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How Anita Dunn broke the professional mold created by men

Senior White House advisor Anita Dunn is one of the few people in history to be in the inner circle of two presidential campaigns, and two administrations: President Barack Obama, and now President Joe Biden. Dunn reminisces with CNN's Dana Bash about what it was like going into work more than 40 years ago as an intern during Jimmy Carter's administration.

Posted: Aug 8, 2021 9:18 AM


More than 40 years ago, Anita Dunn was walking into the White House as an intern in then-President Jimmy Carter's administration.

"I'd walk over here," she said in an interview with CNN last week, pointing to the iconic White House gate, "and tourists would stop, looking at me, and I'd be thinking, 'I'm not actually important.'"

She is now.

Dunn is a senior White House adviser, and is one of the few people to be in the inner circle of two presidential campaigns, and two administrations: Barack Obama's and Joe Biden's.

She said when coming into the White House this time around that it would only be temporary -- to help address the Covid-19 crisis -- and she is planning to return to her consulting firm, SKDK, this month.

Looking back at her 20-year-old self, a college student interning for Carter chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, Dunn said she did actually imagine herself climbing the ranks to the heights of Democratic politics, despite the fact that she had so few female role models back then.

"I grew up one of three daughters with parents who basically raised us to be successes," she explained.

Trailblazing and strategizing for women

After Dunn worked on former astronaut and Ohio Sen. John Glenn's presidential campaign, as a junior staffer, she said she vowed not to return to presidential politics until she had the power to push back on things she didn't agree with.

"I made the decision that the next time I wanted to work on a presidential campaign, I was going to be at the table," she said. "So I didn't work on campaigns until I was at a point where that's where my seat was."

The first time that happened for Dunn at a presidential level was as a top aide to former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's 2000 campaign.

But Dunn earned her chops as a Democratic political operative working on Capitol Hill and as a consultant on countless congressional campaigns.

In the 1996 election, when Dunn was pregnant with her son, she says getting hired to work on campaigns was suddenly more difficult. At meeting after meeting, male candidates would look at her in shock "coming down the stairs in my most pregnant self."

That year, only female candidates hired her.

After that, Dunn said she made a point of trying to break the professional mold that was created by men -- to be at the office during certain hours and to share the same priorities.

"I wanted people to know I was a mom. I talked openly about 'I'm not going to be in, or I can't be on that call,'" she remembered.

Taking that stance in 1996 was risky. But worth it, she said, to start to change the boys club of Democratic politics.

"If you have senior women, who are openly talking about their children and the time they're going to set aside for their children," she explained, "it gives other women permission."

After years of working to build a pipeline for women in politics, Dunn now works in a White House surrounded by a lot of women, many with small children.

"When Biden was looking for a campaign manager for his general election, by far the consensus of best fit was a woman, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon," she recalled.

Dunn said picking O'Malley Dillon wasn't about, "'Oh, we need a woman. We don't have enough women,' but, 'Who is the best person? Who's by far the consensus superstar that we have to go get?'"

Be decisive; paralysis kills

Dunn is widely credited with turning around the Biden primary campaign after devastating losses in the first two contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. (Though ever the loyal staffer, she demurred on this point, saying it was all about the candidate, not her).

Her approach to helping manage campaigns is grounded in a simple notion: be decisive.

"At the end of the day, it's about setting priorities and not being scared to make decisions," Dunn said of her political strategy. "If you don't make decisions, you're going to waste resources, you're going to waste time, and those are two things on a campaign that you can't afford to waste."

Having worked on six presidential campaigns over the course of her career, her insight is pointed.

"If you make a mistake, fix it, move on," she declared. "There are people who are paralyzed about making a mistake, and in politics one of the worst things you can do is allow yourself to get paralyzed, and it's bad for the entire organization."

A hallmark of Dunn's work ethic is working silently and out of sight, something she says she picked up as a young staffer. When she started in politics more than two decades ago, political aides were neither seen nor heard in public.

"The staff is not supposed to be the story," she explained. "The candidate is."

"Everything I do is always going to be in the service of the person I'm working for and further their interests," Dunn said.

Along with her fierce loyalty, Dunn is known to hold grudges.

"I have gotten that reputation," she conceded. "I think those people who have worked with me will tell you that I'm actually a pretty nice person who does forgive and I move on."

"In politics, it is important sometimes for people to understand that there are lines they should not cross," she added.

Did she want to give an example?

"No," she answered firmly, but with a smile.

We talked the day after New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report on her office's investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, finding that he had harassed current and former state employees, as well as a number of women outside of state government. The report details the allegations of 11 women claiming harassment.

Having spent the last 45 years of her life working as a woman in politics, Dunn said reading the report was "painful."

"You and I were on Capitol Hill for a long time," she said to me. "We've seen the power of relationships that can exist in politics," she said, pausing for a moment.

"Reading about the experiences those 11 women had gone through -- it felt like 45 years of watching America, in many respects."

Joe Biden's Democratic Party

We sat down with Dunn after results came in from a special congressional election in Ohio, where progressive favorite Nina Turner lost to the establishment candidate, Shontel Brown.

That, combined with recent wins of more moderate Democratic candidates in Virginia's gubernatorial and New York City's mayoral primaries, is proof, Dunn argued, that the party is more aligned with Biden's politics than some of the progressives who toppled veteran Democrats in 2018 and 2020.

"Democratic Party and Democratic primary voters (made) a decision in February and March of 2020 about who they thought was the strongest candidate to beat Donald Trump, but more importantly, to lead the Democratic Party into the future. And what you have seen throughout the special elections of 2021 is a Democratic Party that is affirming Joe Biden and his vision, but also the Biden agenda," Dunn said.

She was careful to call progressive voices "important" in the Democratic Party. "But if you look at the results, it's very clear that the Democratic Party as a whole is one that cares a great deal about making sure the wealthiest pay their fair share, making sure that we invest in families, making sure that we invest in the kinds of jobs that are going to help this economy grow. And actually that goes across the moderate and the progressive parts of this party," she added.

Sponsorship, not mentorship

Dunn is known to have an open door policy for people who want advice or need a "wailing wall," but said being a mentor isn't her thing.

"I'm not a big believer in mentorship, although I'm happy to mentor anybody who wants to walk through my door to get some advice," she added. "I'm a huge believer in sponsorship."

The difference?

"Mentorship is, 'I'm happy to give you advice. I'm happy to be your sounding board," she explained. "Sponsorship -- it's a very active role in somebody's career. It's not just, 'I'm going to give you advice, but I'm going to actively promote you. I'm going to make phone calls to look for openings. When I see an opening, I'm going to push you for that opening.'"

No longer the token woman

"My first ambition was to be a sportscaster," Dunn said, walking outside the West Wing.

Though she may not have lived that dream, Dunn -- a Washington Nationals fan -- said her love of sports has helped her in unexpected ways. When she was the only woman at the table, she could talk sports with the men.

"Edward Bennett Williams once said that for people who are competitive, there are only three professions as an adult," she said, referring to the late Washington trial lawyer who owned the Baltimore Orioles.

"There is professional sports, which I was not an athlete. There's the law," she added, but "I decided not to become a lawyer, or politics -- and I'm a very competitive person, Dana, so I ended up in politics."

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