‘Trump slump?’ Not for Fox News’ Dana Perino
Fox News, the longtime leader in cable TV news, is betting that viewers want more of George W. Bush’s former press secretary, who brings Mountain West values to her high-profile job
As expected, cable news networks lost viewers after Donald Trump left office, but competitors who hoped Fox News would disappear with the 45th president were disappointed.
Even amid an industry-wide “Trump slump,” Fox still reigns in the latest Nielsen ratings, in part because of programming changes made after Joe Biden won, to include a larger role for Dana Perino, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush whose star has continued to rise amid the turmoil and corporate politics that often engulf cable news.
If you turn on Fox News in the morning, Perino is there, holding forth with perfectly coiffed hair and tales of relatable imperfection throughout two hours of “America’s Newsroom.” Tune in late afternoon, and she’s there, too, tossing out bon mots like a modern-day Dorothy Parker on the news panel “The Five.”
She’s also called on for commentary at other times in the day, such as after Biden’s first press conference. She hosts “Dana Perino’s Book Club” on the network’s streaming service, Fox Nation, and lately is even omnipresent on other media, promoting her new book.
In short, it seems that when the “Trump slump” met Dana Perino, Perino prevailed.
Fox executives consider her an “impact anchor,” someone with both gravitas and sparkle, and she was untouched by the sexual-harassment scandals that rocked the company five years ago.
In fact, she’s the antithesis of the controversy, the polar opposite of Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox personality fired for sexual harassment in 2017, said Robert Thompson, professor of radio, television and film at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
She is enjoying heightened visibility at an age when some female news anchors have been replaced by younger women, and Perino, 48, is not afraid to bring attention to her age. Her new book, “Everything Will Be Okay” is subtitled “Life Lessons for Young Women (From a Former Young Woman).”
In the book, Perino returns to her Mountain West roots to offer advice for America’s young women, who she believes are suffering “quarter-life crises” well into their thirties. Her advice ranges from the practical (how to find a role model) to the ethereal (how to achieve serenity), and how to grow into a daunting new job when your boss is the president of the United States and almost a foot taller than you. (Bush is 6 feet; Perino, 5.)
The 43rd president was one of her favorite mentors. And now she’s passing his advice on to others, along with her own.
Gift from a father
Midway through a conversation about growing up in Colorado and Wyoming, a siren shrieks on the street outside Perino’s Manhattan apartment.
“Did you hear that?” Perino says, exultant. “The city is back. The city is back!”
Perino’s enthusiasm for the piercing sounds of the city shows how long it’s been in the grip of COVID-19. And also, that you can take a girl out of the Mountain West and make her a New Yorker — albeit a New Yorker who prays for people she makes eye contact with on city streets, as she reveals in her new book:
“May whatever you’re going through ease up on you for today. ... May there be peace in your heart today. ... May you be safe and secure. ... May you know you are loved and cared for by God.”
Praying for passers-by, Perino writes, is “a helpful exercise that has become a habit, and I think I’m better off for it.”
“It certainly got me out of comparing my bag to her bag and her coat to my coat and her cool dog to my — Who am I kidding? No dog beats out Jasper.”
Jasper is the Hungarian Vizsla so famous to Fox News viewers that he was the subject of Perino’s 2016 book “Let Me Tell You About Jasper... .” He’s an occasional in-studio guest and a frequent star on Perino’s Twitter feed, where he is much more popular than her queso. (Perino says a picture she posted of the dish in 2019 is the closest thing to a scandal she’s encountered.)
Today Jasper is napping next to Perino as she talks about her latest book, her time working with former President Bush, and why she has a heart for mentoring young women. (Among her life lessons: “Reach back to what your parents taught you about religion and faith” and “Stay in touch with your people.”)
Although Perino hasn’t lived in the Mountain West since finishing graduate school, she can’t tell her story without traveling there in her mind, to the farm where her great-grandparents dug a well and built a small house in Newcastle, Wyoming, to fulfill the requirements of the Homestead Act of 1862, to the quarter horses and cattle that members of her family still raise, to pot roast and Jergens lotion and vacation Bible school, and the other wholesome snippets of memory that coalesce into one: growing up loved in a family that prized knowledge.
They are lessons she brings to the set of Fox News — even when the “set” was a green screen in her spare bedroom, thanks to COVID-19.
Perino credits her father for giving her a love for information, and her ability to convey and dissect it rapidly. The family lived in Denver, and later Parker, Colorado, and subscribed to two newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post — as well as multiple magazines. Beginning in third grade, Perino’s father required that she read two articles every day and to be prepared to discuss the relevant issues at dinner. “It was brilliant training,” Perino says.
“When I worked for President Bush, I had just explained my point of view on something (while we were) on Marine One, and as the president was thinking it over, I had this flashback to the kitchen table, and I was thinking about how helpful it was for my dad to have started that tradition with me. It set me up to be able to present my ideas and defend them, through critical thinking and in front of a dominant male figure.
“Did my dad think all that through? No. But he loved the news so much,” she said. The family, church-going Lutherans, would go to services early on Sunday so they could make it home in time to watch “Meet the Press.” On Sunday evenings, Perino’s father would set a timer on the stove so that she would remember to watch “60 Minutes.”
Before she was in high school, Perino had announced to her parents that she planned to be a news anchor. In high school, she developed her leadership and communication skills on the debate team and student council, and she went to the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo (now Colorado State University-Pueblo) on a scholarship, and later, to graduate school at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
Inadvertently, the decision to attend a small state school turned out to be a propellant to Perino’s success. “I had a bit of an inferiority complex when it came to my education when I was at the White House, at least at first,” she said.
“They’d all gone to Harvard or Yale or Stanford. When I said I’d gone to USC, they thought I meant I was a Trojan, and I was, ‘Oh, no, we were the Indians, in Pueblo, Colorado,’” she said, laughing.
“One of the ways I found to set myself apart, to catch up, was that I always wanted to be the most well-read person in the room. And when I was the White House press secretary, I would make sure that everyone in the room knew that I was the most well-read person in the room. And that gave me a measure of power.”
Having developed a voracious appetite for knowledge because of the lessons of her father, it wasn’t a chore for Perino to put in the time to read. There was also a direct line from Perino’s parents to the “compassionate conservatism” that made Perino want to work for Bush when he became president.
In the early 1980s, Perino’s parents belonged to a church volunteer group that helped refugees from Russia, Estonia, Vietnam and Cambodia settle in Denver. Perino and her sister tagged along as their parents delivered appliances and other goods to refugee families. Her parents also taught the refugees basic skills, such as how to use the city’s bus system. It was one of the meaningful experiences of her childhood, Perino said, and the lesson stuck. Conservatism and compassion could be entwined.
“So when George W. Bush goes to run for president, and he refers to himself as a compassionate conservative, my ears perked up. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ It really spoke to me,” she said.
The experiences of childhood also come to mind when Perino grapples today with issues like immigration. Fox, like many conservative news outlets, has taken a hard line in its coverage of immigration at the southern border, calling the current situation a crisis and criticizing the Biden administration for not showing more of the conditions at the border in recent weeks.
The border, Perino says, is a “huge problem” that she believes could be relieved with more border security and enforcement of visa terms and verification of employees.
“If we were more willing to use e-Verify, then there would be more acceptance for the other, traditional type of immigration that we’ve had in this country — for refugees, for example.”
But while Perino, a veteran of White House policy meetings, is comfortable criticizing the president, she holds back when asked about the performance of the current president’s press secretary, Jen Psaki.
“I love the fraternity of press secretaries, and part of that is a code of support. I’ve never criticized one, I always try to support them. I think Jen Psaki brings a ton of experience to the job,” she said.
Then again, this is Dana Perino, mentor of young women and giver of advice, and that advice sometimes spills out unbidden.
“I think when it comes to this issue — is there a crisis on the border? — a better way for (Psaki) to answer that might have been to say, ‘Of course there’s a crisis on the border — there’s been a crisis on the border for decades, and we’re trying to fix it.’
“Instead, every day (the press asks), ‘Is it a crisis? Is it a challenge? Is it a catastrophe?’ And I feel that the president and Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, owe her a better answer. If I were her, I would pour gasoline on my forehead and threaten to light a match if they didn’t give me a better answer.”
The ‘quarter-life crisis’
Perino is long past her “quarter-life crisis,” but she believes that many young women in America are being crippled by a period of angst that begins in their mid-20s and is now following some women into their 30s and beyond.
A quarter-life crisis, she says, is marked by uncertainty, indecision and a sense of failure despite many successes. Young women may feel they’re not advancing as quickly as they should be in their careers, or despairing that they haven’t yet married and had a family. Consequently, they suffer from a paralyzing lack of confidence that keeps them from achieving their goals.
Perino says she’s been there, felt that, and a friend from a church singles’ group in Washington, D.C., helped her move past it with some advice from the Bible.
Perino wrote that she had begun to despair that “there was no way I was going to make my goal of having two children, with a cute home in a good neighborhood, with secure finances, and I assumed, no real worries in the world.” But then the friend reminded of two words that Jesus said: “Fear not.”
“And,” the friend continued, ”he means it. Everything is going to be OK. Let God work his plan and let go of yours.”
God’s plan, as it turned out, was much different from what a younger Perino had imagined. God’s plan involved marriage to an older man she met on a plane (when they met, she was 25, he was 43); two (now adult) stepchildren, not biological children; and not one cute home but two. (In addition to the New York apartment they rent, Perino and her husband, Peter McMahon, own a home in Bay Head, New Jersey.)
Her marriage was shockingly unexpected, not only to Perino but to her family, coming as it did 11 months after meeting McMahon on a plane. After a quick cross-Atlantic courtship, the couple eloped in England, with two strangers as witnesses. (Her parents didn’t learn that their daughter had gotten married until they all had dinner together in the U.K. a few weeks later.) Perino and McMahon will celebrate their 23rd anniversary in September. She has said that she still gets “little stomach flips” when meeting her husband after work and that there are six keys to their enduring marriage: faith, gratitude, grace, commitment, love and surrender.
Another significant cleaving from Perino’s plan for her life occurred the day she showed up at the White House in 2007, intending to submit her resignation.
At the time, she was deputy press secretary and didn’t see any room for advancement, despite working hours that felt nonstop. She told Ed Gillespie, one of Bush’s other advisers, that she wanted to speak with him, and he said he wanted to speak with her, too. When they met, she told Gillespie to go first, and he said the president wanted to promote her to press secretary later that week.
“I’d be honored,” she told him. She never told him she’d planned to resign, and Gillespie never knew until he read the story in her first book, published in 2015.
“Immediately I knew, with just a snap of the finger, that my life had changed dramatically for the rest of my life,” she said.
And it did. As press secretary, she accompanied Bush to more than 50 nations and her name became a household word. After Bush left office, she started a public-relations agency and, with friends, launched a nonprofit that facilitates “minute mentoring” for women. (Among her bits of advice: “If you’re ever in a situation where someone says, ‘I need to talk to you, too,’ always let them go first.”)
But she became even more famous when Fox News came calling.
‘You don’t have to have a plan’
Perino began at Fox as a contributor in 2009, then in 2011 became a panelist on “The Five,” a free-wheeling conversation on the day’s news that airs from 5-6 p.m. Eastern.
Perino was hired by Roger Ailes, the controversial CEO credited with inventing the network’s personality-driven format with a conservative point of view often presented by beautiful women with blond hair and great legs.
Ailes, who died in 2017, resigned in 2016 after a lawsuit by former Fox personality Gretchen Carlson triggered other accusations of sexual harassment. Perino was not among the women who made accusations against Ailes.
“He did hire me. I learned a lot from him. He gave me chance to be myself,” she said, adding that “The Five” was Ailes’ idea.
“I never had any problems at all with Roger Ailes. I recognize that many did. ... I feel good about the company, where we are today. That’s not to sweep anything under the rug, but to recognize it and to be honest about it, but also to move on.”
It’s been challenging for Fox to move on, given the relentless coverage of Ailes, even after his death, to include a book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” by Gabriel Sherman, a 2019 Showtime miniseries based on that book, and the partly fictionalized film “Bombshell,” also released in 2019.
But the network’s ratings, dominant in cable news for nearly 20 years, have been resilient, largely because of viewer loyalty to personalities like Perino.
Thompson, the professor of radio, television and film at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, has observed that unlike CNN, which built a network around breaking news, Fox built its brand on personalities that people wanted to watch even on slow news days.
And Fox viewers like Dana Perino.
“The Five” has doubled its viewership since its launch in 2011, and the show Perino anchored from 2017-2020, “The Daily Briefing,” was the leader in its time slot among cable networks, according to Nielsen ratings.
Fox executives gave Perino even more airtime when they added her to “America’s Newsroom” with Bill Hemmer in January.
In an email, Jay Wallace, president and executive editor of Fox News Media, said the show “sets the news table for us each day” and that the network values Perino’s experience and insights.
“Dana is an impact anchor who has proven she can get newsmakers and lawmakers — from both sides of the aisle — to speak with her,” Wallace said. That was clear this week when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appeared on the show to discuss Biden’s infrastructure proposal.
But Wallace said that Perino’s new role was not a calculated move to counter the predicted “Trump slump,” but rather made in conjunction with other programming changes made to coincide with a new administration.
“History tells us the country’s mood and temperament tends to change with the arrival of a new president, not to mention with a new balance of power on Capitol Hill, so we are always strategizing ways to capture changing interests and viewer consumption,” Wallace said.
Fox Corp. CEO and executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch has said that, like MSNBC saw its role during the Trump administration, Fox now has a job to call out Biden when he needs to be called out. “And you know, you’ll see our ratings really improve from here and will do so for at least the next four years,” Murdoch said.
For once, Perino doesn’t have her eye on a higher prize. With a great job, a fulfilling marriage and a good dog, she says she is content with her life, having decided that the most important thing in life isn’t having a plan, but being willing to accept what God puts before you. That’s part of her advice for young women.
“Young women, in my experience, are hungry for advice, and they will work very hard, but they want you to give them the plan.” But that’s not how it happens, she says.
“Every time there was career advancement for me, I didn’t plan it. It took me by surprise. Now I’m prepared, and I’m willing to take a risk and not say no to a great new opportunity, but I couldn’t plan it all. And that’s the great gift, when you realize it will all be OK, you don’t have to have a plan. You just have to be ready.”