Magazine | May 4, 2015, Issue

Way to Live

And the Good News Is . . . : Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side, by Dana Perino (Twelve, 256 pp., $26)

‘Strength and gentleness go hand in hand.” That’s one of the lessons Dana Perino learned from her grandfather early on, living the ranching life in Wyoming. Her new book is a mix of memoir, snapshots from history, and thanksgiving. She’s a woman with a generous heart for mentoring, and she explains what moved her to write the book: “I believe that anyone who has achieved some success is obligated to help others do the same.”

The former White House press secretary offers a fair bit of “pent-up advice,” including seemingly lost habits of etiquette, such as “When in doubt, send a thank-you note.” Perino doubles down on common sense and human decency throughout the book. The best advice she ever got from President George W. Bush, she says, was about forgiveness. When former White House press secretary Scott McClellan wrote a bitter memoir of his time in the administration, Bush told her, “I’d like you to try to forgive him.” She relates what Bush said when she protested: “No buts. I don’t want you to live bitterly like he is. Nobody will remember this book three weeks from now. And we can’t let a book like this take us away from the important work we have to do here on behalf of the American people.”

There is freedom in forgiveness, she writes. And it was a “blessing to have the President of the United States be the one to remind me.”

Writing about off-camera moments with the president, she includes heartbreaking scenes with men wounded in war. In some cases, families were overjoyed that the president would make the time for them; in others, they were furious. “One mom and dad of a dying soldier from the Caribbean were devastated,” she writes about a Bush visit to Walter Reed, and the mother was “beside herself with grief.” She yelled at President Bush, “wanting to know why it was her child and not his who lay in the hospital bed.” The president, she writes, “was not in a hurry to leave — he tried offering comfort but then just stood and took it, like he expected and needed to hear the anguish, to try to soak up some of her suffering if he could.”

Perspective is a large part of this book. So is humor, of a sort that will be especially, but far from exclusively, appreciated by fans of the Fox News show The Five, of which she is a co-host.

Perino also makes a plea for civility. “Without some basic manners, we’re doomed,” she writes. “There’s no hope of reaching agreement if we can’t even talk to each other.” The seemingly utter breakdown in civility is actually her one big bit of bad news. Her concern flows from the heart of the book: gratitude.

“For a country so blessed,” Perino writes, “America sure can argue a lot. We’ve gone from being the confident leader of the free world to bickering about every living thing under the sun.” Civility is her rallying cry here. “The scathing language used by many of our elected leaders, candidate hopefuls, and political pundits is beneath them. When did public service turn into a bad episode of Real Housewives?”

In this book, as in her work on The Five, Perino makes clear that she doesn’t “confuse civility with timidity or passivity.” She’s not anti-insults; she just wishes we were more clever about them, crediting the late Ann Richards for wit rather than “schoolyard name-calling.” Hers is a plea for more confident, clarifying debate that doesn’t insist on winning but seeks to persuade and challenges everyone to make a best case with respect. We should seek common ground, she advises, rather than reduce politics to a bloody war zone.

She also offers some advice specifically to fellow conservatives: “If we believe that the conservative approach to governing is superior, then we ought to act like it.”

And the Good News Is . . . is an antidote to despair about politics. It’s a proposal for — and witness to — something better, from someone who has learned along the way and in her gratitude wants to share and help others. It’s a plea for something better. Whether she’s discussing the presidential-primary trail, Twitter, or marriage, she shares the joys and practical benefits of actual human encounter: prioritizing, humility, and encouragement.

Overwhelmed by the over-connectedness online? Go old-school, she suggests: “Choose five people a month who you want to stay connected to (family or friends, colleagues or former bosses) and then send them a personal, handwritten note.” For her, it’s “a holdover tradition from my parents, who made us write letters every week to our grandparents and godparents.”

There’s more of that from the granddaughter of an Italian grandmother who made it to the U.S. in late 1901 with very little English and relied on the kindness of strangers to get her from Ellis Island to her sister’s boarding house in Illinois. The Perino story is a thank-you note to family, faith, and country, with good stories and thoughts worth passing on along the way.

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