Online exclusive | 12:14 p.m.
One veteran reporter describes 5-foot-1-inch Dana Perino as “a tiny little thing,” but the deputy White House press secretary brings to her job a big reputation for brains and the Wild West toughness of her native Wyoming.
Witness her recent exchange with Helen Thomas, who has covered every presidency since she followed the Kennedy campaign to Washington. When Miss Thomas, 86, kept firing questions at Mrs. Perino, 34, the presidential spokeswoman cut her off.
“Do you want me to answer the question, Helen, or do you want to ask questions? It’s really hard to concentrate here. What’s your question?” Mrs. Perino demanded.
Miss Thomas replied, “You repeat yourself so much that. …”
“So do you,” Mrs. Perino interrupted, then immediately called on another reporter.
Mrs. Perino is “the first press secretary to cut Helen Thomas no slack,” said Ann Compton of ABC News, who has spent more than three decades as a White House correspondent.
“The microphone has not overpowered [Mrs. Perino], even though she is a little tiny thing who needs to stand on a box just to see over the edge of the lectern,” Mrs. Compton said.
Mrs. Perino said in an interview that she felt bad about the exchange.
“I really like Helen,” Mrs. Perino said. She said Miss Thomas gave her a “big hug” after the March 27 gaggle when she announced that White House spokesman Tony Snow’s cancer had returned.
“I feel like I have good relationships with people in the briefing room. I understand that reporters have a job to do, and I understand that they’re going to ask really tough questions. And sometimes, especially when the camera’s on, there’s a little bit of drama and theatrics,” Mrs. Perino said. “But at the end of the day, I feel like if I can provide the answers that they want in a tone that is reasonable and not aggressive, that is the style I try to bring to the briefing room.”
Mrs. Perino has stepped quickly and ably into the loquacious Mr. Snow’s shoes, White House reporters say.
“She is smart, articulate and knowledgeable about administration policy. She is not as glib and fast with a one-liner as Tony Snow … but she does a very capable job filling in,” said CBS radio correspondent Mark Knowler, who has covered the White House since 1976.
Mr. Knowler called Mr. Snow “one of the best White House spokesmen I’ve ever encountered.” Mr. Snow’s colon cancer from 2005 was found to have returned and spread to his liver, and he has not made any announcements about whether or when he might return.
However, Mrs. Perino said Mr. Snow will be able to work while he undergoes cancer treatment and will be back “sooner than people think.”
In the meantime, the woman who came from “an Italian family in the Black Hills of Wyoming” is speaking for an embattled President Bush.
“We all certainly hope Tony is back sooner than later, but I think the position is in good hands while he is out,” said Mrs. Perino’s predecessor, Scott McClellan, who hired her away from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in 2005.
Mrs. Perino, who will turn 35 on May 9, worked on environmental issues for the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, first at the Department of Justice and then at CEQ.
She stood out for her ability to grasp complex issues and policies and then communicate them in plain English, her former bosses say.
“She’s more than someone who can just talk well. She brings a lot of intelligence to the issues,” said CEQ Chairman Jim Connaughton,.
Tom Sansonetti, former assistant attorney general for environmental issues, said Mrs. Perino was “bright and skillful and had a nice appearance.”
Mr. Sansonetti, now a private-practice lawyer for Holland & Hart in Cheyenne, Wyo., credited Mrs. Perino with drawing press coverage for the Justice Department’s environmental cases in a post-September 11 era when most attention was paid to counterterrorism efforts.
Mrs. Perino’s work on environmental issues is a passion, fueled by her upbringing in Evanston, Wyo. Growing up, she often helped her grandfather with his annual cattle drive in Newcastle.
“She’s a conservationist conservative, with some real solid Western roots,” Mr. Connaughton said.
“I’m a strong environmentalist,” said Mrs. Perino, who called the White House’s approach to climate change “a model for the world.”
Mrs. Perino’s grandfather died in 2001, but she and her husband, Peter McMahon, still try to get back for cattle drives on the 50,000-acre ranch, which is run by an uncle.
Mr. McMahon, 52, runs his own business, selling and marketing medical products, from the couple’s Capitol Hill home. They have a Hungarian vizsla dog named Henry.
Mrs. Perino and Mr. McMahon, who is British, met on a flight from Denver to Chicago in August 1997. She moved to Britain the following May, and the two were married the subsequent September.