The first queries are softballs. Reagan fields them with ease.
Then ABC newsman Sam Donaldson strikes, posing a question about the Russians.
“Is there anything you can do to get them there?” Donaldson asks about a proposed nuclear arms meeting in Vienna, referring to the leaders of the Soviet Union.
“What?” Reagan asks, suddenly befuddled.
Donaldson smells blood.
He has been on the White House beat throughout the Reagan presidency and is no fan of the administration. He was an eyewitness to the assassination attempt, standing just five feet from John Hinckley when he pulled the trigger. Still, Donaldson feels little warmth for the president, and many members of the media share his disdain.
Donaldson doesn’t even bother to speak to Reagan with a tone of civility. He is outwardly antagonistic, often shouting questions. He has publicly insulted Nancy Reagan by comparing her to a venomous snake, calling her a “smiling mamba.”
Sam Donaldson is now in full confrontational mode.
“Is there anything you can do to get them to Vienna?” he bellows again.
The man who has spent his life speaking on cue, the entertainer who likes to tell a good joke, the politician who has dazzled millions with his rhetoric, has no answer.
Ronald Reagan is lost.
As journalists and television cameras record the moment, the president seems incapable of rendering an answer to Sam Donaldson.
Finally, Nancy Reagan leans over and whispers into her husband’s ear: “We’re doing everything we can.”
“We’re doing everything we can,” the president says to Sam Donaldson.
I’d agree. We engaged in this kabuki all the time. White House created a photo opportunity. We considered a question opportunity, too, because the pool consisted of reporters as well as cameras. Pool components were pretty well regularized—AP, UPI wire service reporters, a newspaper reporter, a magazine reporter, a broadcast reporter. At that time, there were four networks in the rotation: ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.As you can hear, the questions were matter-of-fact. We largely just wanted a sound bite on some subject for the evening news. To some degree, that would justify the networks spending thousands of dollars a day for people to sit in Santa Barbara while the Reagans were at the ranch.Even if Reagan had said something innocuous or volunteered he was doing everything he could, there might not have been a story. Nancy’s prompting was the story, such as it was.But O’Reilly is writing fiction.