Sam Donaldson! He has "perfected what we all only attempt," according to columnist Robert Novak: "the trivialization of great events." Budget Director Dick Darman considers Donaldson's Sunday morning appearances on David Brinkley's show "God's little way of punishing those who don't go to church." And for Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), he's a "civil rights hero. Nobody has done more to shatter the myth of white supremacy."
That last one was just a wee subtle but still got a huge, slightly delayed round of applause last night at the Hyatt Regency, where 500 politicians, business people, media moguls and others gathered to roast the legendarily mouthy ABC newsie at the second annual Spina Bifida Association of America Dinner. The black-tie event raised $200,000 to fight the birth disorder that now affects one out of every 1,000 babies -- more than muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, polio and cystic fibrosis combined.
There were lots of jokes about Donaldson's wig, but Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the last roaster and mostly bald, declared, "I'm tired of these hair jokes. I always believed everyone is given a certain number of hormones. If you want to waste yours growing hair, that's your business." He went on to describe Donaldson as having "a smile like a wave on a slop bucket" and noted that he is a self-made man, "thus saving God from an awesome responsibility."
Donaldson, said Simpson, summing it all up, is "the kind of guy who would gift-wrap a zucchini." And comedian Mark Russell, former president Ronald Reagan and Donaldson's co-host on "PrimeTime Live," Diane Sawyer, all had comments via videotape played on a large screen in the back of the ballroom.
Reagan was shown wondering where Donaldson had disappeared to, then remembering that "he had a stint on the Diane Sawyer show." Russell, dressed as a priest, said a lengthy prayer that Donaldson would "uncock his eyebrow" and become a humble man. As for Sawyer, she swore that she really was, despite reports, comfortable around Donaldson. And she showed a couple of film clips of the man in action, including one in which, straight-faced, he asked Vice President Dan Quayle, "Mr. Vice President, is your wife smarter than you are?"
All in all, it was an evening of good fellowship of the Rotary Club variety but on the grand scale that becomes possible in Washington. Darman rushed in late from an important budget conference, complaining about the Democrats and otherwise acting like a flustered town clerk. Columnist Mark Shields emceed the event with high good humor, taking pokes at one and all like nothing so much as a small-town newsman.
The way to solve the crisis in the Persian Gulf, suggested Shields, is to bring Saddam Hussein to the United States and give him the Democratic presidential nomination, and "he'll never be heard from again."
Actually, Donaldson is quite a guy and proved it last night by taking every barb in good humor and joining in at the end with a little speech of his own, saying of his wig, "Come on, who dares to find out!" Then he joined the Capitol Steps spoofsters in a rendition of "Stand by Your Sam." The group also sang:
Who broadcasts from the gulf with his/Chest hairs stickin' through safari clothes? Who thinks that troop locations/Would really be a fun thing to disclose?
The answer: "Sam!"
Genuine affection for Donaldson emerged at the end of each critique. "He takes Democrats and Republicans apart with remarkable consistency," said Simpson. "He was for years one of the very best reporters at the White House," said Novak. And Sawyer said in her videotape clip, warmly, "Sam, you are my esteemed colleague."
Also attending the dinner were Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and ABC reporter Andrea Mitchell; ABC News President Roone Arledge; "Nightline" host Ted Koppel; Mondale presidential campaign manager Bob Beckel; Random House executive Peter Osnos; Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Al Hunt; and Donaldson's wife, journalist Jan Smith.
Members of the Spina Bifida Association were there and they told the story, personally and in a film clip, of a terrifying birth defect that results from the failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy and that can cause a loss of feeling in the lower limbs, paralysis or death.
At a reception before the dinner, Pat Johnson, the association's secretary, said from her wheelchair that she was born with the defect and has had to struggle to live something like a normal life. "I had very understanding parents who treated me as a normal child," she said, "and that made me what I am.
"I've had 32 operations -- back closures, muscle lengthenings, a lot of corrective surgery to make you more functional."
Johnson, who was wearing a big smile, said she lives in New Orleans with her four children and husband, Greg, who is a computer draftsman. "He also has spina bifida," she said, "and we met at a spina bifida conference in Orlando in '82. It's my second marriage."