Dana Perino, the first Republican woman to be a White House press secretary and cohost of the Fox News TV show ‘The Five,’ has just published a new book, And the Good News Is: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side. In the book, she takes readers behind the scenes to paint a personal portrait of President George W. Bush, whom she served for seven years, and to offer younger readers personal and professional advice based on her own experiences.
Recently Knowledge at Wharton interviewed her about her book when she was here on campus as an Authors@Wharton guest. She opened up about why she wrote the book and why she thinks the country may be looking at the destruction of the Republican Party as she has known it.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your book is a personal account of your life…. What are some of the key themes?
Dana Perino: I never thought I would write a memoir at age 40 … but I did have this unique place in history. I was the first Republican woman to be a White House press secretary. I served during those turbulent years with George W. Bush. I was in the administration for over seven years, so I saw a lot. A lot of it was behind the scenes, and there were two things that I wanted to do with this book.
First, to try and fill in a gap that I thought existed in the coverage of the Bush presidency because there were many historians, columnists and journalists that had rehashed the policies and the politics of the administration, but there was no one really that had tapped into the personal. What was he like behind the scenes when the cameras weren’t on? I got to witness so much of that, and there were very few people who could have written those stories, so what I tried to do was to peel back the curtain of what it was like to be there and tell real first-hand accounts.
Because I had had these great opportunities as a young woman, I would be asked all the time, “How did you get asked to be a White House press secretary?” Young people really want you to give them a road map, and they will follow it to a tee. If you tell them, these are the eight steps you have to take to be successful, they will do all eight very earnestly.
In Chapter 5 of the book, I break out all of the best advice I have into three basic categories: things that you can do in the school or the office today to make your likelihood of success more promising, the second thing is [things you can do] over a career and the third thing is over a lifetime…. You’re going to work for the rest of your life.
Millennials are a very interesting generation for a lot of reasons. They’re absolutely adorable, but they have some significant challenges. Their lives and their careers are delayed by about 10 years, partly because of the recession, also because of technology and also because of the way that they approach things. So I talk a lot about voice. I would say that’s my most important piece of advice in the book about finding your strong voice. You’ve probably heard it around campus or in your own life if you have daughters or nieces: this tendency to speak [with an interrogative lilt] at the end of the sentence.
If you are giving your opinion in the form of a question, you don’t have to take ownership of it; you’re just raising questions. I am convinced that a lot of young people — and this includes men who are starting to talk like this as well — are limit[ing] advancement in [their] careers. You are not put forward for a promotion. You are not taken on the trip to meet the client because your boss doesn’t feel like you’re mature enough to be able to do that. It is an easy fix for young people. It really is. You can break them of the habit in a day.
“If running for office means that you have to treat people the way that these candidates have been treating each other, then I’ll never run and be successful.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You had some very specific things like that, don’t wear UGG boots to the office. … But another one was take the blame for your team. Tell me about that one.
Perino: At some point, you’re going to have to be willing to take a punch for your team. If your employees or your teammates will see that you’re willing to do that, they are more likely to be loyal to you, and your team is more likely to function better. One example is from 2000 when George W. Bush was running for president. He’s in the primary process. He won Iowa easily, and he gets to New Hampshire, and his team was pretty confident. He lost big-time to [Arizona senator and presidential candidate] John McCain, and it was embarrassing. It meant that they had to have a scramble to South Carolina to try to win South Carolina.
Instead of being mad, George Bush gathered his whole team around, looked everybody in the eye, and he said “This was my fault. Nobody here should feel like they have to take the blame.” What he said that he wanted to do in that moment was to say, “I understand that I’ve got a role to play in this problem, but if I take all the responsibility, that means that you all won’t have to have any sort of sniping against each other as we try to go forward and move to the next contest.” It worked, and it ultimately ended up being successful.
Knowledge at Wharton: I want to ask you a little bit about your sixth chapter. It’s called “Civility Lost and Found,” and of course, the book was written before the current primary season. If anything, there’s even less civility. In fact, is there any civility, I might ask you? What do you think about what you see in this Republican primary?
Perino: There’s no doubt that incivility has existed in politics for a long time. I used to get criticized when I was press secretary for not being tough enough against the media that was harsh on President Bush, but I also was following his lead and also being true to myself. It’s one of the reasons I could never run for office. If running for office means that you have to treat people the way that these candidates have been treating each other, then I’ll never run and be successful. I don’t have the desire to run anyway, but one of the things that I conclude in my book is that having worked in politics and then now in cable news, I don’t have to own anybody’s comments but my own. Every time I open my mouth, I have a choice to make.
Believe me, I can be snarky and sarcastic, and I can deliver a line that is like the atomic elbow, but I don’t do it in public for a reason. One, I couldn’t live with myself if I did. I tell one story in the book about how in the White House press briefing room one time, there was a reporter from The New York Times, and she wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the briefing. The questions she asked had already been asked and answered several times, and I was irritable because I hardly ate anything during the whole [time I was there]. I was frustrated, and I took a shot at her on international live television, and I have felt bad about it ever since. I called her right away and apologized, and she was very gracious and said “Oh, I didn’t even notice.” But I know how I feel when I say something with a sharp tongue against somebody else, so that bothers me.
The other thing that I did in the book was to show that I had this great experience in Washington, D.C., and I don’t think I’m alone in having good experiences. My experiences weren’t only good because I knew Republicans. I had a lot of friends from both sides of the aisle. Donna Brazile was the campaign manager for Al Gore. She’s one of my best friends, and we get along great. I tell stories about how I met President Obama when he was a senator from Illinois in February of 2005. I was the new deputy press secretary, and we ended up at a dinner together across the table from each other, and we laughed our butts off for hours.
Three years later, I didn’t expect him to remember me, but he’s at the White House — now I’m the press secretary, he’s the candidate — and I went to introduce myself. He says, “Dana Perino, that was my favorite night in all of Washington.” So I tell that story because I want people to know that just because you might disagree with somebody on a policy position doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy their company and enjoy each other as Americans and human beings.
“We might be witnessing the destruction of the Republican Party, at least as I have always known the Republican Party.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think about this splintering of the Republican Party that’s going on in real time in these debates? The Democrats always had a little bit more arguing going on publicly than the Republicans did. Maybe they did it more in private. But what do you think about what you see today with all of the back and forth?
Perino: It’s not been comfortable, and I’ve covered it every single day because of the show and also because I’m interested. I believe this from a broad-brush standpoint: parties evolve, and if they fail to evolve and adapt, they can splinter, and parties don’t last forever. We might be witnessing the destruction of the Republican Party, at least as I have always known the Republican Party. I’ll be 44 in a month. My grandfather was the county commissioner in Weston County, Newcastle, Wyoming. I’ve been a Republican all my life but I’m not devastated that the Republican Party might disappear as I knew it because I believe that conservative principles, just like progressive principles or liberal principles, will exist whether the parties are intact. I do think that there is quite a bit of fighting within the Democratic party as well, but the Republican one is so grossly entertaining, if that’s the way to put it, you can’t tear your eyes away from it.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is there going to be a contested convention? Will there be a third-party candidate if they push Trump out? It seems he’s more or less hinted, if not come out directly to say, that he would run as a third-party candidate. If he gets the nomination, there’s a lot of talk behind the scenes that someone else might run.
Perino: There could be another third-party candidate.
Knowledge at Wharton: Lots of names have surfaced: [House Speaker] Paul Ryan being one. There are others.
Perino: I don’t think that’s real. I don’t think that rumors about Paul Ryan running for president are real at all. The likelihood of a contested convention is probably, I would say, 60% likely at this point just because the rules being what they are, that you have to get a majority before the convention to be assured of the nomination. If you don’t, it goes to a vote and everyone’s getting a real education now of what that means when delegates are chosen in different ways by different states. They’re bound or unbound. We have a situation now in Louisiana where Donald Trump handily won the popular vote in Louisiana, but he lost the delegate count, and now he wants to sue Louisiana for that, but the rules were the rules.
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s true the rules are the rules, but I often read that those that have been voting for Trump will feel thwarted.
Perino: They will, they will…. If he has almost all of the delegates, and he goes to the convention, even in that first or second round, I still think that he could become the nominee. I don’t think that there will be that many unbound delegates that decide to not vote for him unless things continue. He’s doing very poorly with certain segments of Republican voters — very conservative voters and Republican women. He could make up some of that in a general election by bringing Democrats over to vote for him, but if you’re losing conservatives and women on the other side, you’ve got to make that up someplace else, and I don’t know where he does that.
“Just because you might disagree with somebody on a policy position doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy their company and enjoy each other as Americans and human beings.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Can they win national elections very well in that state of disunity?
Perino: It’s very hard for Republicans, no matter what, to win nationally anyway. In 2012, the night that Barack Obama won, Hillary Clinton looked at that electoral map and said, “That’s my starting point.” Okay, so Republicans have to try to figure out a way to change that map. Donald Trump could absolutely change the electoral map. I don’t believe that Ted Cruz could flip any states that Romney didn’t win. I actually don’t believe that. I’m sure he would argue and tell me that I’m wrong, but I really don’t see how that is possible.
Now, with Donald Trump, could you see Massachusetts being in play? Yeah. For him. But Hillary Clinton could put Arizona in play for the Democrats. Same is true for Utah because Utah gave Trump some of his worst marks ever. If the Republican Party in Utah is not going to be excited and enthusiastic to come out and vote for Trump in Utah, the Democrats might actually have a chance to win Utah. So then the map that we’ve known ever since about the year 2000 will look totally different. So nobody really knows what’s going to happen.
Knowledge at Wharton: So will you be supporting the Republican nominee, whoever it is?
Perino: I would love to be able to do that, but I don’t know. I have a different job now, too. I am not one of these news analysts or pundits that feels like I need to advertise who I am for. I am not campaigning for anyone. If you ask me who I think should be president, I’ll go to my chapter three, George W. Bush.
Knowledge at Wharton: Maybe we can end on more of an uplifting note. You mention in the book that at one of the hotels you were in, someone left a card on your pillow with a Zen quote. Can you tell us about that?
Perino: It was after I left the White House. I think a lot of people believe that my transition from press secretary into the PR world into co-host of one of the most popular shows on cable news looked very smooth on the outside. But internally, I think it was a lot for me to handle. I had worked in government for so long. I had worked in the private sector before as well. My business when I left the White House was going great, but I was overwhelmed and also I was exhausted from that experience. Even though I was White House Press Secretary, I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, so fighting on cable news was something new to me.
[As] a press secretary, it did not faze me to talk about George W. Bush and his positions, but when I had to give my own opinions, it was different. There was this little pillow card — I can’t remember which hotel it was — it said something like … “Say little, but when you speak, speak gently from the heart. Abstain from vanity. Be truthful. That is the way.” I thought that captured what I needed to be doing in my life after I left the White House. I took that card, and I’ve had it with me ever since, almost 10 years. … I read it every morning.