How President Bush gave me back my relationship with my dad

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Editor’s note: The following column is excerpted from Dana Perino’s new book, “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side.”

Working for the president is amazing not just for the staffers but also for their families. My mom, sister, brother‑in‑law, aunt, and uncle all got to meet President Bush in chance‑of‑a‑lifetime encounters they’ll never forget. The president had an amazing talent to recall stories about our families, because he was very interested in the people who worked for him. And it was because of his interest that he helped repair a relationship in my own family that was very important to me.

I’d personally come to know the president very well because of the travel we did together. As the deputy press secretary, I handled a lot of the evening, weekend, and holiday trips, and that was when we’d talk more casually. The other deputies and I called ourselves the “B team” though he assured us we were his favorites.

One of my first trips was on Marine One when we traveled to an event in rural Virginia for the Boy Scouts Jamboree. Bad weather had kept the president from attending for two days, but on the third night, he insisted he was going and the Secret Service acquiesced and said he could depart.

President Bush knew what he was doing that night, but I’m not sure he understood how much it meant to me.

On the way home, he wanted to share his peanut butter and honey sandwiches with the chief of staff, Andy Card, and me. I declined, not wanting to eat his dinner. But the president said, “Oh come on—have a sandwich.” So I took half and a handful of Sun Chips (no cheddar—he doesn’t like those) and we munched during the ride.

The sun began to set as we left to return to the White House, and we talked just like friends. I loosened up and started chatting. I remember every moment of that ride—including the orange and pink sunset that lasted the entire flight.

The president liked hearing about my family’s Western ranching roots and asked me about my mom, my dad, and my sister. Being an animal lover, he even asked about my family pets, especially my dog, Henry. He was the kind of person you could open up to, dropping any formalities even though he was the commander in chief.

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Eventually over those first months of traveling together, the president heard my story that my parents had divorced in 2000 and that I took it very hard. Even though I was an adult when they split, I still felt somewhat abandoned and alone.

My dad and I had always been very close and had shared a love of political discussion and news consumption, but over the years after I’d moved away and he and my mom broke up, I didn’t see him very often. And at the end of the eight years in the White House, he still had not been to D.C. to visit or seen me brief the press. He’d missed out on the White House magic. I had one last chance to change that.

In the middle of the financial crisis in September 2008, Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy was coming for a dinner at the White House. Mrs. Bush planned a small event and invited me— I was grateful to be included as the Italian Americans would be there in force. I almost always took my husband to those events— he loved everything about the White House and would get emotionally patriotic, but this time I had another idea. I decided to invite my dad to the dinner, but I prepared myself that he might not accept. To my surprise, he did, so Peter arranged the flights and rented him a tux. It would be my dad’s first black tie event.

I didn’t tell the president that my dad was coming. He had so much on his mind that small talk and dinner parties were not something I wanted to bring up. But he’d noticed that my dad was on the guest list when he and Mrs. Bush were looking over it one morning before we headed out for an event.

I was already seated on Marine One when the president came out of the Diplomatic Reception Room. There were lots of people cheering for him as he walked on the lawn and boarded the chopper. As he sat down, he looked out the window and waved at the crowd.

Without looking at me, he said, “So Mrs. Bush and I were working on the seating chart for the Berlusconi dinner, and I see you’ve invited your dad to the White House.”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“That’s a big deal,” he said, still waving to the crowd.

“Yes, sir. It’s a pretty big deal,” I said quietly. We sat in silence for a few moments.

Marine One had lifted off the ground, and then, just as we were passing the Washington Monument, the president looked me right in the eye and said, “And I am so proud of you.”

He could really capture a moment, and he didn’t try to rush emotions. He let them sit. I was touched the president knew what it meant to me and that, despite all he had going on, he knew that telling me he was proud was the most valuable thing I could hear. That would have been enough for me, but the best part was yet to come.

The night of the dinner arrived. I was trying to contain my excitement to show my dad everything all at once, so I played it cool— like it was perfectly normal to roam the halls of the White House.

The first person we saw was Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He gave me a huge hug. Then there were Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Sam Alito. General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was also there. They were giving me all sorts of praise in front of my dad, and I think it was a bit overwhelming for him. I know it was for me.

We joined the line to be announced to the President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary Rice, and Prime Minister Berlusconi. Before the military escort could announce us, however, President Bush said, “Oh, I know who this is! LEO PERINO! We have been looking forward to your visit for years! Have you met Condi . . .”

And then the president took my dad off my hands and started showing him around. My dad and I weren’t seated together for the dinner, so I just trusted he was fine. Thoughtfully, Mrs. Bush had sat him next to other Wyomingites, the Cheneys.

The White House Chef, working closely with Anita McBride, the first lady’s chief of staff, served squash soup, artichoke ravioli, and lamb with crispy eggplant and chard. The dessert was special: a chocolate napoleon called the Santa Maria.

At the end of the evening as we walked out of the White House, I tried to gauge my dad’s reaction. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” I said.

“It sure is . . .” replied my dad, a bit of wonder in his voice as we drove away. The White House magic had worked its spell once more.

President Bush knew what he was doing that night, but I’m not sure he understood how much it meant to me. I had started reading the papers with my dad when I was in third grade, when the White House seemed so far away. And yet there we were, dressed in formal attire at an intimate evening in the State Dining Room as guests of the president and first lady of the United States. That night President Bush gave me back my relationship with my dad, an invaluable gift for which I am very grateful.

This column is excerpted from the book AND THE GOOD NEWS IS…: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side.” Copyright (c) 2015 by Dana Perino. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Dana Perino currently serves as co-host of FOX News Channel’s “The Five” (weekdays 5-6PM/ET). She previously served as Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. She is the author of the new book “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side” (Twelve, April 21, 2015). Ms. Perino joined the network in 2009 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Dana Perino.