The US Presidency in black and white

Written by Sebastian Whale on 7 July 2015 in Culture
Culture
White House correspondent April Ryan discusses her new book on race in American politics and dealing with three presidents  

 “Look at how beautiful that statue is. This place is ornate and gorgeous,” says April Ryan, pivoting on the spot as she surveys the grandiose decor of the House of Lords.

It is the first time the American journalist has visited London. Her entourage includes her host, Liberal Democrat peer Tom McNally, who escorts Ryan around Parliament to various engagements.

A near 20-year veteran of the White House Press Corps, Ryan has written a book focusing on her experiences reporting on three presidents for American Urban Radio Networks.

Ryan took over as White House correspondent for AURN in 1997. Her urban America remit has seen her take consecutive presidents to task over race relations in a country so often plagued by its lamentable historical record on the matter.

After her tour of the Lords, Ryan sits down with TP. Reviewing her relationship with the presidents’, she says Clinton was extremely welcoming and open to discussions on race and even accepted Ryan’s invite to a soul food evening in 1998.

She also claims to have discussed race relations “honestly, in very real terms” with Bush.

“I have enjoyed all three of them as people. We have had very good relationships and I guess because I’m the only doing what I do I stand out,” she adds.

Her book contains uncomfortable anecdotes of racially charged incidents that the African American journalist has experienced during her years covering the White House.

One such example is when the Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki paid a state visit to the US in 2003.

Unbeknownst to her, Ryan had been seated alongside the travelling Kenyan press pack, while her American comrades were sat on opposing sides of the conference room.

“They thought they were doing me a favour,” Ryan says. It was later revealed that White House officials positioned Ryan with Kenyan journalists so Kibaki was more likely to ask her a question.

“I understand what they thought, but it just didn’t work out well. The President [Bush] was like ‘what?’ He called it out live, there’s a transcript - it was kind of embarrassing.

“Even some of the White House correspondents were wondering what’s going on… they were just flabbergasted,” she adds.

In a separate occurrence, Ryan was left stunned when Bush’s spokesman Tony Snow, during his first briefing with the press, said he did not want to “hug the tar baby” in response to questions on the President’s surveillance programme.

Her incredulity was heightened when an unnamed White House Correspondent consequently told her to “shut up, you tar baby” after she gasped in exasperation.

Both men apologised to Ryan for the offence caused. But do these incidents still occur?

Ryan says that to gain access to the President there is “always going to be some bumping of heads”.

She adds: “When I first started… they [fellow journalists] thought I was militant, because at that time you weren’t really hearing a lot of people raising their hand asking about urban issues on a consistent basis.”

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Diversity in the White House Press Corps over Ryan’s 18-year tenure has “gotten worse”, she says, rolling her eyes at the lack of progression inside America’s political media elite. 

Ryan also claims that America’s mainstream media will only confront presidents on racial issues in “crescendo moments”, such as with the Charleston shootings or in the aftermath of the apocalyptic Hurricane Katrina.

“We have always been there and that’s why I have a unique perch because they weren’t always on urban issues,” she says.
“I was on urban issues before Obama came, before we had the first black president. I was on urban issues during Clinton; I was on urban issues during George W Bush.

“There are so many different pieces of America that are not always covered or questioned about. We are the first line of questioning an American President, and our questions sometimes changes policy, and help fix situations.”

Ryan admits that she often wrestles to remain objective when stories emerge of racial hate crimes.

When Obama said he could have been black teenager Trayvon Martin who was killed by a neighbourhood watch policeman in 2011, Ryan was in the audience.

The journalist, along with the White House press pack, was shocked by the evocative comments.

“I try to really put my thinking cap on and use my journalism hat not deal with the racial component because I am African American, I try to write objectively, and that’s why I get other people to tell me what they think and I don’t put my opinion in there,” she says.

 

Opinion is divided on Obama’s legacy over race relations. He himself said he wanted to be judged by the “contents of my character” not the colour of his skin during his first term in office.

Ryan believes Obama had to be “strategic” in office to secure a second term in 2012 by not antagonising the US public with forthright views on race relations.

“If he had come out being very black the first term – when I say being very black I mean doing the kind of things he’s done now – he probably would not have received a second term. He was being criticised by the far right – Tea Party members and others – and some of it was political and some of it was racial,” she says.

“So, he received that second term, and now he is… African American all the way, he experiences in everything, he’s now letting it all out, he’s telling a story.”

Despite this, in her book Ryan initially gave Obama a lower grade than Clinton in her Presidential report card on tackling race relations in America.

It was only recent rumblings such as his involvement with My Brother’s Keeper, a group formed to promote opportunity for “men of colour”, that prompted Ryan to review her decision.

But will Obama’s legacy go beyond his history defining election as America’s first black President?

Ryan says he will be known as the “Rights President”, following policies such as the Affordable Care Act, endorsement of same sex marriage and highlighting “mistrust” between police and the black community.

“Because he did that, we are now seeing people saying ‘oh wow there’s a problem’. People are seeing the video tapes of these people being hurt, or killed, these black men or black people being killed by excessive force, or what have you. People heard African Americans talk about it before, but now they are actually seeing it,” she adds.

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Turning back to her UK trip, Ryan was buoyed by concerns raised during her meetings with MPs and peers over race relations in response to the South Carolina shootings.

“I talked to the US ambassador and we were having this great conversation and the thing about it is it touches my heart that you’re overseas and people wanted to talk about Charleston, your race... and this is like ‘wow’. When I go back home, I’m going to take that with me,” she says.

Once more surveying the lavish surroundings of the Palace of Westminster, Ryan reflects, “Our democracy is a descendant of your democracy, this is the mother of democracy, and we’re still trying to get it right.”

One thing is for certain, irrespective of context Ryan will continue to hold future Presidents to account on race, without needing the prompt of a crescendo moment to do so.

 

The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

 

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