Sam Donaldson Set to Retire Next Week From ABC News

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009

Whatever else he accomplished in his 41 years at ABC News, Sam Donaldson knows he'll be remembered mainly for his bellowing voice.

"I guess it'll be on my tombstone: 'He yelled at Ronald Reagan,' " Donaldson says.

Now, with little fanfare, the 74-year-old newsman is retiring from full-time work next week. "Some people leave the business bitter, feeling they've been cast out, or they hang on too long," he says. "And I don't ever want to get in that position."

Colleagues say the combative public image can be misleading. Most people "saw Sam's bluster, but underneath he absolutely has a heart of gold," anchor Charlie Gibson says. "He's really just a sweetheart underneath." Donaldson might not want that to get out.

"Working with Sam is like walking a high wire, because you never know what he might say," Cokie Roberts recalls. And he rarely wound down. Once, on an all-night flight to Normandy, she says, "he had the flight attendants literally on their knees at his seat, talking to them."

Donaldson's detractors viewed him as a liberal blowhard, and there were certainly times when his mouth outran his brain. Donaldson encouraged Colin Powell to run for president in 1996 and kept predicting that he would. Five days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted, Donaldson said of Bill Clinton: "If he's not telling the truth, he's done. . . . I think his presidency is numbered in days. This isn't going to drag out. We're not going to be here three months from now talking about this."

In his heyday, Donaldson co-hosted two major ABC programs: "This Week," with Roberts, and "PrimeTime Live," with Diane Sawyer. He will continue to appear as a "This Week" panelist once a month and do some work for ABC radio.

In recent years Donaldson has been co-hosting "Politics Live" on ABC's digital and Web channel, "talking to an audience of dozens," he jokes. If he were on a "60 Minutes"-type program he might continue, Donaldson says, but he did not ask ABC executives for a new contract when the old one expired after the 2008 campaign. "If they were going to push me, at least I jumped before they did," he says.

The four-time Emmy Award winner is most proud of some of his long-form reporting, such as tracking down a Nazi war criminal in Argentina. But it was as a White House correspondent in the Carter, Reagan and Clinton years that he made his mark as the epitome of an aggressive reporter.

In the 1980s, Donaldson's shouted questions to Reagan on the White House lawn -- which some found disrespectful -- stood out because they preceded the rise of a confrontational cable news culture. But Donaldson, who went on to write the best-selling "Hold On, Mr. President," had more affection for the Gipper than was sometimes apparent.

"Reagan was kept at a very good distance," he says. "When he heard a question he wanted to answer, he frequently would come over to the rope line and answer it. . . . Whatever notoriety I achieved in those years, it was because of standing in his reflection."

Without being asked -- this is Sam we're talking to -- Donaldson offers some advice to President Obama: "I want to hear ruffles and flourishes and 'Hail to the Chief' when you walk in. One of Reagan's strengths was as a performer. When he entered a room, the president of the United States was there. We don't want the guy next door." While Obama is "still in the honeymoon phase," Donaldson says, his initial missteps are "beginning to erode that halo, which always happens to presidents, of infallibility or greatness."

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