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Brian O’Donovan: My 2020 vision of reporting on the US was way off the mark

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At the start of the year, I had an idea of what 2020 would look like. It was an election year and with Donald Trump on the ballot paper, there was always going to be lots of drama.

It all started as planned with Democratic debates, primaries and caucuses, but in March the election campaign, and normal life, was completely upended.

The Covid-19 restrictions both in the US and in Ireland were announced during one of the busiest weeks of the year for an RTÉ Washington Correspondent.

It was mid-March and the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in the US for the St Patrick’s celebrations. His visit had already been cut back because of the coronavirus, but he was still scheduled to meet US president Donald Trump at the White House for the shamrock ceremony.

The night before, the Taoiseach attended the annual Ireland Funds Gala Dinner in Washington DC. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was being honoured and had just finished her speech when phones started to ping. Guests rose from their tables and huddled in groups. The VIPs were swiftly escorted out of the building.

Donald Trump had just announced a ban on travel from Europe into the US because of the coronavirus. It was an unprecedented move that, at the time, was criticised for being an over-reaction, but it was just the start of the countless travel restrictions that were to follow around the world.

We were told that the Taoiseach would be doing an early press conference the following morning from the steps of Blair House, a mansion across the street from the White House where visiting foreign leaders stay. We assumed that the media briefing would involve his reaction to President Trump’s travel restriction announcement.

I woke at 5am to make my way to the Taoiseach’s press conference. It was 10am back home in Ireland and news had been leaked that the Irish government was getting ready to announce that the country was going into lockdown.

RTÉ was running a special TV news programme to cover the announcement. The sun was starting to rise over Washington as we arrived at the White House outer perimeter. As sniffer dogs checked our equipment and we passed through metal detectors, I was being interviewed live over the phone by Bryan Dobson, in the studio in Donnybrook.

It wasn’t long before Leo Varadkar descended the steps of Blair House and announced that schools across Ireland would be closed. Hours later, he met Donald Trump in the Oval Office but, bizarrely, that was not the big story of the day. The big story was that normal life was about to be altered in an unimaginable way.

Like everyone else, in the weeks and months that followed, I experienced big changes in how I did my job. We are fortunate that, as with many US houses, ours has a basement. It quickly became my home studio, where I would edit TV reports, do live radio interviews and record episodes of RTÉ’s US election podcast series States of Mind.

The death of George Floyd while being arrested in late May, followed by massive protests in June, would become another major news story. Rioting and looting in Washington damaged many of the buildings close to where we live. Looking at the broken windows and burnt-out shop fronts, my 10-year-old daughter Lucy asked me if we should be scared.

“What if they come to the houses?” she asked. We reassured her that there was nothing to be worried about. She would be safe.

Black Lives Matter

My cameraman Murray and I had to take precautions against Covid-19 while covering the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and interviewing protesters. We wore masks and used a long boom pole for our microphone to maintain social distancing.

Threats to our safety would not just come from the coronavirus. Authorities policing the protests outside the White House were heavy-handed with everyone, including reporters and camera crews.

We were there on the evening of June 1, when police cleared protesters so Donald Trump could walk across the street and hold a Bible aloft outside a vandalised church.

Murray and I were getting ready to leave the area as a curfew was about to begin when suddenly there were loud bangs, screams and smoke. People started running. It was chaos.

Police were shutting down the streets around the White House so we gathered our equipment and quickly left. We had to walk for several blocks before we were able to make it back to the office. As we walked, I watched on my phone as Donald Trump delivered an address in which he vowed to clamp down on protests and said he would be the “president of law and order”. Minutes later, he walked from the White House for his controversial photo-op outside St John’s Church.

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‘President of law and order’: Donald Trump holding a Bible aloft outside a church during the Black Lives Matter protests ‘President of law and order’: Donald Trump holding a Bible aloft outside a church during the Black Lives Matter protests

‘President of law and order’: Donald Trump holding a Bible aloft outside a church during the Black Lives Matter protests

‘President of law and order’: Donald Trump holding a Bible aloft outside a church during the Black Lives Matter protests

In the weeks that followed, the racial unrest started to ease and the election campaign started to ramp up again. The Democratic and Republican conventions were mainly virtual. There were no packed arenas, cheering crowds or balloons dropping from the ceiling. The presidential campaigns had to get creative, and so did we.

We filmed a report on the train from Washington to Wilmington, Delaware, the route travelled by Joe Biden every day for 40 years. On board, we spoke to passengers, with many of them telling us that they would be voting for Joe Biden even though they felt he was far from perfect.

One such passenger, Cole Cooper, said anybody would be an improvement on Donald Trump. “As a candidate, Joe Biden’s fine but overall; we just need a return to some sort of logic in American politics,” he said.

Another passenger, Georgina Scoville, also said she would be backing Biden but added that he was not her first choice during the Democratic primaries. “I’m 20 and this is my first election. I’m pretty disappointed that the candidate is an old white man but it is what it is and I will be voting for him,” she said.

When we arrived in Wilmington, the train station was named after Joe Biden. His presence looms large in his home city, so it was no surprise that he decided to deliver his convention acceptance speech from there.

The following week, a scaled-down Republican convention got under way in Charlotte, North Carolina. We covered a Trump rally at a food packaging facility outside the city. Supporters waited hours in the August sunshine to see the president speak for 20 minutes but they didn’t mind; they love him.

‘Chopper talk’

Unfortunately, Covid-19 restrictions have made it harder to get close to the candidates and to interview them. White House media access has been limited and only a small pool of US journalists are allowed to attend Joe Biden’s public appearances.

I have spoken to the president in Doonbeg, Co Clare and the Oval Office but the most regular opportunities have been during what is known as “chopper talk”, when he speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before he boards the presidential helicopter, Marine One.

You have to be loud and shout your questions over the noise of the chopper. It can be an effective way of getting a response, but if he doesn’t like the question, he can claim he can’t hear you and walk away.

I interviewed Joe Biden at an event at the Irish Embassy in September 2018. Asked if he would enter the race, he told me that America needed to get its confidence back and whoever the Democratic candidate would be, he was going to help.

After delivering a speech on Irish history, he “worked the room” for an hour, much to the annoyance of his handlers, who were trying to rush him out the door to his next engagement. He took time to speak to well-wishers and reporters, to take selfies and to shake hands.

The coronavirus has restricted his ability to meet supporters one-on-one. Instead, he has to rely on platforms where he is less comfortable, such as media interviews and debates.

The first presidential debate was a chaotic affair, with the US president aggressively interrupting, and insults being hurled from both sides. It was a significant moment in the campaign but days later there would be an even more dramatic twist. Having spent months downplaying the coronavirus, Trump announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19. His condition quickly worsened and he was taken to hospital.

I was outside the White House as Marine One took off from the South Lawn transferring rump to the Walter Reed Medical Centre. This year has been filled with historic and monumental news stories but witnessing the US president being taken to hospital was definitely one of those Reeling in the Years moments. The significance of the event wasn’t lost on those who stopped to watch it unfold. I spoke to some of them and it was clear that, regardless of politics, many were worried about the president and wished him well.

Steve Tabor was among those who had gathered outside the White House.

“It’s painful for me as a Trump supporter,” he told me. “I know there is a lot of division in our country but this is heartbreaking for everyone I hope at this point. If we don’t unite over this situation, there will be no unity in this country ever again.”

Within minutes of Trump’s arrival at the medical centre in Bethesda, Maryland, groups of his supporters started to assemble at the entrance. One woman carried a sign that read: “Prognosis: four more years in the White House”.

On a personal level, the coronavirus lockdown has made home feel very far away. Skype, Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp video chats have been great for keeping in touch, but we miss not being able to travel back to Ireland or have family visit us here. But this is a minor complaint and I know I am in a very fortunate position.

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Life in America: Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanna and daughters Lucy and Erin Life in America: Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanna and daughters Lucy and Erin

Life in America: Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanna and daughters Lucy and Erin

Life in America: Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanna and daughters Lucy and Erin

I am here in the US with my wife Joanna and our daughters Lucy and Erin. The coronavirus has caused so much hurt and suffering around the world but we are lucky. We have our health and we have each other.

With the election fast approaching, I am spending more time on the road but our basement, which was once my home studio, is not being left idle. It has been converted into a home classroom as our girls embark on another school term of virtual learning.

Back in January, I knew there would be busy months ahead but my expectations of what the year would be, my ‘2020 vision’ if you will, ended up being very far off the mark.

Online Editors

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