September 23, 2018

WANG | Right or Wrong, April Ryan doesn’t Hold Back

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“Mr. President, are you a racist?”

It took six years and a group of the world’s most brilliant scientists to develop a nuke that would bring the world to a halt. As it is, it only took April Ryan five words to have the same effect.

Let’s set it up. The day of April Ryan’s question had been rather a tumultuous for the president. The day before, he had been reported as to calling Haiti and El Salvador “shithole countries,” which was rather unfortunate for his now exhausted public relations team, outrageous to just about anyone else outside the GOP, and rather hilarious to the rapidly growing sadist population in the country. How could he say that? Said one contingent of the nation. How could he not? responded the other. Donald Trump was right. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue right now, and his base would still support him. He is, by any means, the walking Teflon Don — whatever he says, just rolls right off him. News networks were harsh, and rushed in; Don Lemon even so much as denounced his words as racist. But it seemed like with any incident with this President, it would just roll right under the rug.

So I doubt even Trump was prepared for the query that was waiting for him the next day. After signing a proclamation that honored Martin Luther King Jr., he got up to leave the room, hopefully without any more controversy. Instead, Ryan, the White House correspondent for Urban Radio Networks and a CNN contributor, led with her infamous question. The room might as well have imploded.

Was it rather rude? Perhaps. As considerate people in society, there’s certain terms we hesitate to lob around. Racist is one of them. Being called one is a death sentence during a time when diversity is celebrated. Most people don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Then again, Donald Trump isn’t most people.

Unsurprisingly, the President simply walked out of the press room, and pretended not to hear, even as the entire room paused for a gasp to give him the chance to respond. The question was left unanswered, hanging in the balance, waiting to be answered never. It was the West Wing version of a cliffhanger.

So Ryan didn’t get her answer, but the answer never mattered; it was the sheer directness of the question that stole the moment. And for some reporters in a different, happier time, it would have ended their career just like that. But instead, it’s pretty much reinvigorated her in the past few months, and launched her as one of the leading faces of the resistance in the White House. She is, by my admittedly uncultured viewpoint, now one of the most famous African American women in the country, and her star is such that, as she settled in for a talk last Thursday at Klarman Hall at Cornell, the crowd was packed full to the back, with a majority holding copies of her book Under Fire waiting to be signed. I was one of them, and we waited eagerly for her talk. We cheered as she was called up to speak, and clapped when she got on stage.

And then she unleashed.

Not angrily, though. She spent the evening in a tongue in cheek mode. She cracked jokes, told tales from her childhood, all the while pretty much declaring total war on the administration, criticizing it for the lack of transparency and increasingly rare press briefings. In career spanning four administrations, from Clinton to Trump, she reiterated she had never experienced such a dry spell in exposure to the administration. But she said it with a smile and a tense look in eyes, as if she was pretty much resigned to her fate. During most of the talk, she was level headed, reasonable and dominating all at one. She preached centeredness, and bashed partisanship, even if she was easily the most aggressive centrist I have ever encountered.

But she did get too far ahead at some points. At one moment, she insinuated the President has lost his mental capacity, which is a far more controversial claim than of him being a racist, and backed up with far less evidence. At the next, she vigorously pushed the unblemished virtues and level-headedness of the press, which I find a bit much. The press, through its roundabout breathless coverage of Trump in order to chase ratings, gave him the platform that launched him to be a front runner in the election.

In that sense, times have changed. There’s a sad tinge of nostalgia that reverberated around her talk. The Press Room has become more docile as her persona has become more inflamed, and stalwarts in the White House Press corps such as Helen Thomas, the famous antagonist and bane of many press secretaries, have faded away. Ryan, funnily enough, admiringly mentioned Thomas as an almost sort of predecessor in her speech, touting her brashness, directness and ability to get her questions across no matter how unpleasant or brute. It’s at this point my eyebrows went up as far as they went, because I was pretty sure this was the same Helen Thomas who more or less said Israelis should “get out of Palestine” and “go home” to Germany, Poland and the USA. There’s brashness, and then there’s recklessness, and in that instant, Ryan made the leap to the latter.

So it doesn’t surprise me when even her colleagues who very much agree with her call her brash, and her style is a little much even for them. They respect her, and admire her, but there is a certain amount of tension there.

So who is April Ryan? By the end of her speech, she’s laid it out. She is who she is, just like the President is who he is. She seeks the lean truth, for us, the country, and for her, the reporter.

I think a picture best captures her current predicament. Flip to the cover of her new book, which is remarkably stark and grim. She’s sitting in the White House Press room, wearing a drab blazer and a rather fed up expression, holding up her hand, and waiting to be called upon. Then look around; the chairs are empty, left vacant. And I think that sums up the current state of April Ryan. She is neither leader nor sycophant, neither infallible hero nor irredeemable villain.

She’s simply alone.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com.