April Ryan Reminisces About Sam Donaldson’s Voice

Reflects on Clinton, Bush presidencies.

At the Washington Women Technology Network breakfast on Tuesday, April Ryan and Tammy Haddadtwo big names in the DC media, sat down for a quick chat.

Ryana White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, reflected on her experience as a member of the White House press corps, reminisced over the career of Sam Donaldson, and reviewed race relations under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama — which she chronicles in her new book, “The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America

FBDC caught up with Ryan yesterday to get the inside scoop on transparency issues among presidents, their relationship with the press, and Sam Donaldson‘s booming voice — among other things.

“I miss Sam Donaldson,” Ryan told FBDC. ” I worked with him for a short period of time during the Clinton years.  Sam was from the old school. He used his vocal abilities to out shout others with questions to the President. His voice carried his questions with force across the largest spaces.  He out shouted most journalists.  Unfortunately some of the new breed of journalists at the White House frown upon that Sam Donldson example. When did we change?  Why did we change?  I miss Sam Donaldson for his lead in how Presidents could not side step our questions.”

Ryan also discussed the diverse personalities of the 42nd- 44th presidents and how that impacted their relationship with reporters:

“When it comes to covering President Clinton, it was different from today.  President Clinton walked around the White House with less restriction of proximity to the press.   I would run into the 42nd President in my travels in the Press area. We would talk for short periods about news stories or any subject that came to mind.  I remember he liked to laugh and I will never forget a joke I told him he could not stop laughing and remembered it.  I clearly remember it was during impeachment time when he offered up that huge belly hugging laugh.  The connections ultimately lead to a soul food dinner with black reporters and President Clinton.  The menu included garlic fried chicken, chitterlings, potatoes salad and collard greens.  The President ate it on the same fork.  We spent hours at that dinner table talking in that off the record session.   Staff ultimately had to pull him out of the event as he would have stayed much longer than 11:30 pm. He was and still is very personable and relatable. I know it was my audience that garnered me the most radio interviews than any other reporter, but I do believe at some point it goes beyond audience to likability. I think my numerous interviews included that formula of audience and likability.

When it comes to George W. Bush, he was a President who was much different than his public perceptions. He was a man who believed in the umbrella of inclusion as his administration and party counted the black vote as a loss.  While he wanted inclusion the President was also clear in his dislike of affirmative action or preferences.  That was exampled in the University of Michigan Amicus Brief.  One of the big issues for me as a reporter during those years was that the Bush Administration did not promote one of the greatest achievements of his presidency.  President Bush was named the President who did the most for Africa. Also if the administration had put in the equity in the black community, the Katrina would not have been as devastating.  The White House would not step in due to the Republican ideas on States Rights.

With all this said, on the hand, I found President Bush personally welcoming and encouraging. I remember one East Room Press Conference when we stood for his entrance into the East Room.   President Bush walked in. My back was facing him and he tapped me as he walked in jokingly. Other reporters saw it.  He was so human to me, a real person who could laugh and deal with serious issues at the same time.  George W. Bush in a lot of ways is just as gregarious as Bill Clinton.  He was even engaging on issues of race.  We discussed issues of the McCain/Obama match up where we talked of “subtle and overt” racism.  He also marked the occasion of President Obama becoming the nations first black president with a raise the roof gesture to me in the french doors of the Oval Office before his Rose Garden speech.  President Bush, I believed stayed out of the debate on Obama policy and actions for this President as he knew enough of the chattering class would be against him.  I also believe Bush understands race plays a part in some of the attacks against Obama.  This is the George W. Bush I saw and still see. For me it was fitting to see President Bush in Selma, Alabama.  I was told he did not want to speak but wanted to be there at the invitation of Congressman John Lewis. I was personally happy to see the Bushes there, but I was not surprised.”