Sam Donaldson has retired from ABC News after 41 tumultuous years. His going–without an official send-off or even a press release–was the way he wanted it. A loud man, Donaldson elected to go quietly. We all should miss him. He was good for his audience and a tonic for his colleagues.
As controversial as he was competent, Donaldson is not so much remembered for his reporting around the world as for his years as ABC’s chief White House correspondent–and for his antics in that role.
Sam covered Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But, he told me when I interviewed him on my television program, “White House Chronicle,” that Reagan was his favorite. Donaldson famously shouted questions at Reagan, who clearly enjoyed the repartee–sometimes breaking away from his staff to answer one of the questions Donaldson shouted from behind the rope line.
The public–and maybe some of the suits at Disney, which owns ABC—thought Donaldson rude. Clearly, Reagan did not. Two fine actors were enjoying their roles, feeding off each other.
And that is the thing about Donaldson; he is always on. The energy he showed in bawling at presidents was the same energy that invigorated the White House press corps.
Make no mistake, Donaldson has always been an invigorator, a controlled explosion of a man. When he was in the White House briefing room, it was palpably alive. When he was not there, it was as it is today: earnest, serious and subdued. The closest personality to Donaldson’s for sparking up the briefing room has now moved on: David Gregory. Without big energy, the place lacks a robust sense of itself.
Television and print both seek to tell the news, but they are not the same animal. Shouting out at presidents, or anyone else, will not help a print reporter. Deft cultivation of sources and a sensitive ear are the tools of great White House scribes. But for television, the getting of the story can be as much the story as what is elicited. On a TV news program, the quarry pushing away the camera is significant. It is just a frustration to a newspaperman.
Donaldson knew so well that a question avoided by the subject on television amounts to a question answered. In an interview with The Washington Post, Donaldson said he might have gone for a contract renewal if ABC had a program like CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Clearly, Donaldson misses the years of confrontation.
As a White House reporter, Donaldson’s strength was an indifference to what people thought about him. He did not care whether his antics annoyed his colleagues. And he had the good sense to ignore his peers.
At the end of Clinton’s visit to China in 1998, there was a full press conference in Hong Kong. That was before former President George W. Bush insisted on having a list of reporters to call on and the questioning became formulaic–something, sadly, President Barack Obama has continued to do.
Donaldson failed to find a front-row seat, where he could be heard. Undeterred he found a chair at the back of the room, carried it to the front, set it up with the back facing forward, and sat with his arms resting on the back. Simply, his action said: “I am Sam Donaldson, and I am here to question the president of the United States.”
It was pure chutzpah; and it worked. I doubt the preselecting of questioners by the current White House staff would have survived the Donaldson treatment.
He could also be considerate. In Uganda, during Clinton’s extended African trip, a large gathering of schoolchildren, local officials and, of course, the traveling press was assembled in an arena under a broiling African sun. As usual, Clinton was inconsiderately late. Everyone baked, but none more than the video crews in the “pod,” which is the structure in front of the podium from which the president is to speak. They were trapped, unable to leave in case Clinton appeared. The rest of us were given crates of life-saving ice water.
It was Donaldson who realized their predicament and struggled through the crowd with ice water for the crews. It was thoughtful and observant.
It was the softer side of Sam Donaldson: correspondent extraordinaire.
I once had the privilege of observing Sam in action at the White House. I was there covering the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony for the radio stations I worked for in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This was not long after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. I remember we were standing on the press riser in the East Room waiting for President Clinton to enter. All of a sudden there was this commotion among the TV camera operators and sound crews. The word was Sam was going to shout a question about Monica at the President. The next thing we knew, Sam is making his way from one end of the riser to the other. All the cameras and boom microphones were swinging into position. No one was going to miss this! In walked the President and First Lady and Sam shouted his question. As usual, the President did not answer, but it made for some good footage on the nightly broadcast. Vintage Donaldson! Do you think CBS or NBC might make him an offer? Sam, enjoy your retirement – you’ve earned it!