"The voice of reason" on Fox News: Dana Perino talks civility in the Trump era

Fox News star on the challenges of covering the news in the Trump era, and the upcoming midterms

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 4, 2018 6:30PM (EST)

Dana Marie Perino (Getty/Riccardo Savi)
Dana Marie Perino (Getty/Riccardo Savi)

Speaking with Dana Perino, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush who currently hosts two Fox News shows, "The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino" and "The Five," an underlying question kept emerging in my mind: How does one create genuine bipartisan dialogue in a nation as fiercely divided as America is today?

The problem seems to be that liberals and conservatives (and for that matter libertarians, socialists and virtually every other political persuasion) don't just have different opinions. Each side seems to believe in their own various realities. If you're a liberal, President Donald Trump is a racist, authoritarian demagogue of questionable legitimacy who was in over his head from the moment he took his oath of office. If you're a conservative, mainstream media are simply bitter about Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 election and distort the truth with "fake news" in order to deny the president a chance to make good on his promises.

It is impossible to come up with an easy solution to this problem. In order to start, however, it is vital that people on both sides at least engage with each other in meaningful and respectful conversation.

That's why I reached out to Fox News.

Dana Perino is a journalist who despite her background spinning a narrative for a conservative administration has approached covering the news at a conservative outlet from a more detached position. According to Nielsen Media Research, her program "The Daily Briefing" averaged 1.8 million total viewers last month. She will begin hosting a new program on Fox Nation on Nov. 27. I spoke with Perino last week. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you ever have a moment as press secretary for President George W. Bush when you felt particularly aware of the fact that you were playing a role in shaping history? If so, what was that moment?

Well, yes, indeed. I mean, I think that there were times, of course, when you would pinch yourself and say, “I can’t believe that I actually get to work for the citizens of this country, for the president of the United States. I’m actually in the White House.” I’m trying to think of one instance in particular. Of course, it was a little different than now, right? We were a nation at war and that was always first and forefront in my mind, and the way that I approached the job was that I never thought of myself as the press secretary to the Republican Party.

I was the press secretary to the White House and I knew, because of having been around George W. Bush and watching and observing, that people all over the world would watch what I said. They turn to the White House; everybody: your allies, your enemies, your military, your citizens, your political opponents, everyone’s always watching. So I was mindful of that, and I always tried to conduct myself in a way where I felt President Bush would be proud of what I was saying.

I write in my book that one of the few things that young women, in particular, would ask me would be like, “How do you keep so calm up there?” I would tell them that I would always imagine that if George W. Bush were watching me right now, would he be proud of me? If the answer was "No," then I didn’t say it. And being sarcastic or snarky, it comes naturally to all of us. Sarcasm is one of America’s specialties, but it would have been frowned upon by President Bush if I had said that, and I wouldn’t have been proud of myself, so I do remember thinking about that.

Let me be clear though, I never took myself that seriously. For example, I always thought of myself as the spokesperson. I never thought of myself as somebody with an opinion that anybody would ever care about. It’s one of the interesting things about transitioning to work at Fox News where I was giving my opinion, about how I personally felt about everything from legalization of marijuana to staying in Afghanistan, on and on. I had never actually expressed my personal opinion about anything because it wasn’t my job. My job changed here, and I’ve almost been here 10 years, believe it or not. Time goes by fast! I really love what I’m doing, but I don’t think I could do what I’m doing now if I had not had that wonderful opportunity to work at the White House.

How important is ideological and personal compatibility, in terms of how effective a press secretary can be working with a specific president? Obviously, I extend this question to your thoughts about Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders working with Donald Trump.

One of the nice things about the press secretary fraternity, I call it, is that it’s a wonderful job. You’re at the pinnacle of your profession. If George W. Bush and I didn’t trust each other, I never would have gotten the job.

Do people think that I represented George W. Bush well? I think so. I think he thinks that and I’m honored by that and I’m proud of it just like I think Robert Gibbs, Jay Carney and Josh Earnest represented their boss very well, too. I think the same is true for Sarah Sanders. I think Sean Spicer -- you can read his book, he got caught up into a whirlwind. It was six months of the wildest ride of his life, and yet he still maintains a good relationship with the president. Again, I think that’s partly because you can respect the person and the decision-making process. You don’t always have to align exactly with somebody’s ideology per se in order to be a good spokesperson.

I think a good example of that is if you look at Mike McCurry. I think he was one of the best spokespeople that this country has ever seen, and he was the spokesperson during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Later on in his life, more recently, he went to seminary school. He could not have been comfortable at that time, but he represented the presidency as well as he could and held up very well under all that pressure.

I would like to segue now to talk about the practice of journalism, being on the other end of that podium. One of the major challenges today is that there often seem to be not just different points of view, but different narratives where both sides don’t even see eye-to-eye on fundamental facts. How can journalists address this problem?

Well, I think about that a lot. I love having a 2 o’clock news hour, and I think that some of our news division reporters are among the best in the country.

I remember my first day of hosting "The Daily Briefing," I was really prepared to talk politics. This was Oct. 2, 2017. There was lots of politics and the hangover from Charlottesville was still there. I worked all weekend to make sure that I would get really good guests, and I woke up that morning and found out that overnight, the largest mass shooting in American history had taken place in Las Vegas.

Of course, that focus isn’t mine.

I was mostly trying at that point just to focus on the news and then at 5 p.m. we would focus on the news. We still didn’t have a lot of details or facts, right? We still actually don’t know the motive of the killer to this day. It is an interesting thing to go from a show where I’m really trying to do a news hour where people can get caught up on the news of the day and then ... When I was a kid growing up, you used to get home and watch the 6 o’clock news because you didn’t know what happened all day. Now, by 5 o’clock, everyone already knows what happened that day, and they want to know, “What do people that I trust think about what happened today?”

I think that’s one of the reasons that "The Five" has been successful because we have a diversity of viewpoints. Also, we take the news seriously, but we don’t take ourselves that seriously, and I think that gives people a little bit of relief.

I think that’s a good point. Here's something that Donald Trump said yesterday. “As part of a larger national effort to bridge our divides and bring people together, the media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories.” Do you agree with that?

I think all of us have a role to play here. I think it was the NPR Marist poll last week that had something like 80 percent of people agreeing that the nation is too polarized, and I thought, “Wow, if 80 percent agree that the nation’s too polarized, why can’t we all just something about it?” I feel like the news media, in particular, has a role of reporting the facts. The tone is set by whoever the newsmaker is.

Now that said, I do think that Jim VandeHei of Axios had a really good point the other day to younger journalism students which was that if you want to be considered a news journalist and you want to restore trust from the American people in media, one of the best things you can do is not express your opinions on social media. I think that’s really a good point and it’s something that I found myself naturally doing in mid-2015, once the primary really got underway before that election.

I think in the last two and a half years, I have not expressed my personal opinion on politics or policy more than a handful of times because I think it chips away at my credibility. I want people to be willing to listen to my show at 2 o’clock and my commentary at 5. Sometimes people call me "the voice of reason" and that is something that I think is really important for me. Again, I think about, if George W. Bush were watching me right now, would he be proud of what I’m saying? I carry that with me and that’s just my personal approach.

It’s interesting that you refer to George W. Bush as someone who you keep in mind in order to maintain a sense of moderation and bipartisanship and fairness in your approach. Do you think that’s reflective of how our political discourse has changed over the last decade?

I don’t know. I think that I have the power to forgive and forget. Maybe I shouldn’t forget so much, but if I look back to 2000s, George W. Bush was called a racist. He was called a liar, but worse than that. There were many including Democrats who said he was not patriotic. [Former Sen.] Harry Reid said that about him. They also said that he had gone to war for oil, "blood for oil," if you remember that. I mean, it felt horrific when we were in the middle of it.

I think now everything has heightened and partly that is social media; but I also think the tensions in our country have reached a fever pitch, and now there is a president who calls himself a counterpuncher, and I look at that and I think, “But he could take the high road. Why doesn’t he take the high road? Boy, he should have taken the high road.” Then again, there are times when I think, “He's right to push back.”

I remember there was a former anchor here at Fox News who told me that I didn’t fight back hard enough when I was White House press secretary. Of course, I can’t go back and change anything that I did, and it wasn’t in my nature to be a counterpuncher, I’m just not. I try to seek consensus. I like policy. I like to bring people together. It’s just not in my nature to fight back, but I look back and I wonder if anything could have been different for President Bush at the time.

Now, he had a way of easing my anxiety about that. If I were going to prep him for an interview and I said, “Sir, we’re in the last six months. You’re going to do an interview with NBC News and of course, they’re going to ask you what you think your legacy will be.” He got tired of the question and he said, “You know, in this year alone, I’ve read three books about George Washington. If historians and political analysts are still analyzing the first president, then the 43rd doesn’t have a lot to worry about, because he’ll never know.” And that was a good perspective.

Now he has a high approval rating as I think does Barack Obama. I never would have thought that was possible, but I also heard that from Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary to George H.W. Bush, and I’m assuming you’re probably much younger than me. Marlin Fitzwater wrote a book called “Call the Briefing” and it is one of the best books about Washington that I’ve ever read. I’ve given it as gifts to other people including some people in the current administration. Nobody remembers this book, but it’s such a good way to look at Washington.

In the book, Marlin Fitzwater says that when they left in 1992, they never thought that President George H.W. Bush would ever be respected or revered, and look at him today. Time has a way of helping you think things through, look at things differently.

It’s hard for me to judge this moment as we’re living in it. I just have to try to do my best every day and then hope that when I do look back, if I’m fortunate enough to be around in 10, 15, 20 years, I’ll like what I see. At least, in regards to me, that’s the only person that I can control.



In terms of the specific dynamic on your show, how do you navigate the...

Which show? "The Five?"

Well, I’m thinking of one in particular. I was thinking of Greg Gutfeld and Juan Williams, and when the debate on racial matters becomes particularly heated, for instance. How do you navigate things so there can be a civil conversation even when the topic is so fraught?

Well, this is not the first time that race has been an issue. This country’s been dealing with race from the beginning. I think that because I have such great respect for Greg and Juan, and I know how they are with each other off camera in addition to on camera, there’s respect there. I feel like in some ways, we are having the debate on television that people might be having internally or in their homes or in their classrooms. We just happen to be doing it in public. Race issues, for me, are ones that I’m quite sensitive to.

In my book, I write about how in the ‘70s, Denver, Colorado was the first to use busing to try to integrate the schools. When I was in fourth grade, I had to start being bused 20 miles across town to another school and the city wasn’t well prepared for it. It was tough on all of us and I just remember growing up with a mom and a dad that were very sensitive to racial issues. Not that other people weren’t, but I tended to not to talk about it too much because I didn’t want to upset anyone, meaning someone of color.

Then I saw that also in George W. Bush, and that’s where I gravitated. I don’t like the term "racist" being thrown around, or "bigot." I feel like those terms should be used appropriately, so that they have meaning. If you’re calling everyone a racist because they’re having a conversation about illegal immigration, you’ve lost the policy point on immigration.

So you might see on "The Five" sometimes I try to chime in once in a while to move things along; but other times, I’m content to sit back and listen to both or all sides and to help me think things through. Truly, I can’t believe that I get a chance to do this for a living because if I did not get paid to follow the news and be engaged in policy discussions, I’d be doing it anyway. I just have a chance to do in on "The Five," which is great.

Do you think "The Five" represents the kind of civil debate that should be exemplified throughout the country? Is that kind of camaraderie at risk of breaking down in the Trump era?

Our show was supposed to be a temporary show that was going to last six weeks back in July of 2011, and we’re in our eighth year. I think we’re doing something right and, yeah, I do hear from people … In fact, there was a young woman that I saw at an airport the other day. She’s 16. She’s been watching "The Five" since she was seven or eight, and she said, “I feel like I’m better informed when we have class discussions,” and I love that. So yeah, I think we do a good job. Probably better than most.

One final question: What do you think is going to happen on election night in terms of the midterms?

You know that Donald Trump has a saying that I love: “We’ll see what happens.”

One day on "The Five" Greg Gutfeld made up this funny fake sitcom jingle to “We’ll see what happens.” It’s going to be fascinating. I love it that we are actually having a live civics education class every single day since June of 2015. I can’t believe that there are more people engaged and interested in voting in the midterms than ever since 1966. In 1966, the midterm was so important because that was when President [Lyndon] Johnson was increasing the number of troops in Vietnam. So something is happening out there.

Democrats have registered a ton of new voters. New voters, usually, always vote. Republicans are energized and in this last four weeks, the president’s numbers have improved. Republicans have closed the gap with some of these Democrats that are running for re-election in the Senate. One of the things I’m thinking about is that I was at the White House in 2006 when we lost the majority and our workload changed dramatically. If the House does go to the Democrats, there’s going to be a lot of changes.

One of the changes -- Matt, keep an eye on this -- is that we drove the news from the White House every day from January of 2001 until the day after the midterms in 2006, when everything shifted -- not only to the 2008 presidential elections, where a lot of media focus went -- but also a lot of the reporting was coming out of Capitol Hill, not the White House. That was quite dramatic for everybody involved, so I’m looking forward to it. The other thing that happens at midnight on Nov. 6 this year is the starting pistol for 2020. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually looking forward to the election.

All right, well now I have to ask you: Why?

Because I feel like I learned more about how to cover elections, how to do so in a variety of ways to use my expertise that I had the benefit of getting during my White House years to explain to our viewers what I think is going on. And Fox viewers, they trust us. They want to hear from us, and we work hard to try to make sure we get it right. I had a trip I was supposed to take this weekend, that got canceled because of bad weather. I’m kind of relieved because I have so much reading to do.

We have an obligation to try to be our best on election night. Actually, in 2016, by the end of it, I was exhausted. I literally felt like I had nothing left to give and it’s taken me until now, to feel re-energized and I think, “Wow. This is going to be amazing.” It’s a great time to be in news and I’m really grateful not only that I have a chance to do these shows, but that someone like you would be willing or interested enough to call me and get my thoughts on things. So I appreciate it.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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