Book Review: "The Presidency in Black and White" by April Ryan

Nina Kennedy and April Ryan
As I shared in an earlier blog, we had the pleasure of hearing White House correspondent April Ryan speak in New York at this year’s Paul Weiss Annual Diversity Networking Reception in June. We all received copies of her new book The Presidency in Black and White, subtitled “My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America.” April Ryan has been a member of the White House Press Corps for 18 years as a correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks (AURN). Most recently she received national attention for being called-out by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for “shaking [her] head” in response to the “alternative facts” presented at the briefing. We have seen her as a regular political commentator on CNN and MSNBC.

April Ryan Speaking and the Paul Weiss Diversity Networking Reception

Sean Spicer telling April Ryan "Stop shaking your head, April."

Ryan interviewed three former presidents specifically for this book: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. She begins the book by commenting on “the current state of race relations in this country, and more specifically among influential Washington power players.” Chapter 1 continues with the recounting of efforts by the Clinton Administration to issue an official government apology for slavery. Clinton had offered previous apologies to survivors of the amoral Tuskegee syphilis experiment¹. Ryan also shared details of the Pigford case – a lawsuit filed during the Clinton Administration (with the settlement finally distributed under President Obama) against the U.S. Department of Agriculture citing racial discrimination. So there was reason to believe and hope that an official government apology for slavery would be forthcoming. Ryan accompanied President Clinton on his historic 6-nation trip to Africa in 1998. Throughout the trip, and especially during the visit to the infamous Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) on Goree Island, Ryan reveals that she and other members of the press corps were just waiting for those two words from the POTUS: “I’m sorry.” But unfortunately, the President was discouraged from making such a statement.

(Ryan revealed that she herself is five generations removed from slavery. Her ancestor Joseph Dollar was sold on the auction block in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to the Brown family.)

April Ryan interviewing President Bill Clinton
She gives a moving account of her first assignment for AURN, which was coverage of a White House ceremony honoring seven men who had come to represent the shameful treatment of all African-American soldiers during World War II. President Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to those seven men in the East Room of the State Floor of the Residence. Ryan tells the story of Vernon Baker – one of the honorees – who learned that his all-Black platoon had killed 26 Nazis, but of the 26 men with whom he had arrived, only eight survived. Baker was nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor, but the necessary paperwork somehow “mysteriously” never materialized. Years later he uncovered declassified accounts of that day’s battle, in which he learned that his white company commander had left his own troops to die, and had reported that the other Black soldiers had been cowards and were too afraid to fight. This commander’s lies had delayed Baker’s being awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for decades.

In her interview with George W. Bush, Ryan reveals both his and his wife Laura’s disappointment in the public perception of how he handled Hurricane Katrina. There are also quotes from The Reverend Jessie Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Shirley Sherrod, and President Obama on the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home, and the resulting “Beer Summit.”

President Bush and April Ryan before an Oval Office interview on Africa 

April Ryan interviewing President Obama aboard Air Force One

Toward the end of the book, Ryan shared the following verbatim exchange which took place after a white couple crashed the first State Dinner of the Obama Administration, when it was yet to be established who should take the blame for this mishap:

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: Yes Ma’am.
April Ryan: Have there been any concerns about Desiree Rogers' performance prior to this instance?
RG: No.
AR: No one has questioned the President or told the President that she is a very last-minute person, poor planner?
RG: No, I think you – you all have been to and seen, either whether you’re part of a pool, whether some of you have been to receptions, the remarkable work that they have done in pulling off a lot of events here. The First Family is quite pleased with her performance, and I’ve heard nothing uttered of what you talk about.
AR: Well, what about the issue of her being in fashion spreads early on the administration? Did you put the brakes that? I mean, that is – it’s been raised, it’s now public, you saw it in the magazines, her pictorials. You saw her on the cover…
RG: I get Sports Illustrated at my house. I don’t – I don’t get…
AR: But could you talk… seriously, could you talk about that? I mean, was there a concern in this White House that she came out being… some might have called her the belle of the ball, overshadowing the First Lady at the beginning…
RG: I don’t know who “some” are. I’ve never heard that.
AR: Well, it’s been bantered around Washington, and it’s been in circles… Democratic circles as well as Republican circles, high-ranking people.
RG: April, that’s not a station I live in in life…
AR: … administrations as well.
RG: I understand.
AR: Just answer the question, please.
RG: Are you done speaking so I can?
AR: Oh yes, I’m done now, yes.
RG: Excellent. I’ve not heard any of that criticism. I’ve not read any of that criticism. The President, the First Lady, and the entire White House staff are grateful for the job that she does and think she has done a terrific and wonderful job pulling off a lot of big and important events here at the White House.
AR: Did she invite herself to the State Dinner or was she a guest – did the President invite her, or did she put her – no, that’s a real – do not fan it off. I’m serious – no, seriously.
RG: Jonathan.
AR: No, no, no, did she invite herself, or did the President ask her – her name was on that list, and Social Secretaries are the ones who put names on the list. Did she invite herself or did the President…
RG: Was she at the dinner? April, April, calm down. Just take a deep breath for a second. See? This happens with my son, he does the same thing.
AR: Oooh… Don’t play with me. I’m being serious. Don’t blow it off.
RG: And I’m giving you a serious answer. Was she at the dinner? Yes.
AR: Was she an invited guest?
RG: She’s the Social Secretary. She had the primary…
AR: Social Secretaries are not guests of the dinner.
RG: She is the primary – for running the dinner. I’m going to get back to weightier topics like ninety-eight thousand men and women in Afghanistan. Jonathan, take us away.
Johathan: All right. April, please forgive me if I ask this question…

“It was like salt in an invisible White House wound with each response,” Ryan says at the end of the transcript of the exchange. As you probably noticed, Secretary Gibbs still did not answer the question. Ryan had received her information from sources inside the White House, and the press secretary refused to take her seriously. Frankly, I don’t see how she could tolerate the condescension and cavalier attitude of the press secretary. She was clearly more concerned about the safety of this president than her white male colleagues.

The Presidency in Black and White give an honest view and perspective of an African-American woman who sits and works in close proximity to the most powerful office in the world. Kudos to April Ryan for her strength, courage, and tenacity.  

¹The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, also known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was an infamous clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service.


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