Dana Perino knows how to elicit a partisan response. In 1998 at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she trained her Hungarian hunting dog, Henry, to bark when asked, "Should Clinton go to jail?" He growls when you say, "Al Gore," and retrieves a flip-flop when you mention John Kerry. To those critics who say the White House press corps has been conditioned to respond meekly to the Bush Administration, such skills might seem to make her a fitting replacement for Tony Snow, who stepped down as White House press secretary on Sept. 14. But after just a month on the job, Perino--who is only the second woman to fill the post--is learning that Pavlov himself would have trouble getting positive coverage for George W. Bush at this point in his presidency.
Nonetheless, Perino, 35, starts with some advantages. Unlike Snow, who was well liked and accessible but was known to wing it with the facts, former college debater Perino is detailed and careful, qualities that often go unnoticed by the general public but are prized by reporters on deadline who need a quick and reliable source of specifics. And she has retained the easygoing self-confidence of the Rocky Mountain West, where she grew up spending summers and holidays at her grandparents' cattle ranch in Wyoming. Her delivery has none of Ari Fleischer's arrogance or Scott McClellan's anxiety. Many of her predecessors came from the antagonistic world of national campaigns, but Perino made her way to the West Wing through a succession of jobs in Congress and the Executive Branch, where life exists beyond the next election and reporters and spokespeople learn to live with--and even respect--the requirements of one another's jobs.
In the past, Perino's ease might have earned her a honeymoon with the White House press corps. But the sunshine days are over. Tasked with selling an unpopular war and a weakened President to a skeptical audience, Perino is unlikely to make many buddies in the briefing room. Attempts to promote Bush's policies immediately collide with his 68% disapproval rating. At a recent briefing that took place prior to Bush's veto of the expansion of health-care funding for low-income children, Perino found herself in the unenviable position of arguing that Bush does not want children to suffer. As Congress and the courts push back on Bush's tactics for fighting terrorism, his advisers are struggling to find solid legal ground for everything from harsh interrogation techniques to domestic eavesdropping, leaving Perino to explain their compromises without admitting past errors. "The relationship between the press secretary and the media is always going to be adversarial," Perino says.
The biggest albatross is Iraq. The arguments for Bush's war strategy are both well known and unconvincing to nearly 70% of Americans. Even with the recent stabilization in Anbar province, Iraq is selling like California real estate and Chinese toys, and foreign affairs have quickly become Perino's weak spot. Before becoming deputy to McClellan, Snow's predecessor, her experience was in domestic issues. When hit with tough questions on Iraq, Perino often reverts to yawn-inducing talking points. In late September, defending Bush's decision to go to war, she droned, "Saddam Hussein decided to defy the international community. All diplomatic measures ran their course. And what we are focused on now is making sure that Iraq can be a government that can sustain and defend itself."
The journalists in the briefing-room chairs are in no mood to give her a pass. Since the invasion there have been hundreds of articles and books dissecting the Washington press corps' handling of the prewar debate. Old pros who thought they were immune to spin are feeling particularly bruised by criticism of their coverage. So when subjects like the possibility of war with Iran arise, the questioning gets aggressive. After a recent story in the New Yorker suggested that Bush is considering an attack on Iran, reporters hammered Perino. Cornered, she repeated, "We are pursuing a diplomatic solution in Iran," over and over until another reporter broke in to save her with a question on Russia.
Perino recognizes that she has been thrown to the dogs. "Sixteen months is probably the right amount of time to be press secretary," Perino says, with an eye to her departure date, but "I don't know if this is the best time to be doing it." She has already begun thinking about what comes next. After the election, she and her husband, a British businessman whom she met on a flight from Denver to Chicago in 1997, are planning a cross-country drive with Henry to the Rockies, but she imagines staying in Washington for work in one form or another. And so far, she seems able to take the lumps. "I have grown a thicker skin than I had when I came to Washington," she says.
Ultimately, however, it will take more than a thick hide. White House press secretaries are judged on their credibility, and Bush's low approval rating threatens to undermine Perino before she even opens her mouth. As Bush likes to say, quoting the old political adage, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Fortunately for Perino, she already has one.