The Former White House Press Secretary is rising
above politics and staying fit.
By Allan Richter
Whoever ends up with his or her hand on the Bible to take the presidential oath of office, history tells us of one certainty: by the end of the first term, the president will have aged more dramatically than most. You only have to have lived through a few administrations to spot the trend—if a president wasn’t gray-haired before he was sworn in, he was within a few years; and if he began with some gray, he finished his term with more. Much more.
Such are the complexities and demands of the nation’s highest office that they also take a toll on those who work for the chief executive. In the final months of George W. Bush’s presidency, his press secretary, Dana Perino, could get only a few restless hours of sleep each night, suffered migraine headaches and back pain, and ate little, subsisting on only a few bland foods: a quarter-cup of peanut butter, an apple and a large hot green tea each day. She washed it down with caffeine-laden Diet Coke from morning to night.
She became so sick on a presidential trip to Africa that in the middle of the night in her hotel, Perino, confused and unable to walk, found herself crawling through the hallway to seek help from the White House doctor on the trip. “Over time, the pace and pressure of the job took a permanent toll on my physical health,” she says in her 2015 memoir And the Good News Is…Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side (Twelve). “I lost control.”
And that doesn’t include unforeseen hazards of the job. During a 2008 appearance in Iraq, Perino, the second woman to be White House press secretary and the first Republican woman in the post, got a bruise under her right eye when a microphone hit it during a melee in which an Iraqi journalist threw shoes at President Bush.
“Hi, everybody,” she told reporters at a later press conference. “The shoe check-in policy/check-out policy will begin tomorrow.”
Perino, 44, who joined Fox News in 2009 and is co-host of the network’s ensemble political commentary show “The Five,” has since regained her health. She now gets paid for her own views rather than for advancing those of the Bush administration. But that shift has made her more vulnerable because she, not the president, has become the direct target for criticism and rebuttal.
“For a long time I was paid to be the spokesperson for somebody else’s opinions, the President of the United States. You’re shielded from personal criticism, even though I felt every blow against George W. Bush and I would fight tooth and nail for him and for the country,” Perino, petite at 5’2”, her shoulder-length straight blonde hair pulled back, says in an interview in her high-rise apartment in midtown Manhattan.
Perino was without that shield the day Donald Trump announced his presidential run in June 2015. Perino questioned his candidacy and worried whether it would upend traditional conservative Republican values such as keeping government small. “I didn’t think he was a conservative, which he is not,” Perino says. In response, Trump tweeted that Perino, who had sought help from Trump to promote her book, was disloyal. She soon began taking hits from Trump supporters on social media that she says were tantamount to bullying. Though the episode lacked the highly public rancor of the dispute between Trump and Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly that soon followed, Perino was left shaken.
“He and I are fine now,” Perino says of Trump, “but his followers really went after me for a long time.” Perino didn’t let her health suffer the way she did at the White House, but the controversy had a chilling effect and she withdrew a bit. Though Perino says it may not have been apparent to her co-hosts on “The Five,” she says she began to rein herself in and be less vocal. “I was taken aback by the vitriolic response. I hid my light for a while, meaning I was hesitant to speak my mind. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in for nine months.”
Moving Into Light
Exacerbating her discomfort was the backdrop of the acerbic election campaign and a scandal at Fox that saw the ouster this summer of its chairman, Roger Ailes, over sexual harassment allegations. Only in July did Perino begin to emerge from her funk, though she remains introspective about the direction of her career and her political affiliations. “I’m a very self-reflective person anyway,” she says, “especially around New Year’s. I don’t party around New Year’s. I think about the past year. Who am I? What do I want to be? What can I accomplish?”
Tony Fratto, then Perino’s deputy press secretary, recalls her superb news judgment and instincts. As Perino and her staff prepared for a press conference and scanned the list of reporters who would be present, she would predict the questions each reporter would ask.
“She nailed 22 out of 24 questions. Really sharp instincts,” says Fratto, now a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a Washington, DC, consulting firm. He adds that those instincts aid Perino in her personal life.
“She reads people really well,” Fratto says. “If you had a problem, be careful about telling it to Dana because she’s going to come up with a solution for you very quickly, and sometimes you don’t want a solution; sometimes you just want to rant about something.”
Perino applied that strategic thinking to lift herself from her slump over the Trump flare-up and to ensure that she maintained her health. In May, she and her husband, Peter McMahon, 62, a Briton who markets medical products internationally, and their dog, Jasper, moved to their modern apartment from a pre-war building on Central Park West that Perino says was beautiful but “very dark.” Walls in their new home are white, and huge windows let bright splashes of sunlight in and provide a Hudson River view. “It improved my mood dramatically,” Perino says of the move.
On a living room wall are two square paintings in shades of blue by Amy Marshall, a landscape artist influenced by the sparse compositions of Andrew Wyeth and commanding skies of Ferdinand Hodler. The paintings, which Perino bought at the Flaubert Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland, are of ocean scenes, one light as if in the morning and one darker as if at dawn or dusk. They are large enough to resemble windows with an oceanfront view. “The colors and the openness and the space are really important to me,” says Perino, adding that the lighter painting was her first purchase after leaving the White House.
The ocean views of the Amy Marshall paintings were foreign to Perino growing up in landlocked Wyoming and Colorado—which also accounts for some of her dietary habits. She has an aversion to fish, except trout, so she takes fish oil supplements to ensure she is getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in her diet; her husband takes the fish oil for cardiac health. To help relieve dry eyes, she takes a supplement with two carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, both powerful antioxidants. Her pantry is also stocked with fiber pills, and she is considering another supplement, recommended by a friend, to help balance her pH.
Indeed, Perino says she does not rely on her “good genes”—her great-grandmother lived to 100. She is taking seriously the advice she doles out in her book And the Good News Is…: “Take responsibility for the one thing you can control—your health.” Three times a week for an hour, she lifts weights and does core strengthening and cardio exercises with a personal trainer, does Pilates another three to four times a week and walks the mile roundtrip between her apartment building and her workplace. When Perino worked at the White House, she exercised on an elliptical trainer in her bedroom each morning, but usually while reading the newspaper; the effort, she says, was unfocused. “Other than that,” she says, “there was not much time for exercise.”
By 4:30 each morning, Fratto and Perino were emailing each other to begin planning the day. “By 6:30 in the morning we, and especially Dana, would be in a meeting with the national security advisor,” recounts Fratto, who worked alongside Perino for two and a half years at the White House. “We had four meetings before 8:30 in the morning, and we would have been expected to know about all the overnight news at that point.”
Though Perino says she lacks “a wide-ranging palate,” her pantry and refrigerator point to a more nourishing diet than the limited staples she subsisted on while she worked in the White House. She munches on a snack made of nuts and flaxseed oil. Yogurt, gluten-free breads and crackers, green tea and hot sauces containing inflammation-fighting capsaicin are among provisions on hand in her kitchen.
Jasper, nearby with yogurt on his nose from dipping into Perino’s cup, enjoys the same approach to dietary matters. He eats only organic food, which comes via a boxed delivery service.
Indeed, pointing to another source of strength for Perino are the plentiful images of Jasper and Perino’s previous dog, Henry, around the apartment—including a painting of Jasper as a puppy by Perino’s former White House boss, signed “43.” “It’s the only material thing I care about in the world,” Perino says of the painting. Because Perino’s TV viewers and social media followers have come to know Jasper, a Hungarian breed known as a Vizsla, he has been dubbed “America’s dog.”
Jasper is the subject of Perino’s new book, Let Me Tell You About Jasper: How My Best Friend Became America’s Dog (Twelve). Half the book is filled with touching stories, the other half with clever, funny images of Jasper, Photoshop-manipulated by an anonymous graphic designer: Jasper on Mount Rushmore, Perino and Jasper as the couple in the Grant Wood painting “American Gothic” and Jasper at an easel, painting Bush 43. (Perino sent the latter image to the president for his 70th birthday.) The images are not quite as sophisticated as photographer William Wegman’s costumed Weimaranars but far more intelligent and engaging than motel wall paintings of cigar-chomping dogs playing billiards.
Jasper, and Perino’s general love of dogs, has a considerable role in boosting her health. Perino and her husband got Jasper after their dog Henry, also a Vizsla, died. Perino found Henry when she was 26 and living in England, before she ever met Bush, and Henry was a companion right through her White House years, her marriage, a brief San Diego residency and her move to New York to work on “The Five.” “He witnessed most of my adult life and all of those changes. So losing him was really hard,” she says.
If the election campaign has caused tension in your life, a dog could be the salve. “Maybe you’ve even lost friends over it, and you cannot find common ground with your neighbors, just go straight to the dogs,” Perino says. “I find that dogs are where you find common ground with people. They give you space to reconnect with other humans” by letting you connect through them.
To support her theory on the immense healing power of dogs, she cites a 2015 study, published in the journal Science, by animal behaviorist Takefumi Kikusui of Azabu University in Japan, whose team found that dogs and people that stared into each other’s eyes experienced rushes of the “love hormone” oxytocin in their brains.
Living with Optimism
Perino also lives with lessons she learned from the Bush family and is quick to rattle one off: “Barbara Bush once said, ‘To have a successful marriage, each person has to be willing to go 60%.’ It’s not 50-50; you have to go a little bit further.”
She says she learned an important lesson from President Bush in forgiveness and being unencumbered by resentment when a former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, wrote a tell-all about the administration. “I was so upset about it, and [President Bush] calls me into the Oval Office and asked me to try to forgive him. I said, ‘Can I throw him under the bus first?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t want you to live bitterly.’ What he reminded me was something I learned in church as a girl, which is that forgiveness is something you do for yourself.”
The single most effective wellness tool Perino says she has in her arsenal is optimism—a “coping mechanism,” as she calls it, bred on the Wyoming ranch her great-grandparents homesteaded in the 1880s. Perino grew up on the ranch, collecting eggs and doing other chores of the land, and the property remains in the family to this day. “My great-grandfather had to dig a well and the line to the house that they still use,” Perino says.
Ranching was a particularly risky, unpredictable business. “I don’t think that you can be a pessimistic rancher and be successful, because you have to believe it’s all going to work out,” Perino says. “You have to have faith, because sometimes the rains don’t come. Or maybe a hailstorm flattens your field. Or maybe there’s disease that runs rampant.
“That all passes down to my Uncle Matt, who runs the ranch now. We were at the ranch not too long ago, and my husband said, ‘What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?’ And Matt said, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ So Peter said, ‘Oh, so it’s going to be sunny.’ My uncle said, ‘Don’t know. If it’s sunny, that will be good. It will be a nice day, and we can get outside and get some of our chores done. But if it rains, that’ll be fine because we need the moisture, and if it’s windy, that will be good because we need the seeds to blow around.’ That’s just how they wake up every day: ‘It’s going to be okay.’”
The community’s spirit of self-reliance—neighboring ranchers helped each other during cattle runs, for instance—forged the roots of Perino’s conservative values, particularly that smaller government works better.
Despite feeling the battle scars of the contentious presidential election campaign, Perino is confident that, whoever takes office in January, the nation’s collective health will be just fine. Her prognosis is based on her faith in Constitutional checks and balances and term limits. And, though the president is a reflection of the people who elected him or her, “America is not defined by who her president is,” she says, “America is defined by who her people are. And collectively as a people, we’re going to be just fine.”
Her entanglement in the election campaign last year helped her crystallize the idea that she isn’t the “partisan spokesperson” she thought she was. “Maybe I am more of the political journalist that I wanted to be when I was growing up. So I’ve sort of had this career evolution. I don’t know if I can see that through, or if people who have known me for years can come along with me on that evolution but I’m hoping that they will give me a little space and some grace, if they can find it in themselves, to understand that I don’t see myself as a spokesperson for the Republican party anymore.”
Perino wouldn’t be the first to make the transition from political power player to observer. Pierre Salinger, after serving as White House Press Secretary to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, became a European correspondent for ABC News. George Stephanopoulos was an aide to President Bill Clinton and is host of the Sunday morning ABC News show “This Week.” And Pete Williams, a spokesman for Dick Cheney when the latter was a congressman and Defense Secretary, has been a correspondent for NBC News, covering the Justice Department and Supreme Court.
“People have been able to make it happen,” Al Tompkins, a longtime journalist and senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, says of the transition from government to journalism. “But it’s a hurdle to overcome and people are always going to look at you to paint you with the brush of unfairness. There’s a predisposed notion that journalists already have a stacked deck, particularly against conservative points of view.”
As reflective as Perino finds herself about her career and the move from the public sector, she is much more comfortable about it than she used to be. “What’s interesting to me is that at first that felt like walking on a high wire without a net, and now it feels free,” she says. “Maybe I sort of feel like a chrysalis, and maybe I’m shedding some of that and have a chance to fly.”
Friends have helped by reminding Perino of one of her own mantras—that politics is what she does, not who she is. And there have been too many good turns in her life, seemingly serendipitous, for her to be anything but optimistic. She met her husband on an airplane to Washington, DC. She learned about becoming President Bush’s press secretary on the day she planned to resign from the White House as deputy press secretary. And her meeting with the dog breeder who introduced her to her precious Vizlas was also unforeseen.
“I realize as much time I’ve spent worrying and trying to plan things in my life, the very best things that happened were things I didn’t plan. What I tell young people in particular is to please don’t worry your young lives away. I spent way too much time worrying in my 20s and 30s, and it really didn’t do me any good,” Perino says.
“Don’t worry so much,” she adds with a smile. “It’s all going to be okay. That’s my favorite saying: ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ I love to hear it.