Sam Donaldson of ABC News struck a sour note with more than a few women and minorities Sunday morning. Depending on their disposition, they gasped, sucked their teeth or simply shook their heads as they watched him on national television address D.C. Democratic mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon as "Ms. Norton" and "Mrs. Norton."
"I just couldn't believe it," Dixon said the morning after her appearance on ABC News's "This Week With David Brinkley."
"We, as women, I guess, are indistinguishable," she said.
Some were able to dismiss it as an innocent mix-up the first time Donaldson, a longtime panelist on the show, turned to Dixon and said, "All right, Ms. Norton, I want to ask you . . . "
They seemed to let it pass because the question he proceeded to ask her referred to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic nominee for the D.C. delegate's seat in Congress. As Donaldson noted, after apologizing to Dixon, "You anticipated what I'm going to ask you about, or at least my fuzzy mind this Sunday morning did."
But when he started off a question about national politics with, "Mrs. Norton, let me ask -- " Dixon shot back in exasperation: "Ms. Dixon, I tell you."
Donaldson, who admitted having made a lot of "palookas" in the course of his television career, explained this week that he had just returned from a trip to Pakistan and was tired when he did the show.
He said he understands why Dixon would be annoyed at being incorrectly identified on television, but he can't fathom how anyone could charge the error to racism or sexism.
"There are certain things we have that mean more to ourselves than to others," said Donaldson, a co-host of ABC's "Primetime Live" who was for 12 years the network's chief White House correspondent.
"I am just as sorry as I can be that I did it once, that I did it twice, that I did it at all. But for anyone to suggest that I did it consciously or unconsciously because I was dealing with two black women, it just sort of blows my mind."
Donaldson, who said he has had the same kind of mixup with white people, stands by his record when it comes to fairness.
"I stood for civil rights, the rights of minorities, the ERA, right down the line," he said. "My mail is filled with people -- they used to call me "commie" -- of course there is no more communism in the world . . .
"I just think it's terribly unfair. People can think whatever they want, but I think they're barking up the wrong tree on this one," he added. Taxing Strategy
The campaign of Eleanor Holmes Norton was canny last week in the way it went about "disclosing" the tax problems of the Democratic candidate for D.C. delegate.
The campaign made its announcement late Friday afternoon. One of the city's major daily newspapers, The Washington Times, does not publish on Saturday or Sunday.
Late afternoon also happens to be the time of day when newspapers and the television network affiliates around town are pulling together the day's events for the next day's editions and evening news broadcasts. Under the best of circumstances in those deadline situations, it's often difficult to assimilate complicated financial data and then present it in a coherent form.
The Norton campaign also decided, at least initially, to mask the true size of the candidate's tax bill. At first, instead of saying specifically what back taxes Norton had been required to pay, the campaign issued summaries of her federal and local tax history, grouping together numbers that effectively concealed what she owed in back taxes.
That was the case in connection with taxes that had been withheld over seven years from the paychecks of Norton and her husband, Edward. In the days leading up to the Sept. 11 primary, Eleanor Norton repeatedly reassured political audiences that her accountant had determined that much of her tax liability had been covered by the sums of money the D.C. government had taken out of their paychecks.
But one would not have known it from the summary she issued Friday, which detailed neither the taxes withheld over the seven years -- $32,499 -- or, more importantly, the additional money that the couple still owed the city, $33,638.
Norton also paid the city $26,353 in penalties and interest, for a grand total of $88,546.
Because the summaries did not itemize the Nortons' various obligations to the D.C. treasury, some early television news reports that evening understated the amount of back taxes that Eleanor Norton had been forced to pay.
Despite earlier assurances, the Norton campaign also declined to share with voters the couple's federal income tax returns for 1983 through 1989, the years they did not file their local income tax returns. In a prepared statement, the campaign said Edward Norton had objected to the release of federal or newly filed local returns because he felt it would be an invasion of his privacy.
According to Eleanor Norton, it was the husband who put the wife in the horrendous political and personal predicament of acknowledging she had not filed her city taxes for seven straight years. Yet when push came to shove, it was the husband's objections that rendered the campaign mute on some of the important questions still lingering over the entire Norton tax affair.