- Dana Perino, 48, is the host of Fox News’ “The Daily Briefing,” a commentator on the “The Five,” and co-host of the Fox podcast “I’ll Tell You What.”
- At age six, Perino told her family that she would one day work in the White House. She studied journalism at graduate school, but after refusing to interview the mother of a murdered 2-year-old child, she decided the profession wasn’t for her.
- Perino transitioned into communications, in both the public and private sphere, before she worked her way up to becoming former President George W. Bush’s press secretary.
- After Bush left office, she began contributing to Fox News, first defending Bush’s legacy, then providing her own opinions.
- During the pandemic, she’s been working remotely from her beach house in Bay Head, New Jersey, where she hosts her shows from a spare bedroom.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Fox News host Dana Perino has gone from defending a president’s opinions to spouting her own.
Perino, a life-long conservative, planned on becoming a journalist, but ended up in communications. She worked her way up to become former President George W. Bush’s White House press secretary, delivering 145 press briefings.
She’s been on Fox News for nearly a decade, first defending Bush’s legacy then discussing her own opinions. She’s written two best-selling books, and she calls Bush a second father.
But when Insider spoke (via Zoom) with Perino in August to discuss her life to date, she said: “I worry sometimes, I think the audience might think I’m too boring.”
“I’ve been called the voice of reason. I don’t know if that’s always true, but I am a voice of calm,” she said.
Here’s a look at her life and career, in photos, based on interviews with Perino and sourcing from the Washington Post, News Max, Tennessean, Fox News, Diapering.com,University of Illinois Alumni Association, her memoir, Austin Chronicle, The Sunday Times, Denver Post, Politico, Los Angeles Times, Time, NPR, Vanity Fair, Mediaite, USA Today, AP,Deadline, and Salon.
Dana Perino was born on May 9, 1972 in Evanston, Wyoming. Her family moved to Parker, outside of Denver, Colorado, when she was 2 years old.
Every Friday night, her parents would go two-step dancing, and the first songs she remembered hearing were Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and “Islands in the Stream.”
Politics and the media were early influences. When she was six years old, after her family visited the White House, she climbed onto a milk crate and declared she would one day work there.
Perino spent her summers on her grandfather’s ranch in Newcastle, Wyoming. She told Fox News the lifestyle helped her keep positive and calm.
“Ranchers, by their nature, have to be optimistic,” she said. “They have to believe that the cattle will survive the winter and that the crops are going to grow – so I think I have a sunny disposition naturally.”
Dana and her sister Angie were expected to debate current events at the dinner table. Every afternoon, from third grade on, Perino read the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post before Leo, her father, got home from work.
She read them to prepare for a discussion about two articles from the day. Leo told News Max that he wanted his children to understand there were always two sides to each story.
It was Leo’s tradition that got her interested in journalism. She also joined the high school debate team when she was 13, and continued all the way to college. She said debating had a huge impact on her life.
In 1994, she enrolled in Colorado State University Pueblo. She majored in communications and politics, and got a full scholarship through her debating.
She worked as country music DJ from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. every weekend to bolster her resume. She was on air while the top song was Bill Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” which she had to play once every hour when it was first released.
Despite a conservative upbringing, she considered voting for former President Bill Clinton after he visited her campus for a rally. She couldn’t remember what he said but she recalled the seductive energy of his campaign.
In her memoir, she wrote: “There was no substantive reason for supporting Clinton in my mind – it was more about wanting to feel reinvigorated, something new. Which, I learned later, can be very seductive. And dangerous.”
After graduating, she got a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield. She told Insider she was “absolutely dead set” on becoming a journalist, and took out a student loan to get the degree.
“It was a very small program. They only accepted 18 people per year because there were 18 potential internships at the state capital with media companies,” she said.
She got a television reporting internship at the local CBS affiliate in Champagne, Illinois.
“I really liked the politics,” she said. “But then I would get sent out to cover stories that didn’t have anything to do with politics. I remember I covered a tornado and the aftermath of damage. And I kind of fell apart.”
Her plan to become a reporter was faltering, and it ended when she refused to interview a woman about her murdered 2 year old son.
“I saw her, and I walked around her three times. I couldn’t approach her. At the time I didn’t know how. I just kind of choked,” she told Insider.
She called her dad, who told her it was ok.
Leo said: “After graduation, I’ll pick you up. We’ll drive back and listen. You’ll see. You’ll figure it out.”
She returned to her family home to figure out her next step. But she couldn’t twiddle her thumbs.
“I needed to get a job and make money,” she told Insider.
“There used to be a thing called the 1-800 media line. You would call up and you would hear about the jobs that were available around the country. And the pay was very, very low. And I had ambition and I still do. But really, at the time, I was looking at this going, how do you work your way up?”
“I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to be stuck in these smaller media markets. I was going to start there, but I wanted to do other stuff.”
While she hunted for jobs, she worked as a waitress at a local restaurant making good money. When a communications job came up in Denver, she decided to apply, based on the fact she knew a bit about politics, and, she said, “of course I’d watched The West Wing.”
In August 1995, Perino got a job as a staff assistant to former Rep. Scott McInnis after contacting him for a reference. She had interviewed him during college, and his staff remembered and asked her to come work for him.
Three months later, she moved on, and started working as former Rep. Dan Schaefer’s press secretary.
Perino networked, making sure to keep in contact with people she met before social media existed, using postcards.
She said the idea for the postcards came from writing letters to her grandparents every weekend.
“I used to love postcards,” she told Insider. “I think I was an early networker, natural networker. I knew one way to succeed was to build your network. It doesn’t require a lot of effort. It’s not a huge commitment. But it’s a reminder.”
In the summer of 1997, Perino heard at a dinner party that George W. Bush was running for re-election as Texas governor. She thought he would use his position to launch a bid for president.
She told her friends to call her when he ran, because she wanted to help Bush run for president.
In was around then, in 1997, when she was 25 and living in Washington, that she began to experience a “quarter-life crisis,” she wrote in her memoir. Dating was a struggle.
“Most of the guys didn’t look like they’d ever worked outside a day in their lives – soft hands, limp handshakes, pale skin, and pudgy middles. The good-looking ones were either already hitched or married to their political ambition with little senses of humour. It was slim pickings for a single woman,” she wrote.
On August 17, 1997, she met her husband Peter McMahon. They were the last two people to board a flight leaving Denver. McMahon was reading John Le Carre’s “The Tailor of Panama,” which got them talking.
In 2007, she told The Times: “It gives me chills to think how close I was to not meeting him. I couldn’t get him out of my head. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or concentrate on work.”
At one point during our Zoom interview, Perino paused to ask him if he could do the dishes at some other time.
McMahon, who is 18 years older than Perino, has played a key supporting role in her life, handling the majority of the housework, and driving her to work when he was in town, while she worked in the White House.
After getting married, they spent a year in England. Perino couldn’t work because she didn’t have the right visa. She volunteered and read historical fiction. On the weekends she made McMahon take them to the places in her books.
She said taking a year off work was never part of her career plan.
“I remember thinking, what are people going to think about me not working? What are people going to think about me stopping my career at this point? I was on a pretty strict trajectory. But I was so in love. And I loved the idea of adventure.”
While they were in England, Perino was alone at home all day.
“I was on the internet all the time. I didn’t know that you had to pay by the minute. I was there during Lewinsky scandal, for the trial, and the Clinton impeachment. I was online all day, constantly refreshing,” she said.
McMahon told later her internet usage cost them about 600 pounds (almost $US800).
The couple bought a Hungarian Vizsla puppy from Scotland that they named Henry after the British King Henry VIII.
She later trained Henry to fetch flip flops by asking the dog what he thought of former Secretary of State John Kerry.
When Henry heard the words “John Kerry” he would go find them, alluding, she said, to Bush trying to define Kerry as a “flip flopper.”
After a year in England, they moved to San Diego, ticking off a dream of Perino’s to live in California. For three years, she worked in corporate PR, thinking the skills would transfer easily, but the focus on venture capital wasn’t for her.
“It became a little unsatisfying,” she said. “It wasn’t like they were trying to solve issues. They were just trying to get more attention so they could get venture capital money.”
In 2017, she told Business Insider that she’s never experienced sexual harassment, but at that job she was furious to discover a male colleague was paid $US5,000 more than her a year.
She confronted her boss, who told her the other man had a family to feed, but she dismissed that, and the following day she got a raise.
Perino was still in San Diego when the Bush campaign call finally came through. A friend asked her to volunteer as a campaign spokeswoman in California, but she couldn’t afford to — McMahon had just started a new business and they were relying on her job for benefits.
She said no, thinking she had just lost her chance to work for Bush. “I hung up the phone and I cried,” she said.
Her next career move came in 2001, via another phone call. Perino checked up on a friend of hers working in the Department of Justice after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A few days later her friend asked her to move to DC to work as a spokeswoman for the department, focusing on environmental issues.
She made the move. Her clearance came through in December.
In 2002, she was brought into the White House to work on the Bush administration’s environmental policy.
On Inauguration Day in 2005, Perino became the deputy press secretary for the White House. Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who offered her the job, told the Denver Post it was “one of the best decisions” he had made.
He said she could quickly understand complex policies, and explain them in an accessible way.
She told the Post she was happy she hadn’t got Tony Snow’s job as the White House’s main press secretary.
“Tony is one of the best on-camera briefers I have ever seen,” she said. “Anyone who comes next is going to pale in comparison. I don’t want to be that person.”
But she was that person.
In September 2007, she became the official press secretary after Snow had to step down, because he had terminal cancer.
She was the second woman to serve as press secretary, and the first Republican woman.
But she nearly quit before she got the job.
Perino was planning on resigning when then-director of communications Ed Gillespie asked to have a word with her.
In the meeting, Gillespie asked if he could speak first. He told her they’d like her to be the new press secretary. Perino did not mention her plan to quit. Instead she accepted her promotion.
Perino is 5-foot-1, so during her time as press secretary, the lectern and the White House emblem were lowered so that she and the image were in the same frame.
She was a big fan of Bush’s. As James Gerstenzang put it for the Los Angeles Times: “Clearly, she cares about her subject. And that subject is all things Bush.”
She told Business Insider in 2017 that covering policies she did not agree with never bothered her. It was not about her, she said. It was her job to simply explain how the decision had been made.
She mostly kept her cool under pressure. She told NPR that she imagined Bush watching and only said things that he’d be proud of. When a reporter really got under her nerves, she said she “would flip him the bird” hidden behind the podium.
Perino might not have been as combative as Snow, but she didn’t take things lying down. When ABC swapped its reporter Jessica Yellin for then up-and-coming reporter Jake Tapper, and robbed Yellin of a question at a press briefing, Perino was annoyed.
She told Bush, and he asked whether they had to let Tapper have a question. She said they didn’t and they decided to ignore his question.
Tapper was reportedly “furious,” but later told the Washington Post it was a shame he didn’t get asked his question, because it was going to be about pay raises for White House communications staff.
Pandemics were briefly a subject of concern during Perino’s time in the White House. She told Insider that after Bush read up on the Spanish Flu, he was worried about whether the US was ready for another pandemic, and ordered the cabinet to carry out a test drill.
“It was a real stress test for the federal government,” she said. “I don’t think it was an airborne illness. So we didn’t have a debate about masks. But we did talk about, how do you get a vaccine ready? How do you communicate clearly to people so that they can protect themselves? Do we have the Coast Guard preventing people from coming in?”
She told Insider she didn’t like to compare how Bush would have handled the coronavirus against President Donald Trump, because every equation and fact pattern was different.
But the main difference she pointed to was international cooperation.
“Remember we had a great, great coalition for the war on terror,” she said. “You could pretty easily then get everybody together. I think that might be a little different now.”
In December 2008, Perino got a black eye on the job in Iraq. A microphone swung into her face after a Secret Service agent knocked it trying to protect Bush from an Iraqi journalist who had thrown a shoe at the president.
Bush saw her crying, and thought it was because of the shoe. She corrected him quickly, according to NPR. She said: “Well, sir, I adore you, but I grew up in Wyoming and I’m a little tougher than that.”
The last seven months of Bush’s tenure were the hardest, she wrote in her memoir.
“I couldn’t sleep without a pill, my stomach wanted only bland foods, and I often forgot to eat until my assistant made me order something. … My back was so uncomfortable under my right shoulder blade that I practically stalked the osteopath on the President’s medical team,” she wrote.
Perino told Insider that travel was one of the biggest things that has stayed with her from her time in the White House, especially a visit to Africa in 2008.
For many years she answered questions about Bush’s work in Africa, she said. “But I hadn’t really experienced it for myself. I was just memorising points.”
“I remember every single moment of that trip, everything that we did every day. They have a lot of problems, but there is a lot of joy.”
After leaving the White House, Perino spent a brief period vacationing and volunteering in South Africa, before she returned to the public eye, taking a contributor role at Fox News in April 2009.
She told Business Insider she wanted to defend Bush’s record, because the first two years after a president leaves involve constant comparisons. She talked to CNN about a role, as well, but said it was never a serious discussion.
Transitioning from spokeswoman to opinion-maker did not come easily, at least not right away.
At first, she said, “I was mostly answering people’s questions that had to do with the Bush administration versus the Obama administration. So still, in a lot of ways, it was like I was speaking for somebody.”
But her job quickly required her own opinions. She said: “And I had never done that. It was new to me and I was nervous about it, because even if I had said something during the Bush administration that was controversial, the criticism didn’t back come to me.”
In July 2011, Fox News launched “The Five,” a talk show with five hosts, one of those being Perino, to fill the void of Glenn Beck leaving. It was only meant to run for five weeks. It’s still going nine years later.
In 2015, she released a memoir about her time as Bush’s spokeswoman titled: “And the Good News Is…Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side.”
She published her second book “Let Me Tell You about Jasper: How My Best Friend Became America’s Dog” about her second Hungarian Vizsla called Jasper in 2016.
In 2015, when Donald Trump announced he was running for president, Perino publicly ridiculed it, and questioned on which planet it would be a good idea.
As Trump campaigned in 2016, she told USA Today: “I do feel adrift as a Republican woman, maybe a woman without a party. … You sort of feel like, ‘I don’t know if I belong anymore.'”
“Now, there are plenty of Republican women that support Donald Trump fervently and passionately, without any hesitation. I just have hesitation and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I’m even going to vote, and I have a perfect voting record,” she said.
In April 2017, she was filling in for former anchor Bill O’Reilly when he was fired due to a series of sexual harassment allegations.
She had the job of informing his audience he would not be coming back. She said it was the “end of an era” at Fox News and called him “the undisputed king of cable news.”
In September 2017, Fox News announced a shake-up of its daytime lineup. Perino got her own show called “The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino” at 2 p.m. ET.
Perino continued to ascend at Fox News. In 2018, she was chosen as the network’s anchor to question Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg before Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress.
The Associated Press called Perino “an honest broker of information” and a “Bush Republican in a Trump world.” It also said she wasn’t as brash as her former colleague Shepard Smith, but that she took “refuge in reporting.”
Insider asked whether she saw herself as a journalist after diverting from that path decades earlier. She said: “I do.”
“I think I’m a much better journalist now after all that I’ve done. I look at both sides. I’m pretty cautious. What has been gratifying for me [is that] I do think that I’ve earned the trust of my audience, the people I reach out to.”
She also said: “I worry sometimes; I think the audience might think I’m too boring. But I think people listen when I speak. I’ve been called the voice of reason. I don’t know if that’s always true, but I am a voice of calm.”
In April, she invited renowned biologist Dr. William Haseltine onto Fox News. Haseltine dismissed hydroxychloroquine, the controversial malaria drug that had been touted elsewhere by other Fox News anchors like Laura Ingraham.
Insider asked if she interviewed people, like Haseltine, who other Fox News hosts would not. She said: “I love to interview experts. I like the experts. I trust them.”
Perino told Insider the biggest concerns Republicans had going forward were the coronavirus, its effect on the economy, law and order, and racial conflicts.
“When I was press secretary, the No. 1 worry in America was terrorism,” she said.
“I think it’s pretty remarkable that that it is not our biggest worry [anymore]. Obviously President Trump takes a lot of credit for ISIS.”
As staff work remotely during the pandemic, Perino is no longer working from the Fox News studio in New York. She’s been hosting from her beach house in Bay Head, New Jersey, and has been a key part of Fox New’s 2020 election coverage.
The common thread of her life has been being at the right place at the right time, she said. And for the first time she’s not concerned about what she’s going to do next.
As for the future, she said she’s most looking forward to the 2024 elections.
“No matter what happens in 2020, both parties are going to be at a crossroads, and have shifting coalitions, and it is going to be fascinating to see who emerges from both parties as the nominee during an election,” she said.
“So I am here for all of that.”
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