It’s not every day that we get to meet someone like our current cover lady Dana Perino. Her high-profile career includes a daily appearance on a top-rated cable network show and a past position as the White House press secretary. As a Fox News contributor and co-host of “The Five,” the channel’s daily 5 p.m. news show and the second highest rated cable news program on TV, Perino knows a thing or two about the ways of the world and the tough issues facing many Americans each day. She brings a unique perspective to the panel, using her years of journalism and governmental experience to translate the state of affairs to everyday Americans with an optimistic and balanced tone. She, along with seven rotating panelists, have helped make the show one of the most watched on the network and in cable news, debuting in 2011 with a ratings jump of 34 percent. Dow Jones’ “Marketwatch” recently profiled Perino and called her fearless for knowing just what to say, and how and when to say it. She’s often been called the voice of reason on the show. It’s the latest triumph in a career that has spanned the globe and built friendships with political powerhouses like her former boss, President George W. Bush.
Perino was born in Evanston, Wyoming, the daughter of Jan and Leo Perino, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. She attended Ponderosa High School in Parker, a suburb of Denver. Perino graduated from Colorado State University-Pueblo in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and minors in both political science and Spanish. While in school, she started to hone her chops as a journalist, working at the campus-based Rocky Mountain PBS affiliate where she hosted “Capitol Journal,” a weekly summary of Colorado politics, and served as a producer of “Standoff,” a weekly public affairs program. She went on to earn a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield, and worked for PBS and CBS stations before making the move to Washington, D.C. There, she worked for Rep. Dan Schaefer and Rep. Scott McInnis. After Rep. Schaefer announced his retirement in 1998, Dana and husband Peter McMahon moved to the United Kingdom. After a year, the couple returned to the United States, residing in San Diego for three years during which she worked in the field of high-tech public affairs.
A fateful day in September that changed our nation would also lead to a big change in Perino’s life and career. “The 9/11 attacks changed everything for everyone,” she recently recalled on FOX. “I moved back to D.C. and worked for the Bush administration from the fall of 2001 until the last day on January 20, 2009. Over those years, President Bush became a friend and a leader who made me strive to be a better person and citizen.” After working at the Department of Justice, Dana joined the White House staff as deputy press secretary. She was later promoted to the rank of Assistant to the President, and began her role as White House press secretary, becoming only the second female press secretary in U.S. history, and one of the most widely respected members of President Bush’s senior staff.
When her time as press secretary ended, she founded a communications business, Dana Perino and Company, and served as the editorial director of Crown Forum, the conservative imprint of Crown Publishing Group. She was nominated to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency overseeing government-sponsored international broadcasting, by President Obama and was confirmed to that post by the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Perino’s years of dedication to building her impressive career is not the only thing she has accomplished. She has also thrown her support to philanthropic endeavors close to her heart. After leaving the White House, she spent time volunteering at an HIV/AIDS treatment center in South Africa, which led her to develop a keen interest in the areas of women’s rights and maternal health, especially in Africa. She has also championed women here at home in the US, founding Minute Mentoring, an organization focused on giving professional guidance to young women starting their careers. She recognized the need for Minute Mentoring after being asked for advice by young women at various events. Knowing many distinguished women who reached the heights of success, Perino came up with the idea to invite these women to give a minute to mentor those who are coming up in their respective fields. Her events are held throughout the country and, thanks to its digital presence, the group is reaching more young women than ever before. She continues to lend her support to other groups she holds dear, and serves on the boards of Mothers Day Every Day, Running Start, ONE Campaign, and Pets2Vets.
At the end of a busy day, Perino returns to the Manhattan home she shares with the main men in her life, husband Peter and their four-legged son Jasper. We had the chance to meet this fabulous family and talk to Dana about her fast-paced LIFE and the DOG that serves as her calm after the storm of working in the fast-paced world of political punditry. She couldn’t be any cooler and we are so excited to give you a peek into her world.
LIFE+DOG: What was life like growing up for you in Denver? Were you an over achiever in high school?
Dana Perino: I think I probably fit the description perfectly of a first-born child and was exceptionally aspirational. My dad grew up on a ranch and my mom grew up in a small town in Wyoming. My dad and mom met at Casper College, and I was born in Evanston, Wyoming. Two years after that, my dad got a job at a life insurance company based in Denver. We lived there for a while and then we moved to Parker, Colorado. The Denver schools were trying to integrate through bussing. That meant I had to be bussed 18 miles each way to school in the city and back. My parents decided that wasn’t the life they wanted and we headed out to Parker, where at the time it was gravel roads and had more of a country-western feel. I think that suited me very well academically, in addition to being just in a smaller town at a slower pace.
In the 3rd grade, my dad started a tradition with me where I had to read the “Rocky Mountain News” and the “Denver Post” before he got home from work, choose two articles and be prepared to discuss them before dinner. It was a wonderful way for him to get me thinking more critically, working to argue my points, and he had a great love of and interest in public affairs. I remember that I would always ask to go to the early church service because if we did that, we could get home in time enough to watch “Meet The Press.” Now that’s before DVR and everything. (laughs)
L+D: Who or what really gave you your drive early on?
DP: Well, my dad grew up in a family of boys on a ranch and he ended up with two daughters, and I remember him telling us “You can do anything you want to do.” I had this yellow t-shirt with big block letters that said “anything boys can do, girls can do better.” I must have worn that shirt for four years because if you look at my photo album, I have it on every summer. So I think I have to point to my mom and dad.
But I don’t know if it was actually any one person where my ambitious side comes from. I have a strong sense of fairness and justice, and I think that came from my grandfather, who was a rancher and the County Commissioner in Westin County, Wyoming. He always gave back to the community and was the sponsor of the annual county fair. I come into my political perspective from their point of view, somebody who is in rural America and just really wants to be left alone. They believe in a strong United States and have a strong sense of freedom. I remember at an early age, everybody did the same chores, and nobody was better than anybody else. And that stuck with me when I was at the White House. I was sitting in meetings with leaders from all over the world, and it struck me that we all put our pants on the same way. That really came from the ranching lifestyle growing up, that everybody is equal.
L+D: What do you think prepared you for time spent in the White House?
DP: My dad at an early age had me trying to persuade him to an argument, to think more critically, and to challenge something he would say. That helped me be a better communicator later on and a better advisor to President Bush. Another example might be Chief Justice Roberts. I was his spokesperson during the Supreme Court nominations and it’s quite interesting when you’re in that position. I was 33 and I had Chief Justice Roberts asking me, “What do you think I should do? What do you think I should say?” You have to dig deep sometimes for the confidence to say, “This is what I would do and here’s why.”
The speech team helped me a lot, too. It’s one of the very best ways for young women to gain confidence and to be able to speak with some authority. One of the things that drives me crazy, and I hear it sometimes when I interview young women, is when they speak in a weak, whiny voice. Every speech I give to a corporate audience, I always tell them, “You have an obligation to pull young women aside and tell them that they need to find their strong voices. No matter what they’re trying to do in life, whether it’s talking to the President or a CEO or their children, they will be better communicators if they find their strong voices.”
L+D: What are your favorite memories from the time you spent as press secretary?
DP: I got to experience a lot of things, like state dinners. I remember being in the Vatican and also in war torn Serbia. A lot of the international trips stick with me very much but my very favorite memories are personal. I always tell people, if you have a chance at taking a deputy job, anywhere, always take the deputy job. I was the deputy press secretary for two years before I took over. That meant I worked every holiday and weekend, every event, but you know what? That’s how I really got to know President Bush. During that time on a Saturday or Sunday or on a holiday, hopefully there wasn’t too much going on in the world, and we could have a chat. He would ask about my family and me, and there was this one incident in particular I remember. My dad hadn’t come to visit me yet at the White House so I decided to make one more invitation. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi was coming for a dinner, so I called my dad and he said he would come. This was during a time when the White House was in the middle of financial crisis and the election, so I didn’t tell President Bush anything about it. However, before the dinner, the President and I were on the Marine 1 helicopter, and he was looking out of the window waving at all of the people gathered outside to see him off, and he said, “So I see that you invited your dad to the White House.” And I said, “Yes sir, I did.” He had been working on the seating chart with Mrs. Bush and that’s how he knew. He said, “That’s a big deal!” and I said, “Yes sir, it’s a pretty big deal.”
So for me, if I think of my favorite moments, they’re ones like those.
L+D: What has been the most rewarding time of your career?
DP: I think the most rewarding time had to have been the White House years. We had a really excellent core team. If I was in a bind today, I could call anybody who worked in the White House during those eight years and they would come to my aid immediately. I have no doubt!
We were that close and we all trusted each other. I think that that kind of teamwork can happen anywhere, on the field, at a corporation, if you’re out of the country volunteering. And that’s the second most rewarding thing in my life—well, I hate to say “rewarding” because it sounds like I earned a reward for something—but something that restored me after those White House years was when my husband and I volunteered at an HIV/AIDS clinic in South Africa and it gave me perspective with a capital P. But I would have never gone there had it not been for Mrs. Bush opening my eyes to the responsibility that America has to help the most poor and destitute around the world.
L+D: How did you start working on Fox News Channel?
DP: At the end of the Bush Administration, I took some time to go on a trip to South Africa with my husband. We went on a couple of safaris and drove the Garden Route to Cape Town. After that, we spent two weeks volunteering at an HIV/AIDS PEPFAR site in Fish Hoek. The trip provided me with two things I really needed—some quiet time with my husband in a beautiful and fascinating country, and some perspective on how wonderfully bountiful life in America is compared to the desperate poverty and disease that suffocates most of the rest of the world. I had time to think about what I wanted to do, but I had a hard time deciding what I wanted to do next in my career. So I tried a number of things, and unfortunately, I tried them all at once and ended up more strung out than before. However, there was one thing I did that I found I really loved – providing commentary as a Fox News Contributor. A former White House Press Secretary and a good friend, Marlin Fitzwater, had told me to try to find the thing I loved to do and that I was good at and then everything would work out, and she was right. On Fox News, I can provide advice and comment on news of the day based on my personal experiences—and I have fun doing it. It has worked out better than I ever imagined.
L+D: What do you like the most about being on “The Five” co-host panel?
DP: Doing live television provides that rush that I enjoy, like when I would be getting ready to rumble for the press briefings. I like to be the most prepared so I read constantly and fill my brain with facts. And yet I also get to let my personality shine through—I’m not speaking for anyone else anymore. I speak for myself now, and it was scary at first. One day on the show in a commercial break, one of my co-hosts said, “You know, I had no idea you were funny.” And I laughed—it wasn’t my job to be funny at the press briefings, but on “The Five” we can have conversations about news of the day the way that friends and families do. We can disagree vehemently but we almost always end up laughing going into the commercial breaks. At the end of nearly every show we’ll say, “Well that was fun.” And we mean it.
L+D: What has been your favorite memory of being on “The Five”?
DP: One time when I was opening the show, Greg said something funny right before we went live on air. And I started laughing so hard that I couldn’t read the teleprompter and Greg had to take over and read it for me. But we were all laughing so hard and we couldn’t explain to the audience why I had tears rolling down my face while we tried to do the segment. We just laughed so hard – and you know what, I think at 5 p.m. people are ready for a laugh. They don’t want to be yelled at, they want to enjoy themselves, and I hope we can keep doing that. My other favorite memory was when I dunked Bob in the 4th of July contest. It’s no secret that I’m not a great athlete, so when it was my throw that knocked him in the water, it was just…delicious!
L+D: How did you meet your husband?
DP: We were assigned seats next to one another on an airplane flying from Denver to Chicago, and then I was going on to Washington DC. He asked me if he could put my bag up above for me and I said, “No, thank you,” because I needed the bag on the floor so I could rest my feet on it. Well, I noticed he had a British accent so I did a quick scan to see if he had a wedding ring on. After that, we just talked for 2 1/2 hours straight. About halfway through the flight I looked out the window and I thought, “Okay, Lord, I know I asked you to help me find somebody but this guy lives in England! I may never see him again, he could be married, he could be an ax murderer, and did I mention he lives in England and right now I am falling in love with him?” It was really love at first sight and that was 16 years ago this August. I moved to England to be with him about eight months after we met.
L+D: And when did you move back to the United States?
DP: About a year later in January of ‘99. We moved to San Diego, and all we had was a hope and a dream and a prayer…and a 7-month-old Vizsla puppy named Henry. We decided to live in America because we could live wherever we wanted to. We had no ties, we were starting over. I look back and think, “I cannot imagine taking that risk now.” But it all worked out. And then after 9/11 happened, a friend who had worked on Capitol Hill with me asked me to work with her as a spokesperson at the Justice Department. So I left San Diego and I never went back.
L+D: So you expanded your family with Henry the Vizsla after you got married?
DP: No, before we got married. We were really living in sin. (laughs) He had always wanted a dog but because of his travel schedule it was really not possible. But after I moved there, I really wanted a dog, too! Since I didn’t have a visa, I couldn’t work when I was in England, so that was the perfect time to get a puppy. In the meantime, we decided to go on this trip all throughout Europe but instead of flying, we drove. We stopped at a client’s house for a meeting and while we were there, we met the most adorable Vizsla puppy and were hooked on the breed. In Scotland we met a Vizsla breeder who had a male puppy and in a way it was a little spontaneous. But just like the cycle of Peter and I and our life together, it was one of those things that was meant to be. We picked him up and he was just such a big part of our lives.
Henry was hilarious. I really do think that he might have been the best dog ever. He was very smart, very obedient and wanted to please. Boy, that dog traveled all over. He went to San Diego, lived in Washington, went on all of the road trips, got to do a press meeting with me. He was 13 when we moved to New York, and I think it was a little stressful for him and he also had some sort of a cancer. He died a year ago. The day before, we drove all over New York City to find a dog beach where he could go on his last swim, and he had so much fun. The day he passed away was the worst day. So the next day, Peter and I could not pull it together and at dinner he said, “I really want a dog.” And because I don’t work from home and he does, why not have a dog? If a dog brings that much joy to your life and that much cement to a relationship, then why wouldn’t we just go for it? So a woman who used to take care of Henry is a breeder in Massachusetts and watches “The Five.” Peter called her to tell her that Henry had passed and she recognized his number and said, “I had a feeling you were going to call me!” Peter said, “Why’s that?” And she said, “Because I have one male left.” And that was Jasper!
L+D: What’s it been like with Jasper joining the family?
DP: You know some people can have children and you notice the difference between the first child and the second child? And they all treat the second child differently? Well, the same is true for Jasper. (laughs) I never let Henry get on the couch. Jasper lives on the couch…in my lap. We got through the potty training stage and that was difficult. We live in a high rise and we had to take him down every two hours. He wouldn’t pee in the house, but when he got into the hallway, all bets were off. Then he didn’t want to get admonished for peeing in the hallway so he wouldn’t go into the hallway! He didn’t want to leave the apartment! But we got through it. I tweet excessively about him and I am not ashamed about it. I have hilarious pictures of him in a hat. Well, I don’t dress him up but I’ll put him in a funny hat or funny situations, like when he was watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade standing up on his back legs and watching with the people.
I have a great compassion for all dogs but there is something about a Vizsla. They’re just such great dogs. People ask me if they’re hyper and I’m like, “Well, any dog could be hyper, you just have to channel their energy.” To channel Jasper’s energy, we go to Central Park. It’s leash free in the mornings until 9 a.m. every day, so that’s where we are every morning if you want to find us. Not too long ago this woman was running by when I called for Jasper. The woman turned around and jogged back and asked, “Is that the Jasper from ‘The Five’?” and I was like, “He has arrived!”
L+D: How did you get involved with Companions for Heroes?
DP: Someone put Dave Sharp, a vet who was suffering from PTSD, and I together. Dave had realized that one way to help him overcome his PTSD was the relationship he was building with his dog. I have a lot of deep feelings of appreciation for our veterans, having defended them from attack but also trying to support them in what they were asked to do for their country. Connecting with Dave was great because I love dogs and I support veterans. Pets are not the only answer to helping a veteran who has PTSD but it can be a great help to heal a heart, provide some love, and to also make sure the vet gets out and talks to people. Dogs have an amazing ability to get you out of your own head and see the world through their eyes.
In the spring of 2010, I got to guest host “Fox and Friends” and they said they would love to have any guest. So I suggested Dave Sharp. He came with his dog and another vet who they had helped match up with a rescue dog and we did a segment for them. Interestingly, at that time, they got so swamped with people trying to donate and help that their website crashed because they weren’t prepared for it. So last year, I got to go on the celebrity “Jeopardy” game and I embarrassed myself terribly. But it was so worth it because every charity that plays gets $10,000 regardless of how your contestant does. And Companions for Heroes got so much publicity out of it that the donations have continued to roll in for them. They’re very frugal. They can stretch a dollar a long way. I love working with them. I wish I had more time to work with them a little more but I think they are doing pretty well right now. They have had a lot of matches and pretty good success!
We had such an amazing time visiting with Dana and her family at their home in New York City and applaud her for the work she does with Companions For Heroes. You can look forward to an entire feature story on the incredible work they are doing soon at LIFE+DOG. Stay in touch with Dana through Facebook and Twitter @DanaPerino.
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Ryan Rice.
To read more from Ryan, visit his blog on our site.