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Caitriona Perry: No journalist wants to be the centre of a story... this one went all over the world

 

Irish journalist Caitriona Perry made headlines this year when Donald Trump singled her out in the White House. As she prepares to return home for a new job with RTE, she tells Donal Lynch why she thinks her admirer will last the course.

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: "We have a lot of your Irish press watching us right now." So far, so not an international incident.

Then he 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 Dubliner: "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. Perry herself watched it all unfold but resisted the urge to wade in.

She explains: "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'.

"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 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 of Trump, she unequivocally sees this is a good time to be beaming news to the hungry eyes back home.

Perry said: "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 Perry 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.

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Write stuff: Caitriona Perry

Her appointment this past week as co-presenter of RTE's 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 leaving Washington and moving back to Dublin around Christmas. Perry admits: "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."

Growing up in 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 Times and another edits The Donegal News.

Perry started her career 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."

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

For the time being, she 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, Perry 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 propelled them to make a choice which to the rest of the world looked like a form of electoral self-harm.

Perry says 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.

Despite the niggling feeling that all the controversy and opposition must induce burn-out in Trump, even if the investigation into the election doesn't get him, Perry believes she may still be reporting on him for many years to come.

"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."

However, it's a story she will soon view from afar. Returning to Dublin will bring more stability in terms of her schedule and the hours will be more conducive to a good night's sleep one aspect of the move that's daunting is finding a place to live.

Perry says: "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.

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

In America by Caitriona Perry is published by Gill Books, priced £19.99

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