Inspiring People

Former Personal Diarist to President Bill Clinton, Writer Janis Kearney

Janis Kearney
Born in Gould, Arkansas, Janis Kearney was one of eighteen children of parents Ethel V. Kearney and James Kearney. After graduating from Gould High School in 1971, Kearney attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, earning a B.A. in journalism in 1976. She continued on with her education while working, earning thirty hours towards a M.P.A. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

After earning her B.A. degree, Kearney was hired by the State of Arkansas in 1978, where she spent three years as a program manager for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, and another six years as the director of information for the national headquarters of the Migrant Student Records Transfer System. Leaving government work, Kearney purchased the Arkansas State Press newspaper from Daisy Bates in 1987. She published the weekly paper for five years before joining the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign in 1992, where she served as director of minority media outreach. The following year, Kearney joined President Bill Clinton's transition team. She began with the White House Media Affairs Office before being appointed as the director of public affairs and communications for the U.S. Small Business Administration, where she worked until 1995. That year, Kearney became the first presidential diarist in U.S. history, chronicling President Clinton's day-to-day life. She remained in this capacity until President Clinton left office. Kearney came under scrutiny during the Starr Committee proceedings when her diary and testimony were subpoenaed. No wrongdoing was found.

After President Clinton left office, Kearney was named a fellow at Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute in 2001, where she began work on a book about President Clinton entitled Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton - From Hope to Harlem. Kearney and her husband, former White House director of presidential personnel Bob Nash, are no strangers to the issues of race that still plague America. They were racially profiled by police following a car-jacking of a vehicle similar to theirs while still employed at the White House. Today, Kearney is the Chancellor's Lecturer at the City Colleges of Chicago and continues her DuBois Institute writing project, as well as her work on Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir.

As I walked her to the train so that she wouldn't be late for her next appointment, I was regretful that we didn't have more time to talk.

Janis Kearney considers herself unlikely, I suspect. It was not predictable that she would do the things that she has done.

It was unlikely.

It was never expected that she would live like she has lived.

It was unlikely.

It was never anticipated that she would keep the kind of company that she keeps.

It was unlikely,

but not unimaginable to Janis because she was encouraged by her parents who imagined what she could be.

To talk to Janis is to be reminded that nothing is beyond the grasp of anyone who is willing to really reach. I wish that we would have had just a little bit more time to talk...

DR: Tell me about you work and about your life.

JK: I am a writer.

I have known that I was going to be a writer for most of my life, from probably about the age of nine or ten.

I grew up in the south, in Gould Arkansas which is the Deep South. My parents were sharecroppers. They leased land from white share croppers and grew cotton. They had seventeen children together and all of us grew up chopping cotton and picking cotton. That was our life until we left home to go to college.

My parents were undereducated but extremely wise visionaries. They instilled in us a love for learning and a love for education. My father was a great storey teller who instilled in me the love for books and a love for reading, hence my desire to become a writer.

My degree is in journalism but when I left college I worked for state government for a number of years. Then I purchased the Daisy Bates newspaper in 1987.

Daisy Bates was our civil rights leader. She was the leader for the Little Rock Nine during the Central High Crisis in 1957. She was a mentor of mine and in 1987 she retired and decided to sell her newspaper and I purchased it from her and ran it for five years.

In 1992 Bill Clinton decided that he was going to run for President. I took a sabbatical from my newspaper to work on his campaign. I worked with Dee Dee Myers who became his press secretary and a woman by the name of Avis LaVelle who was also a press secretary who most people don't know. She is an African American woman from Chicago. I was the minority media outreach person. I dealt with the Minority media all over the country.

When Bill Clinton won in November, 1992, I continued to work in his transition office. In December the transition office decided who was going to go to the White House and I was one of the people selected to go. So, in 1993 I left Arkansas for the first time in my life at 37 years old and I went to the White House.

That was an amazing transformation for me and an amazing culture shock. I started in the position of Media Specialist. I worked as a Media Specialist in the White House for only a few months before I was appointed Director of Communications for the Small Business Administration. I did that for a couple of years.

Then in 1995, President Clinton decided he wanted to hire someone called a Personal Diarist, a person who would be responsible for chronicling his Presidency on a day to day basis. I was one of the many people who applied for that job. I thought that it sounded like a job that I would love to do. I applied for it and I ended up getting the job. I became President Clinton's Personal Diarist. It was the first time that any President had hired someone in that kind of position. I worked directly with the woman who was his Oval Office Director to create my job; create what I would do from day to day.

DR: Why do you think he picked you?

JK: I think that he picked me for a couple of reasons.

When I was a newspaper publisher in Arkansas he was Governor of Arkansas. He knew my family. He knew my work. He knew me.

There were a number of times that he sent me notes when I was a publisher saying

"This is a great story"


"This is a great article"

But also he needed someone that he felt comfortable with and someone that he could trust. This was a position that involved being pretty close to him on a day to day basis. Trust was important.

I was one of the eight or nine people who were a part of President Clinton's immediate Oval Office staff. We would get to work around 7:00 AM every morning and we left - whenever. It could have been 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM. It might have been 9:00 PM or 10:00 PM. It depended. It was a very intense job but I absolutely loved it because I knew that I was in a position to witness history happening everyday, before the rest of the world knew that it was happening.

It was an amazing thing for a sharecropper's daughter from Arkansas to be able to walk into the White House everyday and say "This is my job! I work for President Clinton. I am his personal Diarist."

Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton, from Hope to Harlem, introduces new and important voices to the dialogue around America's 42nd President: William Jefferson Clinton. Black Americans-from Hope to Harlem-share intimate, poignant and sometimes eye-opening experiences, memories, and opinions of America's 42nd President. Excerpts from these conversations span five decades of William Jefferson Clinton's early and political life.

In 1998, Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison wrote that William Jefferson Clinton was America's "First Black President" noting his legendary relationship with the African American community...

Interviewees include former President William Jefferson Clinton, U.S. Congressman John Lewis; former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial; former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell; Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb; and former Cleveland Mayor Michael White; as well as Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Levering Lewis; William Julius Wilson, Director, Harvard's Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program; baseball great Hank Aaron; Women's rights icon, Dorothy Height; former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater; former Director, Clinton White House Personnel, Bob Nash, and Autrilla Watkins Scott, the former Hope, Arkansas native, and octogenarian who was one of young Billy Clinton's first babysitters; and Petrilla Bonners, the first black country and western star who happened to have been born in Hope. Click here for more...

It was amazing.

So, when I speak to young people I tell them

"Never ever let anybody tell you what you can or can't be. The sky is the limit!"

That is what my parents told us. They were sharecroppers and very poor but they knew that if you worked hard enough and if you dreamed big enough that you could do anything.

The sky really is the limit.

That is kind of where my life has been.

When I left the White House in 2001 I knew what I was going to do. I was going to write. That is what I have always loved more than anything. When I left I did a fellowship at Harvard and I began what is now my new book, The Biography of William Jefferson Clinton based on interviews with African Americans from all over the country. I also completed a book that I had started years ago, a memoir based on my families life and I dedicated it to my parents who I thought were the best parents that anyone could have.

My mother passed away in 19982. My father turned 100 years old this past June. I wanted to finish the memoir before my father died and I did that in 1995. In September of 2006, I completed the Biography of President Clinton.

So this is where I am. I have had an amazing life and an amazing journey. I am just excited about life everyday that I wake up.

DR: What are you most happy about right now?

JK: I am most happy about being able to do what I love most -- writing. I feel that it is not only my passion but I feel that it is my mission. I feel that writing is the way that I can give back. I don't have a whole lot of other talents but I think that writing is the one thing that God gave me and said

"Go with it!"

DR: What has been one of your biggest challenges or struggles?

JK: I was a child in the pre-civil rights era and so I can never not mention the fact that I grew up during a time when there were very low expectations for Black people or women or people from the south; people from homes like mine where the parents were undereducated and poor. I had to look beyond those kinds of expectations.

Those expectations did not just stop when I left Arkansas. They follow me wherever I travel. People are constantly wondering what I am doing in my position. Why isn't someone else in my position? I have always had to ignore those notions by people who expect less because of what I look, like or what I came from. I have always been able to ignore that.

DR: So if you are ignoring that, then what is it that you are paying attention to?

JK: Living up to what I think I can do; living up to my own expectations.

It is always a struggle for me to know that I am doing my very best and to know that I am living up to what I am supposed to be doing. A lot of times I have doubts.

When I first started in 2001, knowing that I was going to be a writer, I tried the main stream thing and that did not work for me. I wanted to get my book done while my Dad was still alive so I started my own publishing company, Writing Our World Press.

From time to time I wonder if I should be going about things in the conventional way, the mainstream way and get my book out to there to everybody. But I really do feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.

DR: I love hearing about examples of people who are unwilling to accept the limits that others would try to impose...

JK: Exactly!

And it is hard work. It is harder to not listen to people who would try to tell you that you can't do something and just do it yourself. You may find out that it is a lot harder but if you have made up your mind and your heart that it has to be done, you will do it.

DR: How do you encourage yourself on bad days or during bad periods?

JK: I wake up everyday thinking how blessed I am. That is the first thing. When I remember how blessed I am and that many people don't have the ability to do some of the things that I can do, I know that I don't have any excuse to not get up and try. I just do not allow myself to wallow at all. I don't say "I can't. It's hard." I know what I came from and I know the sacrifices that my parents went through for us. Self pity comes on me sometimes but I don't wallow in it.

DR: Do you consider yourself to be a dreamer?

JK: Oh yes! Always!

DR: What are you dreaming about right now?

JK: I am dreaming about my next book right now. I think most writers do that. It is time to start thinking about my next book and I am dreaming that it will be successful and that people will be able to relate to it. It is very important to me that what I write touches someone and that someone will get something out of reading it.

DR: If there was one something that you could share with a young person like a golden nugget of wisdom, what would it be?

JK: Never accept any one else's idea of what you are worth. Never let someone else tell you how much you are worth or what you are capable of or how far you can go in life. That is very important. The other thing is never ever, ever stop dreaming. I don't care how old you get. I don't even care how successful you get. Lastly, know that everything you get in life has to be balanced by what you give. Everything you get has to be balanced with your own giving. Whatever you get out of life you have to turn around and give back to somebody. That is very important.

DR: When you look back do you have any regrets?

JK: Regrets...?

I was a very young mother. I got married very young. I guess that is probably one of the only regrets that I have. That is the one that I talk to young people about.

DR: Getting married too young?

JK: Taking on too much responsibility too young. If you are not responsible enough, as I was not, having irresponsible sex and getting pregnant, you end up getting married when you might not otherwise have done so. That does a whole different loop for your life.

I think that is the one regret that I have, even though I love my son. If I had it to do again, I would not have gotten married after getting pregnant.

DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

JK: Touching lives through my writing.

I think that's it...

Thanks Janis!


Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir is an American story—in black and white; a poignant memoir by the former diarist to President William Jefferson Clinton who shares her journey from the cotton fields of the Arkansas delta, to the West Wing of the White House. It is an American story featuring the pre-civil rights south where cotton was king and education was the carrot that stayed just out of reach for many blacks.

Foreword by Former President William Jefferson Clinton:

Janis F. Kearney's Cotton Field of Dreams paints a poignant picture of an Arkansas black family's struggles to live the American Dream, before and after the civil rights movement, with their only assets hope, sweat, and a devout faith in God. This author's memories of growing up black and impoverished in the South are the very memories white Americans need to know and learn from.

The Kearney family was the poorest, largest family in their small rural county in Southeast Arkansas, but their dreams were rich and large. This amazing family is living proof that seemingly impossible dreams, with hard work and persistence, can come true.

In part because of the South's history, our hearts are warmed by stories as this one: under-educated African American sharecroppers pushing their children to achieve academically, then seeing them reach amazing pinnacles of success. From their parents, the children absorbed a powerful conviction: they were neither better nor less than any other human beings. This conviction gave them the self-confidence to move far beyond their difficult beginnings.

Janis F. Kearney's poignant memoir illuminates the larger truth: that it is the lessons we internalize in spite of our hurts and disappointments, that remain with us; that enable us to dream beyond today and work ourselves into a better tomorrow. With those lessons, Janis moved from the cotton fields of Gould to the halls of the White House.

In Cotton Field of Dreams we learn that James Kearney expected his children to contribute to this world, and he made them believe they could. I have been privileged to know and work with Janis and four of her brothers. They followed their father's lead.

The Kearney family underscored what I learned during my 12 years as governor, and 8 years in the White House: there is a necessary role for government in citizens' lives -- to empower people like the Kearneys to make the most of their lives -- to defend and support the helpless -- to stop discrimination. But the most important force in children's lives, whether they are privileged or impoverished, remains their parents. That force made all the Kearney children wealthy in a profound sense.

Fortunate are the children, white or black, rich, poor, or middle class, blessed with parents like James and Ethel Kearney, parents whose vision for their children is fired not by what is immediately before them, but by the deepest longings within them. Those longings got the Kearney kids beyond the long cotton rows, the hungry nights, and the taunts of schoolmates. These children, now grown, are beacons which will shine brightly enough to touch and light the way for others. The Kearneys' love and vision are a blessing for their children and for all the rest of us, too. I'm very glad Janis decided to share it with the world.

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