WASHINGTON – Dana Perino talks fast.
When she steps to the lectern to brief White House reporters, Perino, a lapsed flute player, lets fly with a staccato-like torrent of words. She delivers her message not with the cool mien of the television broadcaster she thought she would become when she was a student at the University of Southern Colorado, but appassionato.
Clearly, she cares about her subject. And that subject is all things Bush.
Since Monday, she has served as the de facto White House press secretary while Tony Snow, President Bush’s spokesman, heals from abdominal surgery and begins treatment for a recurrence of colon cancer.
Snow has been monitoring her performance from his hospital room and reading the transcripts of her daily briefings. On Friday, by telephone, he said, “She’s doing great.”
And, compared to him, she is doing it faster.
His final pre-surgery briefing produced a transcript of 4,989 words last week, in a 26-minute session with reporters. In the same time frame on Thursday, Perino’s news conference covered 5,432 words.
More important, she’s proved a quick study.
Tuesday morning, the 34-year-old Perino learned from Snow that the surgery he had undergone had uncovered cancer on his liver and elsewhere.
She dutifully delivered that news and other essential details for early news reports. Then, she broke into tears. Losing the battle with her emotions, she dabbed her eyes and called off the briefing.
On Friday, she stepped to the lectern and launched a precisely plotted attack on Congress’ failure to deliver the roughly $100 billion in emergency funding Bush has sought for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the 19 reporters in the room raised a question about Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys, saying: “It’s no secret there are Republicans all over town who are shaking their head saying, ‘Why has the president so pugnaciously dug in,’ ” and refused to heed calls for Gonzales to lose his job.
Perino fired back.
“There hasn’t been evidence of any, of anything improper or wrongdoing in the decision for the Justice Department to recommend the replacement of eight U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the president,” she said.
Summing up her first week, Perino said in an interview that there have been few surprises for her. But there have been some adjustments.
At “almost 5-foot-1,” she is more than a foot shorter than Snow. So, the lectern in the briefing room was lowered; so too the bas-relief White House that hangs in front of a blue curtain behind her, ensuring she and the icon are framed together in the camera’s eye.
Without the lowered lectern, she said, “I couldn’t see Bill Plante and Helen Thomas in the front row,” referring to the CBS News and Hearst correspondents.
As for her speedy delivery, she said, “Part of it is I think I’m not so comfortable there.”
But she isn’t losing sleep over the temporary job. She gets up the same time she has since joining the White House media staff in 2005: 4:30 a.m.
She aims to arrive at work by 6:15. By then, she has spent 40 to 45 minutes on an elliptical trainer. She reads the Washington Post during the workout and several others before any meetings with the media – “ravenous,” Snow said, of her news consumption.
If she’s on schedule, she leaves work by 8 p.m., walks Henry, a Hungarian hunting dog, in her Capitol Hill neighborhood, and aims to turn out the lights at 9:30 p.m.
Her husband, Peter McMahon, a British businessman, is 18 years her senior. They met on an airplane in 1997 and married 11 months later. He owns an international medical and surgical instruments marketing company. He became a grandfather in July, when his daughter, who lives in Scotland, gave birth to twins.
“It’s fun being a grandmother,” Perino said.
“She understands government as well as anyone I know,” said Snow, who promoted her last year and announced a week ago she would fill in for him. “She understands the agencies. She understands the Hill. She understands the press corps.”