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Janis Kearney (1953–)

Janis Kearney was the publisher of the historic Arkansas State Press and later served as presidential diarist to U.S. president Bill Clinton from 1995 to 2001, the first such appointment in presidential history. After leaving Washington DC, she wrote several books and founded a publishing company.

Janis Faye Kearney was born on September 29, 1953, in the small rural town of Gould (Lincoln County). She was the fourteenth of nineteen children born to sharecropper Thomas James Kearney and homemaker Ethel Curry Kearney, who also worked in the fields. By the time she was nine years old, Kearney was helping to care for her younger brothers and sisters as well as cooking for the large family. She spent evenings learning to read, write, and master arithmetic. At school, the Kearney children were at the top of their classes. Janis Kearney graduated from Gould High School in 1971.

Like all but one of her siblings, she went on to college, attending the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). During her junior year, she married Darryl Lunon and had a child. In 1976, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to work in state government, also studying for a master’s of public administration degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR).

Beginning in 1978, Kearney worked for three years as program manager for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, a federal plan to train workers and provide them with job opportunities. She then became director of information for the Migrant Student Records Transfer System (MSRTS), where she spent six years.

In 1987, Kearney joined the Arkansas State Press as the newspaper’s managing editor. Owned and operated by civil rights activist Daisy Bates since 1941, the Arkansas State Press was a statewide weekly newspaper aimed at African Americans. Within three months of Kearney’s arrival, Bates retired, and Kearney bought the company. For the next five years, Kearney served as the newspaper’s publisher.

In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton began a run for U.S. president. Acquainted with Kearney through her role as publisher of the Arkansas State Press, Clinton hired Kearney to serve as director of his campaign’s Minority Media Outreach effort. Following Clinton’s successful campaign and inauguration as president in 1993, Kearney was offered a position in the new administration. In Washington DC, she first worked as a White House media affairs officer, followed by becoming director of public communication for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In 1995, Kearney was appointed to serve as the personal diarist to the president, the first person to hold such a position. Kearney kept a daily diary of President Clinton’s activities and attended top-level meetings, events, and press conferences to document a comprehensive history of his administration.

Beginning in 1997, an Independent Counsel investigation of President Clinton resulted in a wide range of inquiries regarding personal and political allegations. Along with others in the administration, Kearney became involved in a controversy about campaign fundraising. In 1998, she was ordered to testify regarding Clinton’s extramarital sexual activities. Her presidential diary was subpoenaed, but no wrongdoing was found.

In 2001, Kearney left Washington after the end of Clinton’s second term. With the Arkansas State Press having suspended operation in 1998, Kearney moved to Chicago, Illinois. She commenced a two-year fellowship at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute. There, she began writing a Clinton biography, published as Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton, from Hope to Harlem in 2006.

In Chicago, she was named a visiting fellow at DePaul University, was appointed Chancellor’s Lecturer for Chicago City Colleges, and wrote a syndicated column, Politics Is Life, which appeared in African-American newspapers nationwide.

After establishing Writing Our World (WOW) Press in 2004, she published several books. The first part of her memoir, Cotton Field of Dreams, was published in 2004, followed by Conversations (2006). In 2008, Kearney published her first novel, Once Upon a Time There Was a Girl: A Murder at Mobile Bay, and the second installment of her memoir, Something to Write Home About: Memories of a Presidential Diarist. In 2014, she published Sundays with TJ: 100 Years of Memories on Varner Road, about her father.

For additional information:
“Janis F. Kearney.” The History Makers. http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/janis-f-kearney-39 (accessed May 9, 2017).

Kearney, Janis F. Cotton Field of Dreams. Little Rock: Writing Our World Press, 2004.

———. Something to Write Home about: Memories from a Presidential Diarist. Little Rock: Writing Our World Press, 2008.

———. Sundays with TJ: 100 Years of Memories on Varner Road. Little Rock: Writing Our World Press, 2014.

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated 5/9/2017

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