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."
And he hears an echo of JFK: "For my generation, we felt the same excitement: a young president, a change from the old guard, a handsome president with an attractive wife."
The El Paso native came to Washington at the start of the Kennedy administration as a reporter and weekend anchor for Channel 9, then called WTOP. He joined ABC in 1967 when it was a "fifth-class" news operation, as Donaldson puts it, greatly outmatched by CBS and NBC.
Donaldson became a fixture on "This Week" when David Brinkley launched the program in 1981, drawing criticism that he was reporting the news during the week and slinging opinions on Sunday. This, of course, was before the days when hundreds of journalists started moonlighting as TV pundits. He and Roberts took over "This Week" in 1996 for a six-year run.
Donaldson has a knack for getting into scrapes. He was embarrassed in 1994 when "PrimeTime" reported on a congressional junket to Florida sponsored by the American Insurance Association -- months after Donaldson had accepted a $30,000 speaking fee from an insurance coalition that included the group.
The following year, Donaldson found himself the target of an ambush interview by an "Inside Edition" correspondent, who assailed him for accepting $97,000 in federal mohair subsidies for his New Mexico ranch. The payments were perfectly legal. "I'm a hot target. People either like me or they don't," he said then.
Now Donaldson, and his wife, Jan, plan to spend more time on the cattle ranch once owned by his father.
Donaldson has had health issues; he survived stage 3 melanoma in 1995, and two years ago had his aortic valve replaced. But while his ABC workload has decreased, he still has a certain irrepressible quality. Not long ago, Roberts says, he ran up a down escalator in a Connecticut Avenue building. Why, exactly? "Because he can."
Gibson says Donaldson's retirement "really is a loss of the bedrock" for ABC. "I just love the guy." But Donaldson, fearing a fuss over his decision, asked the network not to issue a news release. For the moment, he sounds content to ride the career escalator to a lower floor.
"I'm sure I went through a phase that people knew me, I was on television, the head waiters tried to sneak me to the front of the line," Donaldson says. "But I don't need that. I'm happy with my life."Coziness Is in Vogue
The Vogue cover story on Michelle Obama, by editor at large André Leon Talley, is nothing if not laudatory: "With her long, lean, athletic frame, she moves as if she could have danced with Alvin Ailey in another life. Curled up in the corner of a huge taupe velvet sofa, wearing knee-high boots as she nestles into the cushions, she almost seems like any other mom recently relocated to a city because of her husband's new job."
The Talley article mentions briefly that Obama showed up "at a fundraiser I co-hosted last year." That would be a $1,000-a-head fundraiser -- "An Evening With Michelle Obama" -- also hosted by Vogue editor Anna Wintour and designer Calvin Klein.
Wouldn't the story have had more credibility if written by someone who hadn't helped the Obama campaign raise money? Vogue Managing Editor Laurie Jones says Talley "has enjoyed a personal relationship with Mrs. Obama" since meeting her at an Oprah Winfrey party in 2005 and acknowledged working as a campaign volunteer. "André wrote a uniquely personal piece," she says, that "was possible only because of his access to the family."Obama Adulation Watch
"The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama. . . . Many women -- not too surprisingly -- were dreaming about sex with the president. . . . I understood perfectly where these cozy dreams of easy familiarity came from. It was that sense so many people share of having a very immediate connection to Barack Obama." -- New York Times blogger Judith Warner, whose dream involved Obama hogging the bathroom.