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Chaotic gig RTE's Brian O'Donovan: 'This job is hectic. I have to get out and meet real Americans so I understand their ideals'

RTE's man in Washington talks to Daragh Keany about moving his family to the US to report on the ongoing drama in the White House - and why he's nervous about the real threat of Trump being re-elected

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RTÉ Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan presents a weekly podcast on the race to The White House — States of Minds with RTÉ journalist
Jackie Fox.

RTÉ Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan presents a weekly podcast on the race to The White House — States of Minds with RTÉ journalist Jackie Fox.

Marty Katz

RTÉ Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan presents a weekly podcast on the race to The White House — States of Minds with RTÉ journalist Jackie Fox.

FOR nearly two decades Brian O'Donovan has worked his way up through Cork's RedFM, TV3 and now RTÉ, where he has the plum role of Washington Correspondent.

The promotion in 2017, replacing Caitríona Perry, came after a gruelling interview process and meant that the popular dad-of-two had to upend his family and move to the US capital.

"I obviously discussed it with my wife Joanna before I went for it and we decided that this was the right time to take on this challenge," he explained. "Our girls were the right age at the time and Joanna is a teacher, so she was able to take a career break. So once I got the approval from home, I went for it, and luckily, I got it."

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Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanne, 10-year-old Erin and Lucy aged six

Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanne, 10-year-old Erin and Lucy aged six

Brian O’Donovan with his wife Joanne, 10-year-old Erin and Lucy aged six

The Washington Correspondent is one of the prize jobs in Montrose at any time, during any era, but Brian knew that he was landing into the role during a time when US politics was at its most dramatic.

"Trump was definitely a factor in my initial enthusiasm. He is box office. I knew this wouldn't be an easy job, but I knew it would be exciting. Things change so much more quickly than I ever imagined.

"I spoke to lots of former Washington correspondents who told me how things work over here, but nothing quite prepares you for what is currently going on in the White House and all around America.

"I've had a few pinch-me moments through the years, but being told to stop working to clear the lawn in front of the White House so that Marine One could land and take Trump to hospital with Covid is definitely up there.

"If America had their own version of Reeling in the Years, it would be front and centre of it. In fact, it will probably be in the real one too.

"I have spent three years here now, and still I get shocked every day. It can be a tweet or a chat with a local citizen; it is hard to keep up sometimes."

Brian has had a chaotic three years in the States, but he knows that the next couple of weeks will be his busiest. "I am not writing Trump off for a second. I know the polls have him ahead and I think Biden played it well during the time Trump was in hospital. He didn't go on the complete attack. His tone was pitched just right.

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Brian moved to Washington in 2017 as the RTÉ correspondent

Brian moved to Washington in 2017 as the RTÉ correspondent

Brian moved to Washington in 2017 as the RTÉ correspondent

"He cleverly reminded Americans that this is the kind of thing that happens when you don't wear a mask, while at the same time wishing his opponent well.

"But the American Electoral College system means that the most popular candidate with the most votes may not get in [five presidents in history have achieved this, including Donald Trump in 2016], so no one can say for sure that Biden will succeed Trump. It will be very close and lots can happen between now and November 3.

"Trump's core voter base will not budge. That has become increasingly obvious. He can say and do whatever he wants, and they will turn out and vote for him on November 3.

"I believe that if every single one of his supporters around the US voted for him on the day, he would get 35-40pc of the vote. But he needs more of the suburban mums and blue-collar workers to get on board to ensure another win - so the democrats are preparing for a battle next week, and possibly for longer," he laughs nervously.

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Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed in the final debate (AP)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed in the final debate (AP)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed in the final debate (AP)

What Brian means is that a Biden win is likely to lead to civil unrest on the streets of America.

"I think it is a very real threat unfortunately, but I hope it won't escalate or last too long. It will be very dependent on how Trump reacts to a potential loss. He may not go away easily and his supporters may vent their rage through militia groups.

"I have my family out here too and I would hate to think they are in danger; or to think that they would be too scared to go about their normal lives because of it.

"During the Black Lives Matter protests, the crowds got pretty close to where we live. It was basically at the end of our block. We were never in danger, but it was very close."

When the Corkman first got to Washington, he found himself thrust into the mix immediately, and with very few allies. "It was a crazy first couple of months. I found myself reporting on Donald Trump and Conor McGregor constantly - and it had nothing to do with MMA," he laughs.

"But the Irish thing goes a long way here. It wasn't long before I knew the ropes and other political correspondents showed me the ropes. Plus, being Irish means that we automatically get invites to events, and there is a huge deal made of St Patrick's Day each year, so we all get to be in the same room as some very important people.

"I have to get out onto the streets though find stories; they won't just land on my lap. I love heading off the beaten track when we have the time to meet regular Americans. I definitely do sympathise more with some Trump supporters, compared to how they are portrayed outside of America. I get some of their ideals and I see what Trump has achieved for them."

So has his experience of working there over the last three years changed the way he sees the country?

"Of course it has. It is home now. Not for ever, but for now. I've always loved America. I did my J1 in Ocean City, and I've been back loads since, especially to Boston and Philadelphia.

"It still amazes me as a country. It still excites me. I just look at it differently now because I'm living here. I look at it through my daughters' eyes too. They are at an age [seven and 11] when they are taking in everything, and yet, are not too old to see a lot of the negatives. But I have a job to do at the end of the day and I want to make the most of this post while I have it. Then, when the dust settles, I can't wait to come back here as a tourist again because, despite all the trouble at the moment, it is still an amazing country."

• There will be live coverage of the election results through the night of Tuesday, November 3, on RTÉ One.

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