- Dana Perino was the first Republican woman to serve as White House press secretary, from September 2007 until the end of President George W. Bush’s term in 2009.
- She now hosts “The Daily Briefing” and cohosts “The Five” on Fox News.
- Fox News has gone through several changes in the past year after sexual-harassment allegations were made against CEO Roger Ailes, host Bill O’Reilly, and others.
- Perino’s status at the company has risen during that time.
Dana Perino didn’t crave the limelight.
“I was super happy being behind the scenes,” she said on Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.”
Then she landed one of the most public jobs — as George W. Bush’s White House press secretary.
Now Perino is at Fox News, where her star has been rising in the wake of sexual-harassment scandals at the network. The scandals led to the ouster of its CEO and a number of on-air talent, including its biggest star, Bill O’Reilly.
On this episode of “Success! How I Did It,” Perino spoke with Business Insider US Editor-in-Chief Alyson Shontell about how she went from Wyoming to DC, meeting her husband on an aeroplane, and ended up hosting two shows on Fox News — where some call her “the voice of reason.”
You can listen to the podcast below:
- Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff
- Lyft president John Zimmer
- Celebrity chef Jose Andres
- Life coach Tony Robbins
Following is a transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Alyson Shontell: You grew up on cattle ranches in Wyoming and Colorado before you came to the East Coast, but I wanted to talk about your childhood and how that influenced your career. It seems as if you were always really interested in politics and news and journalism from a young age. I read that you were the only third-grader on the planet who asked to watch “Meet the Press.”
Dana Perino: Oh yes. My sister used to get irritated because on Saturdays we’d have a family meeting about which church service we were going to go to the next day. Either the early service or the late, it was, like, 8:30 or 11. And I always like to go early, because if we did that and we had to go to Sunday school, we would get home in time to watch “Meet the Press.” My dad started a tradition with me when I was in third grade that I had to read the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post every day before he got home from work, and I had to choose two articles to discuss with him before dinner and he would play the devil’s advocate and really help my critical thinking.
That did something else — which is being more confident in expressing yourself and your opinions in front of a dominant male figure, because in your life as a young woman in America, certainly it’s a lot better than it used to be, but that actually is a recurring theme in everybody’s career. And so instilling that confidence early on was really important. I don’t know if my dad was thinking about that but I hope he knows now that it was instrumental in my future success.
Shontell: You go off to college in Colorado and there are a few jobs in between, but how do you wind up then at the White House? You arrive right around 9/11.
Perino: I did.
Well, what happened was, I had gone to graduate school and I thought I was going to be a local news reporter, and I liked covering politics, but I was surprised at what I thought was an institutional media bias against Republicans and conservatives. I didn’t even really think I was a conservative. And I can see issues from both sides; I don’t feel too strictly partisan. But I did notice it, and I would just hear things that I thought was so unfair.
But the real reason I left local news was that I realised I couldn’t hack it. Part of it was that the climb up the ladder seemed so arduous back then and the pay was terrible. And really, if you think about the three network jobs — ABC, NBC, CBS is really all that exists all the time. CNN had just started. They were all held by men and they had been the same job since I was a teenager, so I just didn’t see a path up.
But then one day I got asked by the newsroom to go cover a trial that was starting that day, and there was a woman who was a mother of a 2-year-old, and that child was killed by a friend of hers, and I was supposed to go to the courthouse and try to get an interview with her. So I went, and I was so nervous, mostly because I felt like I couldn’t approach or that that was like a violation of her privacy, which is — that’s what reporters do. You are supposed to violate privacy so you can get to the story.
I was at the courthouse and I circled that woman three times and I realised, I’m not going to do it. So I went back to the newsroom, said I was sorry, and I called my dad and said, “I don’t think I want to do this here.” And he says, “Well, don’t worry; I’ll come get you in a couple of weeks after graduation, we’ll drive home, and we’ll figure it out.” So I went home like every good graduate student does after they finish and I waited tables and lived in my parents’ basement, and ultimately I got a job on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
At first I was just answering phones, but six weeks later I became the press secretary for a congressman from Colorado. I stayed for almost three years, I met lots of people, and one of the things I say in my book is that young women in particular, you have got to start building your network early, and by network I mean friends. So I kept in touch with everybody, and this is before Facebook, right? I used to send postcards — I love postcards. And it was just like a little touch to make sure I was in touch with people, not just because I thought I would need something from them later but because I liked them and I wanted to have a lot of friends in my life. I thought that was important for happiness and fulfillment. Then I met this guy on an aeroplane and he’s British, and I moved to England.
Shontell: I love that story — it’s your husband. It sounds like you had a bit of fear of approaching people, and obviously in a sensitive situation that makes sense.
Perino: Right. I mean, I was quiet.
Shontell: But you do find your husband on an aeroplane.
Perino: Yes, well, he was British, he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He was pretty cute, and he was so smart, and he was well travelled and he’s 18 years older than me, so he had done a lot in his life and we had similar political views. I moved to England, I got married. When I came back with him, we decided to live in San Diego, because who wouldn’t want to live there? It’s like a fabulous place in America, but I just had a hard time fitting in. I was bored out of my mind. And George W. Bush ran for office. I kept in touch with a lot of my friends from Capitol Hill who were then working for him.
And what happened was, on 9/11 I reached out to a girlfriend of mine who was working for Attorney General Ashcroft at the Justice Department. And so if you think back to then, in 2001, there was no Department of Homeland Security. It was just the Justice Department that was responsible for fielding all of these inquiries. And she responded back to me saying that she was OK, and a couple days later she asked me, “Would you be willing to move to DC in the middle of all of this? I need another spokesperson on my team.” And I remember I was packing while we were on the phone and I left San Diego. I didn’t go back for a couple of years actually. Peter finished out that year, got our house set to rent, and drove across the country. So I was with the Bush administration from October 2001 to January 2009.
How Dana Perino almost quit her White House job the same morning she was named Press Secretary
Shontell: That sounds like that easiest job interview ever. I would think you’d have to jump through a lot of hoops to be able to work in the White House.
Perino: Well, yes, so I was at the Justice Department, and I dealt with all the issues that were not terrorism-related. One of my pieces of advice is take the jobs nobody else wants to do. So, like, who wants to do tax policy or Antitrust Division or the Environment and Natural Resources Division? But I like all those issues. So I had those issues on my plate, and I got pulled over to the White House Council on Environmental Quality just a year later. And then, anyway, then I’m going to be the deputy, then I stayed and I became the press secretary.
Shontell: Was there a time when you thought about leaving, before you got promoted?
Perino: Yeah, because it’s a gruelling job. And in 2007, at the beginning, the chief of staff, Josh Bolten, had said to everybody, “If you feel like you can’t make it to the end, it would be better for the president and for the country if you tell us now and we’ll help you move on so that we can make sure that there are people that feel like they can sprint to the finish, because that’s what the president intends to do.”
And I was really honest with myself, and in fact the only regret I really have about my time at the White House is that I did a terrible job of taking care of my health. I was tired, my husband missed me, and I was deputy for two and a half years, and I didn’t think I was going to become the press secretary because Tony Snow was so good at his job and loved by everybody.
I had a weekend away with Peter — he was running a race in Oregon — and we make the decision that I’m going to resign from the White House. And I cried, because you think it’s so hard to walk away from something that amazing and you don’t want to leave the team. So I get back and I’m so geared up and I’m going to tell Ed Gillespie, the director of communications, that I’m going to leave the White House, and I’m in the morning communications meeting, and as he walked in I said, “Hey, can I see you after the meeting?” And he said, “Yes — I need to talk to you, too.” I said, “OK, great.” So the whole meeting goes by, everybody leaves, I sit down, and I am so nervous but I’m just about to talk and he says, “Do you mind if I go first?” And I said, “Sure,” and I sat back and he said, “The president would like you to take over the press secretary job on Monday.”
Shontell: Did you fall out of your chair? What did you say?
Perino: I said, “He does?” We have the conversation and you kind of imagine that you become the White House press secretary and there’s like stars and a band.
Shontell: Confetti falling from the sky.
Perino: Cinderella moment, like, no, it was just like, “What? Are you serious?” But the interesting thing is, I never actually told the story that I was going to resign until I wrote my book. And Ed Gillespie was in the middle of my book and he called me and he said, “Are you kidding me?” I mean, imagine if I had gone first.
Perino: There were not ever days that I ever thought of resigning. Like, you know, you have these visions in your mind, like, “I quit.” I never, ever felt that way.
The most important job of Perino’s career was also the most stressful — it left a physical ringing in her ears for the next 2 years
Shontell: So talk about taking the reins of this huge new job you’re offered. What’s your first time at the podium like?
Perino: Tony Snow — because he was not territorial and he certainly did not think he was too big for his britches — he was very comfortable allowing me to fill in for him. He had a lot of cancer treatments that he was still going through as well, and so the first time I filled in for him was like his second week on the job. I had never even been on television before, and I was very happy to be behind the scenes. But I didn’t have a choice because he had to have cancer treatment. I remember he said to me, “You are better at this than you think you are.”
And I think he saw something in me that I didn’t recognise, but that’s a pattern that repeats itself, including, I think, that the president saw in me that I could do it but also even Roger Ailes, when he brings me to Fox in order to do television. I look back on those first hits I did, I was terrible. Mostly because I was terrified at expressing my own opinion. I had never done so. I had always been the spokesperson for somebody else, for years. I also encourage managers to think about that, which is that your success can be measured by the people that you train and that you promote and don’t hold people back. Let them have some face time with the boss. And that’s why I was such a good deputy for Tony Snow because he actually let me do stuff.
Shontell: And one thing that you said, too, is that your health took a little bit of a toll, and I imagine it is one of the most stressful jobs in the universe that you could possibly have. I know you said when you were leaving the White House, anything I do will never be as hard as this was.
Perino: Or as important.
Shontell: Or as important. So how do you manage the stress of having such an important tough job?
Perino: I didn’t handle it very well at the time. I mean, partly it was that for, I don’t know, six years I got up at four o’clock in the morning, I worked all day, every day, and even on Saturdays and Sundays. You would try to have a little personal time. I always wanted to be the most well-read person in the briefing room and so that means you have to put in the work. I think really what happened with me is that I was sleep-deprived, I wasn’t eating well, I didn’t eat a lot, I drank a lot of green tea and caffeine to keep going, and the sleep thing was probably the most important, actually.
I developed this ringing in my ear that became quite permanent for almost two years, even after I left the White House. Everything just sort of took a toll. And it was one of the things I wish I had done better and that I encourage young people to do because people are stressed out all the time. Americans work very hard. We are ambitious. We want to succeed. And the only thing that you can do, for sure, that you are responsible for, is taking care of yourself.
Shontell: And you became close friends with President Bush himself, and he’s still a friend.
Perino: It’s amazing to be able to say that.
Shontell: What’s he like?
Perino: He’s joyous, he’s serene. He is painting a lot, but he is so involved in his institute, focused on several different areas: one on veterans’ issues, in particular, PTSD, and how to help returning Wounded Warriors transition back into civilian life productively. They do a lot on education still. They travelled to Africa once a year or once every other year so that they can continue that work that they started, and that’s hugely successful. And also he said that he loves being a grandfather. He said, “Being a grandparent is the only thing that is not overrated.” So it’s lovely to see the President and Mrs. Bush so happy. It was great.
How Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity brought Perino to Fox News
Shontell: So talk to me about how you went from the press secretary role to Fox. You said Roger Ailes brought you in?
Perino: I knew that I wanted to continue to be a part of the daily conversation. And I also felt an obligation to be out there defending President Bush’s record because, as you can see even in this past year, whenever a president leaves, those first two years it’s a constant comparison back to that president. And I wanted to be there and I felt an obligation to do it.
And I thought that I would do lots of different things, like a little bit of speaking, a little consulting, a little charity work, but I also thought I would add this other component, which is I could be a voice out there as a conservative Republican woman from the Bush administration that could be there to explain what I saw and how he made decisions. So I talked to both CNN and Fox. I didn’t really seriously talk with CNN and frankly I don’t think they were very serious about me either.
What I heard was that Sean Hannity had come back after having had a chance to talk with me in Washington when he was there to see the president in that December time frame and he’d come back and said, “We really should bring on Dana Perino,” and somebody said — I don’t know who it was — “Why would we do that? We already have Karl Rove, so like we don’t need another Bush Republican.” And it was Sean Hannity that said, “No, she’s different — let me give it a shot.”
And he then started having me come up to do “Great American Panel,” as it was called back then, on his show that was at 9 p.m., and not long after that, I was offered a chance to be a contributor at Fox News, so that was April of 2009 and we started “The Five” in July of 2011. It was supposed to be six weeks of a temporary show just to help Fox figure out what to do in between Glenn Beck leaving and whatever they were going to do at 5 o’clock, and we came up for that summer. And two weeks after it started, my husband said, “Oh, we’re so going to have to move to New York.” I said “Oh, absolutely not; they’re never going to make this a show.” And we are in our seventh year and I have never had a job this long. What’s interesting is if you look at all the things that I’ve done, what I do today on a daily basis is the culmination of everything I’ve ever wanted to do.
Pernio, who says she has never been sexually harrassed, reveals what it’s been like to watch Fox’s PR firestorm from the inside
Shontell: So the last year or so at Fox has been rough from a public perspective. It’s been a rough year. And how has that affected your decision to stay? What’s it been like? It’s been crazy from the outside to watch.
Perino: I actually think it probably was a little less crazy on the inside than it might have looked or than you might have thought. Part of it is that when you have a show to do and it’s live, there’s no alternative. And what I think is pretty interesting is that despite all of those changes that you mentioned, we’ve never once had a moment of dead air, our ratings have stayed the same, and I feel like the company has turned this corner and that the mist has lifted and there’s a lot of new stuff happening.
My new show at 2:00 o’clock, you have Laura Ingraham joining to do a new 10:00 p.m. show, Shannon Bream at 11 p.m., Martha MacCallum doing the 7:00 o’clock, Harris Faulkner with “Outnumbered” crew, and then at 1:00, Sandra Smith, you have Ainsley Earhardt. So I actually feel like if you’re a viewer, Fox asked a lot of you, OK? Like, if you were a Fox fan, that’s a lot of change in a year to take your whole primetime lineup, change it around, mix it up, and yet there’s something about the brand and the product that must really work because we emerged stronger out of that.
I wasn’t there in the decision-making room to know if there were days when they thought, “Oh, my gosh, are we going to be able to pull this off if we make all these changes?” I’m sure there probably were moments of self-doubt. But for us, we didn’t feel that, at least I didn’t feel that. I was very close with several of the people that you mentioned. And what’s interesting, too, is that everybody can remain friendly.
Shontell: Did you know a different side of them than maybe we got to see?
Perino: Well, certainly when you work with people day to day. I have had this fairly long career. I’m 45, so it’s been a long time. It’s remarkable to me. I have never been a victim of sexual harassment in any way. The only thing I do remember is when I worked in San Diego at a PR firm, I found out that a guy who had joined the company after me, and we were doing the same job, that they paid him $US5,000 more a year than they paid me. I don’t know how I found that out, but I was so furious. I remember that feeling, like my cheeks were so red, I was so mad, and I went to my boss about it and he had said something like, “Well, he has a family to feed.” I was, like, “I don’t care.”
I was really mad about it. And the next day I got the raise. That’s really my only brush with it, and I don’t know if I’m just fortunate. Maybe so. I mean, I am aware that it’s out there, but I think also if you look at some of the changes that Fox has made with bringing onboard Kevin Lord, our new human-resources director, I can sense a difference and I sense it also with younger people. I’m always sought out for career advice, and I will tell you I have fewer people coming to me looking to leave but just looking for how they can do better within the company. That to me is a big difference in a year.
Perino delivers the news that Bill O’Reilly won’t be returning to the air on Fox News.
Shontell: So we mentioned that you are sitting in the O’Reilly chair. And it was your job to deliver the news to his viewers that he would not be coming back.
Perino: Well, that was only because I happened to be filling in that week in that anchor chair.
Shontell: That’s a big day to be filling in, coincidence or not.
Perino: I know. There was a moment where I was, like, how did I end up being this person? I have to say that I was thinking about the viewers in particular, but my main —
Shontell: How did you plan when you realised that was going to be your assignment?
Perino: I didn’t have much time. I mean, I think it was like 4 o’clock, where that decision was made and so it was just four hours later we had an entire show to do. I will tell you what was mostly on my mind, was that his staff was in the control room and, to me, that was my most important audience that night. For them to know how appreciated they were, how valuable they were to Fox News, and that I recognise that this was a really big, significant, and emotional moment for them, and I wanted them to know that. The next day, actually, I think it was the Daily Mail, or I don’t know who it was, they said, I think the headline was, “An Emotionless Dana Perino,” and it was like an insult. I’m, like, no, no. Emotionless was the goal. That’s what I was trying to do.
Shontell: But you must have felt some emotion. I mean, all of these allegations are so awful. These are your colleagues.
Perino: Well, true. But I couldn’t spend time worrying about that because, again, my job is to the viewer, right? So it doesn’t matter what I’m thinking. I used to think about this when I was press secretary. Almost always, a press secretary will be asked, what was it like when you had to talk about a policy that you disagreed with? And how uncomfortable was that for you? And I always would say, “Not a problem for me.” It wasn’t my opinion, it wasn’t my news to share. It was me trying to explain to the country how President Bush had made a decision. And I think that was the mode that I switched into, which is: It wasn’t about me. I was given this responsibility, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability in a way that I have done in front of international audiences for years. I never thought I would be that person.
Shontell: And your star has risen. I mean, it was already rising fast, but now you’re really the face of Fox, I think, especially for women here.
Perino: You think?
Shontell: Yeah, for sure.
Perino: I’m going to start having those pressure moments again.
Shontell: Do you feel that pressure?
Perino: I certainly don’t see myself in that way. It’s so interesting because I still feel like I’m happy being behind the scenes. Yeah, I don’t see myself as a star. That’s interesting that you say that.
How Perino prepares for her show knowing President Trump is probably watching
Shontell: So another thing. I mean, the president watches Fox all the time. Do you feel pressure knowing that President Trump might watching you? Does it shape how you do your show?
Perino: Every once in a while I think about it.
Shontell: Because for a while, weren’t people waving and saying, “Hey, Donald Trump!”?
Perino: Oh, like I’m trying to send him a message of advice? I have done that on “The Five” before actually. I don’t know if he really watches “The Five” — maybe he does. But there have been times when I’m, like, “You know what I’d say?” Because I always have to be everybody’s press secretary. But it does not shape how I do my show. I actually feel a tremendous amount of freedom to just report the news and to bring to bear my experience of having worked in Washington, both at Capitol Hill and in the White House, and having grown up outside of the media bubbles in the Midwest and western Rockies, that there is a freedom that comes from not feeling that you’re affiliated with any particular party or candidate.
Shontell: And you’ve been called the voice of reason.
Perino: I know Mrs. Bush calls me that.
Shontell: How do you do that when people sometimes look at Fox as a network as more conservative?
Perino: I mean, there’s no denying that I was a Republican press secretary or that I lean conservative. I actually think that you are more likely to be successful in getting people to listen to you if you are reasonable and if you can present things as reasonable. You asked me, “How do I remain the voice of reason?” I’m not a yeller. I don’t interrupt people. Maybe I should. I mean, there are times when I think, “I really should get in there and try to fight.” But when I do get animated, it’s for a good reason.
Shontell: Do you think that there are two different sets of facts being presented to both sides, and do you think about that when you’re talking to your audience?
Perino: I just see facts as facts. And I like to have all the facts and then let the chips fall where they may. That means that you have to do a lot of reading. I also think it’s very important to be honest that there are upsides and downsides to every policy choice. On trade, for example, yes, it is true, if you do more trade, it is possible that some types of jobs will leave the United States. Now is that counterbalanced by the fact that products that are being sold back into the United States are much cheaper so consumers are able to afford more in America? And vice versa, it goes the other way, as well. So I think that being honest about upsides and downsides is so important in this era where you have lots of different information coming in from all over.
There’s a ‘fraternity’ of former White House press secretaries that includes Sean Spicer
Shontell: And so you did just get a new show the daily briefing at 2:00 p.m. Tell me about finding out you were going to get your own show? How do you prep for it every day? How do you get ready to go on air?
Perino: I’m still trying to figure that out.
For a long time, the only show that I was responsible to do every day for sure was “The Five,” though I appeared on many other programs and I loved being a part of the election coverage. That was a great experience. And then for six months our show was at 9 p.m. Imagine how much you can read from 6:00 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. I was so over-prepared. And now I feel very under-prepared. The 2 p.m. show has a lot of breaking news. The president, on almost any day, is either giving a press conference or speaking to the press in some way at an event or a speech, or Sarah Huckabee Sanders is giving the press briefing and people want to watch it. They want to be a part of it.
What I love is being able to come back out of it, and like today I had Ari Fleischer, who was my predecessor at the White House, one of them, and I can say, “Well, what do you think about the president’s comments yesterday?” And you can have a conversation with people who are experienced. I love that, because I feel like I’m super curious and want to ask a lot of questions of them because I don’t have all the answers. I have some answers. I like to ask a lot of questions, so I am trying to straddle both shows because for the 2 o’clock, I’m preparing to anchor a show by myself, asking questions, and trying to get news out of that. Two hours later, I need to be ready for “The Five,” which is where I’m supposed to give my opinion about what happened that day. And I have not figured out quite how to do that yet, though one of my bosses the other day said, “You’ve been doing it for years, so just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Shontell: And so you were the second woman ever to be press secretary. Now Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the third and I saw you wrote her some advice. Your show runs at about the same time as a lot of these press briefings and it’s your job now to critique some of what she’s saying and doing. How do you view the job that she’s doing? And would you do anything differently?
Perino: Oh no, I never suggest a press secretary, whoever they are, to do something differently. We have an interesting — I call it a fraternity of former press secretaries.
Shontell: Is Sean Spicer in there?
Perino: Yeah, yeah, he is. And if you’ll see, you will be very hard pressed to find any press secretary criticising another. This whole time. It’s really quite remarkable. Partly because you just know what it’s like to be up there and, you know, walk a mile in her shoes before you criticise. But that said, I think she’s doing great. She’s the first working mother to have the job. That’s a big difference. As I said, I could not even take care of myself well — she’s got three little ones under the age of 5.
If you want to become a White House press secretary, start out as a country music DJ and marry someone awesome
Shontell: So to wrap this all up, you did write a book, and it was packed full of advice and full of your experiences from being in the White House with President Bush. There are a lot of people who would love to be you. They want to have their own show someday, they want to rule the White House roost. What advice would you give to them when they’re just starting out in their careers?
Perino: The question I get asked almost all the time is, “What should I do in order to become White House press secretary?” I’m, like, well, first you become a country-music deejay, because it’s so absurd, because you don’t know what you’re going to end up being. What I ask all young people in particular is please do not worry your young life away. Worrying got me nowhere. The point of my book is, “And the good news is” has double meaning. But one of the meanings is that for all of the worrying that I did, at no point did my worry lead to my next career step. I know that’s easy to say, but the hard work that people put in now, it will pay off for them and they see it later. I see them in their 30s and they look back and go, “Oh, you were right about that,” because things ultimately happen for them.
The other thing I would say: One of my favourite pieces of advice in the book is that choosing to be loved is not a career-limiting decision. Having a committed relationship, to me, has made a big difference in being able to actually accomplish big things. If I hadn’t had Peter’s support, I don’t think I could have done all of this. Now maybe I would have, I don’t know, but certainly my life is a lot more joyous. Work is important, but it’s not everything.
The other thing I’m asked about is, “What is the perfect work-life balance?” And I don’t have an answer for that. I actually heard a very good answer the other day from somebody I used to work with at the White House. She said, “Well, during my years at the White House,” she said, “I don’t think I returned a personal phone call in five years. I just worked. I didn’t think about a work-life balance in my day-to-day life. I think about work-life balance over the course of my career.” And so now she’s a professor at Harvard, she’s got a little bit more time, she just had a baby. That was, for me, an interesting way to look at it. And here’s the great thing: So I just learned that two months ago, so I still have a lot to learn as well and mentoring goes both ways.
Shontell: Well, great, Dana — thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Perino: You are so welcome. Thank you.
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