Dana Perino returns

Before the plane ever lifted into the dark skies over Virginia, Dana Perino was fast asleep.

It was Inauguration night, and she had boarded the plane with her husband, Peter, a British businessman she’d met — “It was love at first sight,” she says — on an airplane 12 years before. Perino, 36, spent Jan. 20 closing out her life as the White House press secretary. She turned in her BlackBerry and cell phone. She said goodbye to her boss, President Bush, and first lady Laura Bush at Andrews Air Force Base.

The trip overseas was long overdue. She felt it was time for her to reconnect with her husband, whom she hadn’t seen much of in the seven years she had worked at the Justice Department and the White House. He traveled internationally for business; her hours were long.

Reconnecting wasn’t strained.

“It was totally easy, which speaks well of our relationship,” she said.

The two recently returned from a six-week vacation, two weeks of it spent at an AIDS center near Cape Town, South Africa, funded heavily by a program Bush created called PEPFAR, which stands for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

At a Starbucks on Capitol Hill, the pretty blond flack with the distinctive blue eyes looked tranquil, though she admitted to feeling jetlagged. For a woman accustomed to a strict dress code of suits on weekdays, she had a properly relaxed look; she wore jeans, a navy-and-cream turtleneck and patent leather black flats. She’d be the one in the orange coat, said the woman who has appeared on TV too many times to count.

(Even the ambassador to Botswana recognized her in their travels to South Africa.)

The couple flew to Scotland, where Peter’s daughter from his first marriage lives with 2-year-old twin girls. Next it was on to a safari and wine country in South Africa, a place her husband considers among his favorites on Earth. They finished their trip volunteering at Living Hope, a faith-based center that receives 52 percent of its funding from the U.S. federal government.

The experience was a world away from Washington. Perino said the question she received most toward the end of the Bush administration was, “What’s next?” It became an obsession for her, but one she couldn’t afford to think about because it would mean “taking her eye off the ball.”

In Africa, all worries vanished: “No BlackBerry, no cell phone, no demands. So I didn’t sit around and think about myself all the time.”

Instead, at the clinic, Perino went into the women’s ward. At first she thought, “Why do they want to open up and talk to me? Who am I?”

But she sat with them, changed their beds. She read to them from her Barbara Kingsolver book despite the language barrier. She polished their nails and they began to open up and tell her of the hardships in their lives. While some are surviving AIDS, living on anti-retroviral drugs funded by the Bush plan, many won’t live long and are at the center for hospice care.

Perino met a woman there called Khumi, the mother of two sets of twins, who was near death from AIDS when she was referred to Living Hope. She had said goodbye to her children, thinking she was going to die. The doctor at the center put her on the drugs. Miraculously, she responded and slowly began going to sewing classes in her nightgown. Today she teaches the sewing classes at Living Hope and has a business selling bags.

“This is why I come here, to feel something beyond the statistics,” said Perino, stressing that there is “still a stigma about AIDS. In South Africa it’s still secretive. You don’t want to let anyone know you have it.”

Before she left, the women on the ward got together and wrote her a thank-you letter. Perino was beyond touched. “I felt that I had gotten a little bit hard-edged,” she said of her time in the White House. “I’m not naturally a confrontational person.”

At the clinic, she says, “My heart got burst wide open.”

The White House job took a toll.

For the past four and a half years she had worked on the firing line as Bush’s spokeswoman. She first went to work for the administration at the Department of Justice in 2001, then moved to the White House in January 2005 to work under Scott McClellan, who left in 2006.

As part of the job, she developed a routine: Each day she woke at 4:30 a.m. Answering e-mails began at 5:20 a.m. She was at the office, prepped by the time her boss arrived each morning at 6:45. On most days, she didn’t return home until 7 or 8 p.m.

“It was an amazing experience physically,” she says. “I don’t think there was much left to give. My sleep definitely deteriorated over time because you never turn off. No one ever stops.”

Even her arms and thumbs began hurting due to BlackBerry use.

But she has no regrets: “That’s the privilege that comes with the responsibility.”

This week Perino delivers her first speech since being back. Getting used to her own voice could feel strange, she admits, after being the mouthpiece for someone else for so long.

She hasn’t finalized her next career move. But she is here in Washington to stay, with more volunteer work in her future.

“I only skimmed the surface,” she said of her time in South Africa.

Though no longer Bush’s spokeswoman, she couldn’t help sounding like it as she spoke of the program he created, saying, “We should feel really good about what America is doing there, because people are getting some hope.”

A note on Bush’s legacy: “I feel good about the office I ran and I think over time history will be a better judge than people can be in contemporary times.”