then a friend I worked with on Capitol Hill called me. She was working with George W. Bush on the presidential campaign. She said, "We can't pay you anything, but would you be willing to be a spokesperson for the campaign in California?" I wanted to do that so badly. But I was still the only one with a steady job with benefits, and I thought that was critically important. So I told her I couldn't do it. I hung up the phone, and I cried. I thought, Now I'll never get to work for George Bush.
Then my husband sat me down for something I call "the whiteboard incident." He said, "Let's list all the things you want in a job and all the things you don't want to do in a job." We assigned numerical value to each thing. He said, "Any job in Washington scored 10 points higher than what you're doing now. I think it's pretty clear we need to move there." I called back my friend who was then at the Justice Department and asked her if she knew of any jobs. I was going to come to D.C. the week of Sept. 17, 2001, to do some informational interviews.
Then 9/11 happened. Three days later, my friend called me and said, "Would you be willing to come back even now after 9/11? I need another spokesperson on my team." I started packing that night, left seven days later, and never returned to San Diego. I became a spokesperson at the Justice Department. I had to learn that job in about six weeks. It was intense. The only thing you could say was, "No comment."[When] the president had just been reelected, there was a lot of movement, change, and departures. And I felt stagnant. I could do the environmental and energy issues in my sleep. The Treasury Department was interested in having me [on their communications team]. I knew that would be a step up, so I went for the job. On the day I went to take the job with Treasury, I was asked to stay behind in the communications meeting in the White House Press Office, and Scott McClellan [the press secretary] asked me if I'd be interested in being his deputy. The deputy press secretary job was the only other job I really wanted, so I said yes. But I was nervous about telling Treasury. Scott let me off the hook and called on my behalf.
I'd initially intended to resign. There was a little more than 18 months to go until the end [of the term], and I was exhausted. But when I asked Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president, if I could see him after the communications meeting, he said yes because he needed to talk to me too. I was about to blurt out my news when he asked if he could go first. He said, "The president would like to make you the press secretary on Monday." Immediately I saw my career change forever — this was the highest position in my field. I'd be the first Republican woman to serve as press secretary. It is a good thing there was an end date on the administration, because I loved that experience and I wouldn't have left if we didn't have to.
I knew I wanted to continue to have a voice in the debate and to represent conservatives in a persuasive, gracious way. And I felt some need to continue to defend President Bush. I talked to a couple of networks, but the opportunities seemed narrow. I'm glad that Fox was willing to consider me as a contributor, because the network already had Karl Rove and so they didn't really need another Bush Republican on the team.
Sean Hannity started having me [as a guest commentator] on his show. He told everyone he thought I was different, and he wanted me to come on board. And then I got more requests to be on other shows. I also got a chance to guest host Fox & Friends, and so I really had to come out of my shell.
When Glenn Beck departed, the 5 p.m. hour was open, and The Five was born. [It debuted in July 2011.] I was chosen to be on the original team. Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary for Presidents Reagan and Bush, told me to try to find the thing I was good at and that I had fun doing — and it turned out that being a news analyst and a contributor to Fox fit that bill just right. I love to study for the show and to let my personality come through. Before The Five, I'd never given my own opinion in public — I'd always spoken on behalf of someone else. I've made the career transition, and I feel like I've found my voice and am the fullest expression of myself now.
I'm afraid to make a plan, because every time I make a plan, something else happens. I want to remain open to future possibilities. The Five is the longest job I've held without feeling the need to move on. So as long as I feel like I'm challenged, productive, and having fun, I'm staying put.
Link to Cosmopolitan Article here: http://www.cosmopolitan.com/career/interviews/a41219/get-that-life-dana-perino-fox-news-the-five/
By: Heather Wood Rudulph