WASHINGTON—As President Bush puts the finishing touches on his second-term team, one of the most powerful—and purposely least known—White House figures in the effort is a 31-year-old, Egyptian-born woman who is the administration’s chief headhunter and recruiter.
Dina Powell, assistant to the president for presidential personnel, may be the most important White House aide who is rarely photographed, and that’s how she likes it.
Keenly aware that her job requires an under-the-radar approach to publicity, Powell declines most interviews as she goes about the business of recruiting hundreds of political appointees for the administration—including high-profile Cabinet officials and members of obscure commissions.
In a rare interview, Powell talked about the challenges of assembling a team to advance the interests of a president who has made it clear he has grand ambitions for his second term.
“When I recruit people I say, ‘You don’t want to be on the sidelines when the president accomplishes the agenda he was reelected on,’ “ she said. “And I tell them, ‘When that’s happening, you want to be on his team.’”
Bush is involved in selecting members of his senior leadership team, she said. “We make the recommendations, the president makes the decisions.”
Noting a record of diversity among Bush’s top appointments, Powell points with pride to the recent White House recruitment of Kellogg Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Carlos M. Gutierrez as Commerce secretary. She revels in his career trajectory, from selling Frosted Flakes to running the company.
“It says so much about the individual and about America,” she said. “Our country is a meritocracy.”
She should know. Powell, the youngest person ever to hold her job, is an immigrant and the highest-ranking Middle Eastern American in the White House.
Born Dina Habib, she came to the U.S. from Egypt at age 4 with two parents who had dreams for her and her younger sister. They settled in Dallas near her grandmother, Nora, whom she adored. Powell learned English. She noticed that the other kids brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch while she and her sister brought moussaka. The family all became naturalized citizens.