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Interviewing a Politician



Interviewing a Politician



It's official. Lincoln's party of "liberty and Union" is now Trump's party of violence and disunion. His cultists just called sedition 'beating up cops' and a coup 'legitimate political discourse.'


Jamie Raskin in a Tweet, 2/2/22


I hadn't ever interviewed an American politician so I don't know what possessed me to interview Pat Ryan for HV 1, a local weekly newspaper I've been contributing to lately. I should have known the paper would probably only take a conventional, reportorial profile, nothing too personal or irreverent, but I carried on anyway and ended up writing two pieces, one irreverent, one informational. The editors conducted a straw poll: one editor liked  the irreverent take, two others the more informative version. The latter one is on the front page of the paper today as I write this blog.  So, I'll start this story somewhere between writing the reportorial, conventional piece, and aching to write something entirely different, which is what you are reading here. It's a meta story about Pat Ryan,  a hard-working 40-year-old Democrat, the Ulster County Executive since 2018, and an experienced, irreverent female journalist who arrived one hot summer day to interview him.  


Pat Ryan's accomplishments and policies are all notable, and most people I know in New Paltz—a  faux progressive town—really really want him to win. Maybe that was the beginning of my offer to interview him—I really really want Pat Ryan  to complete Congressman Antonio Delgado's term and get to Congress so he'll have the opportunity to run for re-election in November in one of the "new" districts. With all the mash-up redistricting, this is a good one. It's confusing and I won't say much more here other than we all need re-education to figure out the two ballots that will be in our folders, one for the special election (the 19th District), the other for the primary for the mid-term election (the 18th District), both on August 23rd, with some early voting beginning August 13th. Got that? Good.


A bit of backstory: In the ten years I lived in London I also contributed to a weekly, The Times Educational Supplement, a supplement of the London Times, and I did interview politicians, known there as Members of Parliament, who were so accessible that I hardly needed appointments to get an interview; I'd just walk into their constituency offices, and begin a conversation. I am sure it has not been as easy for journalists since Labour MP Jo Cox was killed by a white supremacist in 2016, and Sir David Amess, a Conservative MP, was murdered by an Islamic terrorist in 2021. Politicians everywhere these days live in a security bubble, not to mention January 6th and the fear of domestic terrorism in the halls of Congress. It is no surprise, therefore, that an unknown journalist would be carefully managed and not left alone in the room with a candidate. Nonetheless, I was surprised that after easily getting a slot for a 30-minute interview with Pat Ryan, I encountered a fortress level of security, all of which makes a politician much less available to constituents. And perhaps this is part of my story also because when I arrived at the Kingston, NY campaign headquarters, and entered the lobby, and walked up the stairs, the outer door was locked with a mega lock and I had to call to gain entry. And that was exactly what it felt like: gaining entry. I had to ask to use the bathroom so it was a while before the spirited ambience of a campaign office, with youthful workers on phones and computers, signs everywhere,  felt "normal."  Then Pat Ryan bounded into the hallway as I was exiting the bathroom, shook my hand, and said he'd be right with me. So, I already had a casual first impression I could use in my physical description: tall, lanky, relaxed, bearded.


I was escorted into a conference room where I could take off my mask and sit distanced, for which I was grateful.  Chris Walsh, Ryan's campaign manager, walked in, and made himself comfortable. Shorts, sandals, curly hair, he'd grown up in Greenwich Village, so we chit chatted about that. Then I thought he would leave, but he didn't. 


Once upon a time, I would never have conducted an interview with a PR or anyone else present, so I said, "Are you here to spin, Chris?" He laughed, said nothing, and stayed throughout the interview. Only later did I wonder, if he was armed and there to protect his candidate. Or, even more perversely, as I am female, whether he was there to protect his candidate from accusations of sexual harassment.


Anything can happen to a politician these days.


I'd done my homework, read everything that's been written about Pat Ryan most of which felt like potted campaign literature, and thought up a few questions no one had asked him before hoping to get under the skin of spin. For example, had he ever been out of the country before he was deployed after graduating from West Point?  No, he hadn't. And looking back at the United States from his vantage as a US Army Commanding Officer of an intelligence unit in Iraq, what did he see? "How much we have. How we have to preserve it," he said. I had asked the same question of Sheriff Figueroa, a Marine—running  unopposed for re-election  on the Democratic ticket in November. He  also had never been out of the country before he was deployed and  said almost the same thing. 


I had more challenging questions for Pat Ryan so I carried on. No one stopped me, a hopeful sign. He had done his Masters at Georgetown on drone warfare, euphemistically referred to as "leadership targeting," so I wanted to know what he thought about the CIA drone killing of Al-Qaeda's Ayman al Zawahiri last week in Kabul. I got the question in eventually, late in the interview. Answer: "Surgical kill, short term solution." And that was the end of the interview. Chris Walsh looked at his watch to end it; maybe he was there as a timekeeper. Next event, next interview and a visit that night (with security?) to the Ulster County Fair.


I had had my thirty minutes, a very short time to get to know someone. And, for the most part, didn't learn anything new about Pat Ryan; the conversation reaffirmed my intuition that he's a good guy, has had the requisite experience, and I want him to win. Before saying goodbye, almost at the door, I did try to get him to talk about education as he has two young boys and plans to send them to public school. I was thinking of the recent high intensity school board meetings and the sometimes fraught relationship between teachers and parents, but he didn't want to touch it. Instead, he veered into the pandemic and how it's taken its toll on all of us. He did call parents a "fierce force," though, and referred to his wife, Rebecca, as a "badass health policy wonk." She's worked as a civil servant in DC for a very long time. Maybe she'll run for office one day. If so, I'd  certainly try to interview her.


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