Sam Donaldson has retired from ABC News after 41 tumultuous years. His going–without an official send-off or even a press release–was the way he wanted it. A loud man, Donaldson elected to go quietly. We all should miss him. He was good for his audience and a tonic for his colleagues.
As controversial as he was competent, Donaldson is not so much remembered for his reporting around the world as for his years as ABC’s chief White House correspondent–and for his antics in that role.
Sam covered Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But, he told me when I interviewed him on my television program, “White House Chronicle,” that Reagan was his favorite. Donaldson famously shouted questions at Reagan, who clearly enjoyed the repartee–sometimes breaking away from his staff to answer one of the questions Donaldson shouted from behind the rope line.
The public–and maybe some of the suits at Disney, which owns ABC—thought Donaldson rude. Clearly, Reagan did not. Two fine actors were enjoying their roles, feeding off each other.
And that is the thing about Donaldson; he is always on. The energy he showed in bawling at presidents was the same energy that invigorated the White House press corps.
Make no mistake, Donaldson has always been an invigorator, a controlled explosion of a man. When he was in the White House briefing room, it was palpably alive. When he was not there, it was as it is today: earnest, serious and subdued. The closest personality to Donaldson’s for sparking up the briefing room has now moved on: David Gregory. Without big energy, the place lacks a robust sense of itself.
Television and print both seek to tell the news, but they are not the same animal. Shouting out at presidents, or anyone else, will not help a print reporter. Deft cultivation of sources and a sensitive ear are the tools of great White House scribes. But for television, the getting of the story can be as much the story as what is elicited. On a TV news program, the quarry pushing away the camera is significant. It is just a frustration to a newspaperman.
Donaldson knew so well that a question avoided by the subject on television amounts to a question answered. In an interview with The Washington Post, Donaldson said he might have gone for a contract renewal if ABC had a program like CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Clearly, Donaldson misses the years of confrontation.
As a White House reporter, Donaldson’s strength was an indifference to what people thought about him. He did not care whether his antics annoyed his colleagues. And he had the good sense to ignore his peers.
At the end of Clinton’s visit to China in 1998, there was a full press conference in Hong Kong. That was before former President George W. Bush insisted on having a list of reporters to call on and the questioning became formulaic–something, sadly, President Barack Obama has continued to do.
Donaldson failed to find a front-row seat, where he could be heard. Undeterred he found a chair at the back of the room, carried it to the front, set it up with the back facing forward, and sat with his arms resting on the back. Simply, his action said: “I am Sam Donaldson, and I am here to question the president of the United States.”
It was pure chutzpah; and it worked. I doubt the preselecting of questioners by the current White House staff would have survived the Donaldson treatment.
He could also be considerate. In Uganda, during Clinton’s extended African trip, a large gathering of schoolchildren, local officials and, of course, the traveling press was assembled in an arena under a broiling African sun. As usual, Clinton was inconsiderately late. Everyone baked, but none more than the video crews in the “pod,” which is the structure in front of the podium from which the president is to speak. They were trapped, unable to leave in case Clinton appeared. The rest of us were given crates of life-saving ice water.
It was Donaldson who realized their predicament and struggled through the crowd with ice water for the crews. It was thoughtful and observant.
It was the softer side of Sam Donaldson: correspondent extraordinaire.
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This is the year of the political talk show. Never have so many had so much to say about so little. No wonder CNN snapped up Tony Snow, when he left his job as White House press secretary. David Gregory, the uncontested successor to ABC’s Sam Donaldson as press corps lightening rod, is missing from NBC’s booth at the White House. He is doing a talk show for MSNBC–just one more talk show host in long lineup that includes Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & Colmes, Keith Olbermann, Dan Abrahms, Wolf Blitzer, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Campbell Brown. Even C-SPAN does politics.
But if you do not get cable, do not worry. You can still get your fix of talking hosts on over-the-air broadcasting. Beginning on Friday night, there is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” It is the national anthem before the main event. The first-string players take the field on Sunday morning. On my dial the lineup is “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press with Tim Russert” and “Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.”
Two programs, “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation,” have been around since the days of radio. But all political broadcasting today owes much to a half-hour show that thundered to life 25 years ago. I speak of “The McLaughlin Group” and its extraordinary host, John McLaughlin.
McLaughlin invigorated the television talk show. He made the host a participant and encouraged contention, even shouting, among the guests.
It is hard now to remember how static the talk shows were. The host was a magisterial figure, who pretended he had no interest in the discussion. I was a panelist on “Meet The Press,” when Bill Monroe moderated it. There was a single guest who was interviewed by a panel of reporters. You could get in two questions, and that was it. It was a structure more satisfactory in concept than in practice. Once, when I was on the panel, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a guest. I knew Jackson well and while we were in makeup, he said, “I want you to take me to the mat, and ask me the hard questions.” Of course he knew, and I was to learn, that the format did not include hard questions.
McLaughlin’s show is now in some decline, overshadowed by the resources and sheer volume of the competition. It has moved to another channel in Washington; and its rating are falling, according to The Weekly Standard. The show is a little tired, and McLaughlin’s conservatism a little idiosyncratic.
I have to confess that McLaughlin has been important to my career. I started a television talk show called “White House Chronicle,” which airs on some PBS and many public access channels, mostly because I got tired of waiting on the short list to be a guest on “The McLaughlin Group.”
At a White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, McLaughlin came over and told me how much he enjoyed my show. I told him how much he was responsible for it. This seemed to make him very happy.
Meanwhile, back on the dial, it is all politics, all the time. Or, more accurately, it is more people saying more about the tiniest perturbation in the week’s presidential campaign news. The question is whether the public interest in politics will continue after this extraordinary election year–and with it, the 24-7 political talk.
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