Dana Perino had barely unpacked from her latest expedition in life, the time she spent in England after she married a British husband in 1998.
They settled in San Diego, where Perino operated a PR firm. The former congressional aide from Colorado, however, was passionate to be part of the compassionate conservative movement ushered in by the new president, George W. Bush. She had no idea how big a part of politics and news that she would become.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she flipped on the TV and "Good Morning America" appeared/ The channel was still on ABC from the night before, when the Denver Broncos beat the New York Giants on "Monday Night Football."
Her aforementioned husband, Peter McMahon, brought her some morning tea then departed with their dog, Henry, for a walk.
She was still foggy when she saw the flaming skyscraper against the crisp blue sky. At that point in her life, she had never even been to New York City, but she knew the World Trade Center as a symbol of American strength, as most Americans did.
"And then next thing I saw was the second plane hit," she recalled in a recent interview with Colorado Politics.
"I did know that we were being attacked," she continued. "I didn't think it was an accident. I did think it was overseas terrorism."
More Online: Check out ColoradoPolitics.com to hear Dana Perino explain what it means to be a Coloradan
Perino had worked on Capitol Hill in the background for Colorado congressmen, years before she became a history maker there.
She knew about Osama bin Laden, but like most Americans she wasn't paying attention closely enough. Consider, she pointed out, that bin Laden came up in none of the three presidential debates the year before between two men whose future would be shaped, if not redefined, by the coming war on terror, like hers.
A month later, the president would offer clarity in a speech to the nation, which Perino still recalls verbatim.
"We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail," Bush said on Oct. 8, 2001, from the Treaty Room of the White House. "Peace and freedom will prevail."
Two days after the attack, Perino called her D.C. friend Mindy Tucker, who was working for Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Tucker asked her if she was willing to move to Washington, D.C, "in the aftermath of all of this," to do media for the Justice Department.
"I started packing while we were on the phone," Perino recalled. "And I left. I never went back to that house in San Diego. Peter packed up the house and we moved."
Stepping in under fire
She moved from the Justice Department to the White House September of 2002 to represent the White House Council on Environmental Quality, then in January 2005, Bush chief of staff Andy Card asked her to join the White House press office.
"I remember Andy Card talking about integrity and reminding me that we didn't just work for George W. Bush," she said. "We worked for the people of the United States, and we did not work with the Republican Party."
Long days, explosions of stress and a rotten diet caught up with her by 2007. She planned to tell Ed Gillespie, the president's adviser, that she was done, but when they met he spoke first and told her the president would like her to be his press secretary, taking over for Tony Snow, who was dying from colon cancer.
Between 2007 and the end of the administration in 2009, Perino served as the 24th White House press secretary, the first Republican woman and only the the second female in history to serve in the role, following Dee Dee Myers, the press secretary for Bill Clinton.
"I made a commitment to myself to always say a prayer of gratitude when I walked into the West Wing at the White House ... for strength and support in order to make sure I was doing the best that I could possibly do on behalf of the American people," Perino said.
"That's how President Bush really lived his life. That's how he really dealt with his presidency. That was foremost at the top of his mind. And he expected that from us, as well."
As they gathered at the microphone, an Iraqi journalist threw both his shoes at the American president. Security rushed in, and a scrum ensued. Perino got a black eye when she was hit in the face by a microphone boom.
“President Bush was adamant that that press conference would go on," she recalled. "He said, ‘You cannot let a two-bit terrorist, throwing shoes, prevent democracy from being able to happen.'”
Reporters were still rattled when the president, who ducked the flying footwear, twice, pointed to an Iraqi reporter and said, "Ask your question."
Immediately after, Perino said Bush took the shoe photo bomber in stride, saying people express themselves in a lot of different ways.
"If you looked, those Iraqis that day had their new shiny journalism equipment," Perino said. "He said to me, ‘Do you think when they were kids that they ever imagined they would be able to be journalists, and they would get to ask the leader of the free world and their leader any question they want? There's power in that.'"
A changed world
The former president was a surprise guest who spoke glowingly of his aide when spoke at the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas in 2015.
She was there to talk about her new, well-received book "And the Good News is ... (Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side).
“She had to put a bright face on things," Bush told the auditorium crowd. "She had a difficult job, defending me.”
The audience laughed, but last month Perino disagreed. She called it an honor.
She always kept it mind, she said, it was not her job to have an opinion or engage grandstanding reporters. Her job was to provide facts to the American people through a constitutionally sacred free press.
"Back then I would spend about 50% of my time defending the president, but the other 50% of my time defending the press' right to have access to information and to the president himself. And I think that was the right formula for me."
Bush, too, respected the role of press. “We want them to be aggressive," he said in Dallas in 2015. "We want a fierce and vibrant press corps to hold people like me to account.”
Perino doesn't speak comfortably about Donald Trump, adeptly steering her answers to broader, safer grounds. Trump had little in common with his shoe-dodging GOP predecessor, who tolerated no critics and called any information he didn't like "fake news," assessing journalists as "the enemy of the people."
Reminded of the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump's day-to-day tone, she still believes compassionate conservatism is strong.
"I actually think that most conservatives believe that they are compassionate people," she said. "Now, I do think that they might say that over time, politically, they have been targeted as being mean. I would say that in some ways they've walked themselves right into that by language and tone. It matters how you communicate."
She blames social media, especially Twitter, noting she didn't have an account when she left the White House 12 years ago.
That doesn't let a reckless press off the hook.
"I've always felt that reporters, especially in the briefing room, they kind of write for each other," she said. "We all do, like you're competitive amongst your peers, but you’re not doing yourself any favors with cute things on Twitter."
The war laid bare America's greatness, at least at that moment in history.
"I think that one of the things that is really important as you go back to that first day of 9/11, and with President Bush saying that we didn't ask for this war, but we would win it," she said.
"... But we also have this ideological struggle. And he would explain that it's going to take at least a generation, because of all that had happened. I think that the fact that we have not had, thank goodness, a major mass terrorist attack on our soil since shows that we have done some really good things in order to make sure that we have the intelligence, that we need resources and we need the relationships and allies."
The alliance of the global war on terror was strong in the months ahead after 9/11.
"Some of my fondest memories were President Bush's relationships with people like Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi of Japan," Perino said. "And if you think about it, their fathers fought each other in World War II.
"And the first phone call President Bush gets on 9/11 from a world leader was from Prime Minister Koizumi saying, ‘How can we help?’"
The president united the country for a time, but partisanship and a scandal-thirsty press returned and grew only stronger over the next two decades.
"I understand their perspective, one," conceded Perino. "It was on the merits, but two, it was political. That was difficult. I do think that some of our institutions have taken a hit in terms of credibility. If you look at approval ratings for Congress. I think it's even lower than the press, which is really saying something."
Born for the role
She was the president of her senior class at Ponderosa High School in suburban Parker, where, surprise, surprise, she excelled on the speech team.
Her training was bigger than the school bell, though. She credits her father, Leo Perino, a convenience store owner, who taught her to speak her mind with confidence.
It was their thing: Every day she would read the local newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, then that night at dinner, she and her father would discuss it. She sees now that he was teaching her to express and defend her positions, especially against men with more power.
Perino wasn't born to wear a Yale pin on her navy blue lapel. Her family ranched in Wyoming, where she lived until parents moved to Denver when she was 2. Perino received an undergraduate degree in Pueblo at the University of Southern Colorado (she earned a master's degree at the University of Illinois in Springfield, while she was a reporter covering the state Capitol).
She covered the Colorado legislature while she was in school in Pueblo and earned minimum wage playing country music on Y96.9 from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
She decided news wasn't for her in graduate school, where the TV station where she was working assigned her to interview the mother of a murdered 2-year-old.
This past February, she broke down and cried during an "America's Newsroom" segment she expected to be about ending cash bonds for relatively minor offenses, an issue Democrats in Colorado and other states are pressing. Perino became tearful as a domestic violence survivor from Illinois explained how her estranged husband beat her in front of their children, before he shot and killed their 18-month-old son and himself in 2019, after being released while he was free on a no-cash bond.
She told co-anchor Trace Gallagher after she composed herself, "I don't think I've ever cried on TV. That was really hard.”
She went on to say, “I understand that there is concern that cash bail has hurt segments of the population, that there's concern that minorities are hurt more. But we also have to think about these victims."
Look back to look ahead
Perino was there when the nation went into Afghanistan, a distraction that contributed to Osama Bin Laden remaining alive and free for another decade.
The pullout from Afghanistan, a war her boss started, has become a political land mine for the current Democratic officeholder. President Trump made a deal with the Taliban last year to pull out if the Taliban promised not to harbor terrorists, as it had done for Osama bin Laden. Trump wanted to hold peace talks with Taliban leaders at Camp David, which never materialized.
President Bush and the former first lady issued a statement about the so-far-calamitous pullout, partially lamenting the long war on terror since 9/11. He spoke directly to those who served it.
"Many of you deal with wounds of war, both visible and invisible," according to the statement. "And some of your brothers and sisters in arms made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror. Each day, we have been humbled by your commitment and your courage. You took out a brutal enemy and denied Al Qaeda a safe haven while building schools, sending supplies, and providing medical care. You kept America safe from further terror attacks, provided two decades of security and opportunity for millions, and made America proud. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts and will always honor your contributions.
"In times like these, it can be hard to remain optimistic. Laura and I will steadfastly remain so."
The Washington Post's investigative "Afghanistan Papers" laid bare the Bush administration's failings from the start.
"Those running the war said they struggled to answer even basic questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? And, how will we know when we have won?" the paper explained.
The aspirations were higher.
In that Benghazi press conference, when Perino got a black eye, Bush said, "Right after the attacks I made it abundantly clear that we would bring people to justice for our own security; and made it abundantly clear that if a group of people harbored a terrorist, they were equally as guilty as a terrorist. And we gave the Taliban an opportunity to respond. They didn't. And American troops proudly liberated the people of Afghanistan."
Asked to analyze what's transpired in Afghanistan, Perino pivoted to the current president and the chaotic pullout under way.
"In the coming investigations, the American people will eventually get answers to questions about how the Biden administration mismanaged the withdrawal from Afghanistan," she said. "It is important for the record, accountability and to avoid another such scenario in the future.
"The most important thing for the wellbeing of our nation is for terrorists to be denied a safe haven to plot and plan attacks. This is what happened 20 years ago when nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens were killed by al Qaeda terrorists. We have, unfortunately, been warned."
Looking back and looking ahead, she remains an optimist and a patriot.
"In America, there's so much good here and so much potential," Perino said. "We have big problems that we need to solved, and in some ways it feels like the Congress and our government has grown to a point where you can't actually solve a lot of problems."