Saturday 21 September 2019

Caitriona Perry on Donald Trump viral incident: 'I was in a lose-lose situation'

Journalist Caitriona Perry made headlines this year when Donald Trump singled her out in the White House. She tells our reporter why she thinks her admirer will last the course

RTE's Caitriona Perry
RTE's Caitriona Perry
Charlie Bird
Richard Downes
Carole Coleman
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It was a moment that Caitriona Perry could hardly have anticipated. Invited into the Oval Office to witness the first call between Donald Trump and the newly-elected Leo Varadkar, RTE's Washington Correspondent suddenly, momentously, found herself the focus of a comment from Trump that would make headlines around the world. It began innocuously enough. Trump told the Taoiseach that: "We have a lot of your Irish press watching us right now." So far, so not an international incident.

Then The Orange One pointed at Perry, beckoning her over. "We have all of this beautiful Irish press," he purred into the phone like a Miss Universe Emcee. Then he asked the 37-year-old Dublin woman: "Where are you from?" With poise and calm, she approached the American president and introduced herself. "She has a nice smile on her face so I bet she treats you well," he said to Varadkar, adding: "He thanks you for the newspapers, Caitriona."

And then we all lost our mind over it. The moment lasted all of 22 seconds but it was enough to launch Perry into viral fame. Like the blue dress, everyone saw what they were already predisposed to seeing; for some flagrant sexism, even misogyny; for others a relaxed, unscripted comment that could only benefit its startled recipient.

In the seconds it took her to reach the door of the Oval Office, the world's media drew its breath and for a moment Perry was the focus of the latest hysterical instalment of Trumpwatch. Her Twitter and Instagram accounts were mined. Irish commentators lined up to commiserate with her, with The Irish Times divining that she was "clearly uncomfortable and suffering humiliation", while one of her predecessors in the role, Charlie Bird, mused that any reporter would simply be grateful for an audience with the President - whatever the tone of that audience. Perry herself watched it all unfold but resisted the urge to wade in and she explains why.

"It's almost a cliche but it's also true: no journalist wants to be the centre of a story. In college you're taught not to use the words 'I' or 'me'," Perry says reflecting on the moment.

"In some ways it wasn't hard to step back because the furore was so huge; it went all around the world. I didn't read the vast majority of what was written about it. It is a little odd when you see so many people talk about how you must have felt.

"It was a good insight for me because usually I'm on the other side of the media. People identified with the incident based on their own life experience - which, it must be said, is what Donald Trump does to people. I felt I was in a lose-lose situation - if I said I was uncomfortable I would have been calling the President Of The United States inappropriate, whereas if I said it had rolled off me, I would have been offending all these women who took up the cause on my behalf. I had dealt with that kind of comment before, I don't think that there is a professional woman alive who hasn't."

Trump's ill-considered 'niceties' continue to make headlines on a weekly basis - witness the furore last week about his insensitive remarks to a war widow - but Perry says she thought of his remarks to her as merely awkward small talk and says that the context - somehow lost in the blizzard of commentary - was everything. "I was the only Irish person in the room, I was the only person who wasn't part of the White House pool of journalists who'd be in and out of his office all day, so probably he was just saying what came into his head. I don't think he really meant anything by it. You're in the man's office, if he says 'c'mere, who are you?' then it's polite to answer. I knew there was no place for me on the phone call and I was reasonably sure that whoever was on the call back in Ireland was also thinking 'what is going on?'"

Smile-gate, as it debuted to groans, was all the more remarkable for the general anonymity of foreign correspondents in Washington and their relatively lowly place in the media pecking order - made even more lowly by the Trump administration, which, Perry explains, immediately made security clearance more difficult for foreign journalists. But while she remains professionally tight-lipped on her actual opinions on the bombastic reality star around whom the political planets now spin, she unequivocally sees that this is a good time to be beaming news back to the hungry eyes back home.

"What a time to be doing this. It's been fantastic to be here for the election night, the inauguration and everything that has happened since - as a reporter you wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

There is part wide-eyed wonder, part flinty determination, in her tone when she says this. While she now occupies one of the biggest jobs in Irish journalism it felt, in some ways, like an inevitable progression for such an ambitious young talent. Colleagues in RTE gush about her and she operates deftly within the burden of being a sober voice of record during a period in American politics which seems equal parts silly and dangerous and in which even outlets like CNN have descended into unseemly exclamation marks.

Her appointment this past week as co-presenter of the Six One news (alongside Keelin Shanley) seems like a natural progression - she has been in America for the standard four years now - but it will mean her leaving Washington and moving back to Dublin around the Christmas break time. "It will be bittersweet to leave America but the Six One is such an iconic show and so many great names have sat in that chair, so I'm really thrilled," she says, "I'll be in a studio and asking the questions rather than answering them, it's a massive change." Growing up in Knocklyon, a middle-class suburb of south Dublin, she says classmates would describe her as "extremely driven and hard working".

She had no connections in media, although all these years later a younger cousin is a motoring journalist with the London Times and another edits the Donegal News.

"As long as I can remember I wanted to be a broadcast journalist," she says. "I was fascinated by the news media. It was different when I came out of college. I think journalism now is really under threat - when I came out of college there was no Facebook and Twitter and news websites were still in the extreme early days." She started at Newstalk and worked her way up various staff jobs until landing the big one four years ago. She welcomed it as the culmination of years of hard work but it did require a big upheaval for herself and her husband, who made the move with her. "It was exciting to uproot," she explains. "You're packing up your whole life and it's not like you're 21 and you're moving for adventure. It's been fantastic though, we've made amazing friends here."

Moving from being a big fish in the small pond of Ireland to knowing next to nobody in the US capitol would daunt other journalists - Charlie Bird spoke frankly about the difficulties he encountered - and Perry says the first year in Washington was characterised by a period of "hyper networking".

"I found that people here are very open to following through on requests to meet for a coffee. Big interviews like Sean Spicer or Mick Mulvaney - almost all of those I got because I met someone who knew someone at an event. For most of them there would be no benefit to doing an interview with RTE."

For the time being Perry essentially serves as a one woman bureau for an entire continent. She sometimes finds herself working 21-hour days - going to bed at 2am and rising again at 7am - to make sure there is enough material for RTE's various bulletins, as well as Morning Ireland. "I binge sleep at weekends, but if I can get five hours sleep, I'm happy with that. I eat really well though - if you were eating junk food you couldn't do this job."

Despite this, she has made time for one notable side project. For her meticulously researched new book, In America, she traversed the so-called Rust Belt states which swept Trump to power and tried to find out what made them make a choice which to the rest of the world looked like a form of electoral self-harm. Perry says that the famous 'beer' test, which the previous polarisation record holder, George W Bush, passed with flying colours, was turned on its head by Trump voters.

"I think I was surprised that people could overlook his statements on women and minorities. In all the states I visited, to a man and a woman the people I spoke to were able to set that aside from him the candidate. They would say a variation of 'I don't want him to have a beer with me or him coming to my house but I think he'd be a good president'."

The palace intrigue, fuelled by the incessant leaks, has blurred the line between fact and fiction, and between television drama and actual reality - Perry says that the parallels between Netflix and the backdrop to her day job are striking. For instance, although it is seldom reported in the US media, she has noticed a rise in the number of intruders trying to break into the White House, which makes her own job difficult.

"I was in there one afternoon discussing a matter with some press aides when a burly Secret Service agent with a very large weapon appeared seemingly out of nowhere and politely but forcefully said 'Ma'am you must leave the West Wing now', walking me back towards the press briefing room and closing and locking the door firmly behind me. The White House was then put on lockdown - it turned out it was a fence jumper - for nearly two hours. The jumper incidents do make you feel you're in an episode of The West Wing or Veep or House of Cards or one of those shows."

As one of the most prominent female broadcasters in RTE, one wonders what she made of the revelations, earlier this year, that many of the top female stars with the station were on lower salary packages than their male counterparts.

"If men and women are doing the same job they should be paid the same, there isn't even a conversation to be had there. Given how many surveys and statistics around the world that show that men and women tend to not be paid the same, I don't think it was that big a shock to find out that it was the same situation in RTE. I don't have a direct comparator, and I don't know what other correspondents get paid. We'll see what Kieran Mulvey's report says when it's published."

Despite the niggling feeling that all the controversy and opposition must induce burnout in Trump even if the investigation into the election don't get him, Perry says that she may still be reporting on him for many years to come. And her book has him on the cover so that also opens up the possibility of a sequel. "Whether he will last - that's the question that dominates Washington dinner parties," she says. "I wouldn't rule out a second term - it's very difficult to beat an incumbent president. And as a journalist I am grateful for him - he is the story of the century."

It's a story she will soon view from afar, however. Returning to Dublin will bring more stability in terms of her schedule and the hours will be more conducive to getting a good night's sleep but she says the one aspect of the move that's daunting her is actually finding a place to live. "There is a housing crisis in Dublin, so I'll be moving home back smack into the middle of that. This is the thing that's causing me so much stress!" she says.

"The job itself will be fine though. It all happened very quickly but I'm ready for the new challenge."

In America, published by Gill and MacMillan, is out now, €12

See books, page 18


Carole Coleman

Carole Coleman

Carole Coleman made headlines in 2004 for a fractious interview with George W Bush in which she repeatedly challenged him over the shaky pretexts for the disastrous Iraq War. The interview led to a complaint from the White House that Coleman had been "disrespectful" and the journalist admitted it had been "a filibuster of sorts". She knew the gallery she was playing to, however, and won warm praise back home for her approach. She is still based in the US.

Charlie Bird

Charlie Bird

By the time Charlie Bird, an old flame of Carole Coleman, took up the prestigious post of RTE's Washington Correspondent he was already a journalistic institution, so well respected that his name being attached to a story gave it a built-in legitimacy. In Washington he never felt truly comfortable, however, and he badly missed his partner and family - gripes that galled other journalists who would have jumped at such a plum role. He returned home after a year and a half in the job and retired from RTE in 2012.

Richard Downes

Richard Downes

Richard Downes took up the position of RTE's Washington Correspondent in the throes of the economic crisis, with the resultant cutbacks at the national broadcaster. Still, he worked through some of the most momentous events of the last few years, including the re-election of Barack Obama and the David Drumm bankruptcy. He had previously covered the Iraq war in 2003 and was almost killed in an American bombing raid, even composing a farewell letter to his wife Mairead.

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