Dana Perino apologizes for her pancake. “I don’t usually wear this much makeup,” she explains as she heads into her office on the 21st floor of Fox News Media’s Manhattan headquarters. She’s just wrapped her morning news program, “America’s Newsroom,” which she hosts with Bill Hemmer. As such, the spray-on foundation is not unexpected. But Perino comes to TV news from pre-Trump Republican politics — she was George W. Bush’s White House press secretary — not from the ranks of local news or the outré world of political punditry. So, for her, a centimeter of foundation may never feel like a second skin. But after more than a decade at Fox News — first as a contributor and since 2011, as a host of “The Five” — Perino has become something of a natural.
“It was actually harder for me than maybe it looked from the outside,” she admits. “I had only ever spoken on behalf of somebody else. I had never given my personal opinion out loud — to anyone. First of all, why would anybody care? I wasn’t elected to anything.”
Perino joined Fox News in April 2009 as a contributor. She had appeared on the network in her capacity as White House press secretary (she succeeded Tony Snow, who resigned in 2007 amid a battle with colon cancer). After Bush left office in 2009, she was often called on to offer commentary about the new Democratic administration of President Barack Obama. But hosting “The Five,” a daily discussion program made up of a mix of conservatives and progressives debating the issues of the day, catapulted Perino, 50, out of her comfort zone.
“I was like a deer in the headlights,” she says.
She was still living in Washington, D.C., with her husband Peter McMahon, 68, a British-born entrepreneur, and running her public relations and events business, while also serving on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (she was appointed by Obama).
“I didn’t think ‘The Five’ was actually going to become a full-time job,” she says. “So I was very hesitant. I was afraid that I might say something on television or on social media that would hurt all of my other activities.”
When the job did turn into a permanent gig, Perino and McMahon moved to New York; they live on the Upper West Side. And Perino shed some of those early TV inhibitions. But that does not mean she has succumbed to the fringe histrionics propagated by some of her colleagues. Rather, she is a measured, self-deprecating presence on Fox News.
A practicing Lutheran, Perino and McMahon make yearly mission trips to Africa with Mercy Ships, an organization that offers free medical treatment aboard hospital ships. She is the founder of the women’s leadership program Minute Mentoring and in 2021, she authored her third book, “Everything Will Be Okay: Life Lessons for Young Women (from a Former Young Woman).” Her second book, “Let Me Tell You About Jasper…How My Best Friend Became America’s Dog,” was about her beloved Vizsla, who became a social media star before succumbing to a fast-moving cancer in September 2021. Two months later, she adopted another Vizsla. And Percy, like Jasper before him, has become Perino’s social media muse and a frequent topic of conversation on the air.
“The Five” is now the most-watched show on cable news, averaging 3.4 million viewers each day, an unusual milestone for a show that airs at 5 p.m., hours before the viewer-heavy primetime hours. “America’s Newsroom” pulls in 1.8 million viewers from 9 to 11 a.m. As Perino’s profile at the network has risen, she has played a more prominent role during Fox News Channel’s election coverage and will once again offer insight and analysis during the network’s midterm election coverage on Tuesday.
“I’ve tried to bring a little bit of a lighter touch, where appropriate,” she says. “A little oh-my-gosh humor. It’s really amazing how we can have these big debates [on ‘The Five’] and in the commercial breaks we’re just talking about our dogs or what shows we watched last night. And so I find that people perceive there’s more polarization out there in the world than there really is in their day-to-day life. I truly believe that.”
Here, Perino talks to WWD about how the extinction of land line phones has upended polling, her relationship with Fox News Media chief executive officer Suzanne Scott (who is dealing with two defamation lawsuits stemming from the network’s 2020 election coverage) and her rules for the dog park.
WWD: There are plenty of complaints about how the media covers elections, that they’re cast as a reductive, who’s up who’s down horse race. Is that criticism valid? How do we fix that?
Dana Perino: Is it valid? I think there may be some truth to that. But there’s an audience for it. There’s a lot of interest [in the midterms]. And I think it’s a little more than who’s up who’s down, partly because both parties have been going through this evolution. I worked with a lot of people in the Bush administration who had gone through a realignment, especially in Texas, who had been Democrats their whole lives, and all of a sudden, they started voting with [Ronald] Reagan, and they stayed Republicans. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was on a podcast [recently] saying that the Democrats have not done enough to pay attention to Hispanic voters. The horse race part of it, I think, is truer of a general election than a midterm.
WWD: There was a lot of soul searching about the reliance on polling in the 2016 election. Has that had an impact on election coverage?
D.P.: A little bit. Our network has a standard before you can put a poll on the screen; it has to meet certain criteria. One of those criteria had long been [that] the poll had to be conducted by actually speaking [to someone] on a landline, not on a cell phone. So pollsters are now trying to figure out, how can we get people to talk to us? People don’t want to talk on the phone. But they might be willing to talk to you on text. And is that something [the network] can accept? And one of the things that [makes] a midterm very difficult is state polling is usually not very good. It’s expensive. And states don’t do much of it. So polling is going through an evolution as well. I don’t know how it looks on the other side. Some have been moving to a focus group model, which I think is really good. Rich Thau [president of focus-testing firm Engagious] talks to independent voters only. I think 60 percent of Americans now call themselves independent.
WWD: Do you think that could be because there’s so much toxicity in politics?
D.P.: I do. And I think the parties used to be much stronger than they are today. People want to express independence. They don’t want to be beholden to a group. And so I think that both parties have a lot to work with. One other thing that’s super interesting that we haven’t paid attention to enough is the pandemic has changed where a lot of people live. I [went] to the Al Smith dinner where I sat next to [New York Republican gubernatorial candidate] Lee Zeldin. I was asking him about Lake Placid, and he said it used to be a very deep red county. But since the pandemic it’s more of a purple county because so many people left the cities and wanted to live in the place where they love to vacation.
WWD: But going back to people not wanting to be affiliated with a political party. There seem to be a lot of unhinged people in Congress now, like Marjorie Taylor Greene. How did this happen?
D.P.: There is polarization in the country, we see it every day. And yet when you ask people what are their concerns about America, they’ll say polarization. And one of the things I always ask myself is, “am I being the best possible person in my life? The best role model at work, in my neighborhood? Am I exacerbating any polarization?” Because I would never want to, that’s not my thing. Then I look at some people on the left and the right. And they are effective at getting media attention and also very effective at raising small-dollar donations online. It’s astounding, both on the left and the right.
WWD: You mean the extremists are good at raising small-dollar donations?
D.P.: Yes, sure. Absolutely.
WWD: OK, but you started your career in political communications and worked in the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And at the time, especially as the pretense and cost of the Iraq war was sinking in, they were vilified. Cheney was cast as the evil puppet master. And now Bush and Cheney are viewed by many, not all, as reasonable Republicans.
D.P.: I know. So I’m old enough to remember [the 1994 midterms] when Republicans swept everything. It was Clinton’s first midterm. That’s how you have [Newt] Gingrich, the Contract with America. At the time, I was working for a congressman from Colorado and he came to my desk one day, and he had The Roll Call newspaper in his hand and he puts it down on my desk and says: “When did I become a moderate?” And I said, “I think when the class of ‘94 came in?” It’s not that he had changed his views, he was just considered to be moderate. Now, was that because they found him more polite, or older?
WWD: Or the other people became more extreme.
D.P.: Well, I don’t know. Extreme is in the eye of the beholder. Was Newt Gingrich extreme? I don’t know? I guess some people at the time would say so, but now they look back and say, well, that guy was reasonable.
WWD: I would say Gingrich is on the fringe now. On your show, you have pushed back on people who have denied that Joe Biden was lawfully elected president. How destructive is this rhetoric?
D.P.: I never thought the election was stolen, I knew that it was going to be a very close election. And I believe that Biden got more votes and that it was super close. That’s what I always believed. Now I was willing to see if there was evidence to the contrary, but nothing was ever presented. But then I also look at what Hillary Clinton said [in a recent promotional video for a progressive advocacy group], that the Republicans are planning to steal the 2024 election. Why isn’t anyone saying, well, that seems very super dangerous? I don’t like any of it. I would like free and fair elections. I want everyone to have a chance to vote. I would like people to be able to vote after at least one debate. I think early voting before any debate takes place is wrong. Why do you have to have 50 days of early voting in any state? Colorado, where I grew up, is an all mail-in state. And it works well for them. They don’t ever have complaints of voter fraud. Every state is a little bit different. And it seems to me there’s some best practices that could be out there. And one of them would be for neither side to start saying that the election was stolen.
WWD: We have talked about polarization. And as a mom, I find the state of the world kind of terrifying; Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, the destruction of the planet, the state of education, the cost of everything. How do you deal with the daily churn of grim news and keep your sanity?
D.P.: Well, I do love what I do. And I have the best of both worlds right now [with] the chance to do a news program and also to be an analyst and offer my opinion on “The Five.” Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything well. But I think every woman feels that way. I also have never had children. I live vicariously through a lot of my friends and my producers who have children. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything in my life. But I know that that’s a little bit of a blind spot for me. So I try to overcompensate to make sure I understand like, you tell me, as a mom, what are your worries. Yes, there are days when I go home and I’m like, “wow, these stories! Everything is so bad.” But I have always been pretty optimistic, a sunny side of the street type of person. I also worked for George W. Bush, who had that viewpoint as well. I mean, there were some pretty dark moments, especially in the middle of the war right before the surge, when things were going so badly and we had so many casualties. And he would be calling the moms and dads and meeting with the Gold Star families. I remember leaving there thinking, nothing I do for the rest of my life will ever be that important or that hard. And I do believe that America is the best place for opportunity. And that we usually solve problems. And that as long as we keep communicating with each other, we can do that.
WWD: Do you think media is bad for people?
D.P.: I have girlfriends who have stopped watching the news. They apologize to me: “I don’t watch the news anymore.” They get their news from social media or they read a newsletter. But then they’ll say, “I like that dress you were wearing.” And it’s like, “Oh, then you are watching.”
WWD: Suzanne Scott promoted you. What is the organization like under Suzanne?
D.P.: For Suzanne, that period in 2016 [when predecessor Roger Ailes was ousted amid numerous harassment allegations] was tumultuous and chaotic. People were like, what is going to happen? Who could possibly deal with this? And now we’re heading into 2023, and the company is performing well, shows are performing well, there have been seamless promotions of people across the board. There are more diverse people here. As an executive and as a woman executive, she gets very little credit. I asked her one time what she’d learned about herself, this was a year after she’d been CEO. And she said, “I realized I had a thicker skin than I thought I did.”
WWD: Is there a lot of friction between the opinion and news side?
D.P.: I’m on both [opinion and news]. I don’t know. I feel like I’m doing pretty well.
WWD: You don’t feel any friction between the opinion and news sides of the organization?
D.P.: I don’t. I don’t. Not that there weren’t tense moments during the 2016 primary. There were. Across the country, across the building.
WWD: But also during the 2020 election.
D.P.: Not for me, because I believed what I believed. And that was it. And also, you know, I never interviewed [Donald] Trump.
WWD: Did you want to?
D.P.: I felt like everybody else did.
WWD: Do you think he should run again?
D.P.: I have been cured of endorsements. And that started when I came here full time. And it’s been great. My heart and loyalty and all of my blood, sweat and tears went into the Bush administration. I am who I am. I grew up in Wyoming on a ranch and have always voted the way I’ve voted. But I don’t talk about how I vote anymore. I don’t give money to any candidates. I stay out of it. And that’s been very freeing.
WWD: I was a bit surprised to read that you were only the second female White House press secretary after Dee Dee Myers during the Clinton administration.
D.P.: And now it’s like, when will there be another man?
WWD: Did it feel like you were blazing a trail at the time?
D.P.: Dee Dee Myers was only there for six or seven months. I was very happy being Tony Snow’s deputy, very happy being behind the scenes. But when I was elevated, I knew in that moment that my life had changed. It was just different to see a woman up there.
WWD: Former Biden administration press secretary Jen Psaki was criticized for going straight from the White House to a job to MSNBC. What do you think of that?
D.P.: Negotiating that while you’re still press secretary is something I would not have done. Jen Psaki and I have known each other since 2008, because she was on the Obama transition team. She’s very good at what she does. And she benefited greatly for having been the press secretary at the State Department [during the Obama administration]. That’s a tough job. I always used to read the State Department briefing transcript every night before I went to bed. Because within the next day or two, I’d be asked those questions.
WWD: Let’s talk about your dogs. Because people love dogs…
D.P.: [Democratic strategist] Donna Brazile and I first met [through] our dogs. We were neighbors and our dogs got together. I have a rule: no politics at the dog park. You can catch me on “The Five” or “America’s Newsroom.” But I don’t do that here.