Pale Wire (Popscene)

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Sam Donaldson Show
ABC newsman lets it all hang out for MU J-Students

(Dick Swanson)

Earlier this afternoon, Sam Donaldson used the sheer power of personality to hold me and a dozen of my classmates from the University of Missouri captive in the ABC News Washington bureau for more than two hours.

Running roughshod over the entire political history of the United States from 1960 to present, Donaldson ventured to rate the performance of each White House press secretary, offered imitations of characters ranging from George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to Sen. Everett M. Dirksen, shared stories from his days as a restless young Republican in El Paso, Texas, expressed grave concerns over the current state of union, and even cajoled our gentle program director, former UPI White House correspondent Wes Pippert, into performing an improvised pantomime of the Cheney-Whittington mishap that featured Donaldson wheeling wildly out of a crouch and pretending to shoot a dumbfounded Pippert with an imaginary shotgun.

Collected below are some of the highlights from my notes. Donaldson was rolling too fast for me to get everything down, so I've limited this report to what I recorded hard and fast. His speech is punctuated with self-deprecating asides and anecdotal tangents. I was so busy scribbling down the substance of what he said that I often left those out. Assume that any ...'s signal such a remark. I've also juggled things around a bit to organize the quotes by topic1. Believe me, this only scratches the surface.

On blowups at White House press conferences:
"There's often a kabuki dance going on. The thing to do is to find out what's really going on. It's very difficult.
You're seeing just a small portion [of a reporter's newsgathering]. By the end of the day what you get [in the press room] is only a portion of your story. ... The idea is that's what we're all about.
We can't win. If [the secretary] stays cool, he looks like a calm font of knowledge being beset upon. The impression doesn't transmit what's really going on there.
Reporters don't want to see a president fail. Why would they want to see a president fail?

Advice for any press secretary:
"Tell the truth! You can bob and you can weave and you don't have to voluteer that the emperor has no clothes." But you have to accept "that what we're doing is the American way, if you will. We're not the enemy."

Rating past podium jockeys:
  • Pierre Salinger
  • Donaldson referred to him only briefly as "the plucky Pierre Salinger."
  • Ron Ziegler
  • He "was the worst one in modern times. He lied. ... Ron Ziegler bought into the fact that he would lie about Watergate. ... His reputation never recovered."
  • Jody Powell
  • He "was a good one." He and Carter "were so close that he knew everything."
  • Marlin Fitzwater
  • "Marlon was the best." ... That's because "he understood our job. ... He put the president in the best light without treating the press like they were complete fools."
  • Dee Dee Myers
  • They didn't give her a chance. ... They didn't give her the information.
  • Mike McCurry
  • "He was good, but he knew just as well as all of us that Clinton was lying."
  • Scott McClellan
  • Doesn't have "the experience of Marlin Fitzwater, the close access of Powell or the savoir-faire of McCurry."
On Ronald Reagan:
"I found it impossible to dislike him."
On George W. Bush:
"This is not a dumb guy."
"The president came to power not really understanding the world having not been out in the world."
On how his administration handles the press:
They've been "arrogance 101 personified" and are "acting like they still have a 91 percent approval rating."
"The president and his men have a job to do and we have another job to do. We're all good Americans." .. They act like "we're the enemy, to some of them. They're cutting their own nose off."
On America in Iraq2:
"We're fools. ... The hope was that they let us get out before they kill each other...Tit-for-tat. Not that that's what their religion is about, but it's going to happen. We can't stop it, in my opinion."
"Mao said power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but in the end it comes from ideas. That's why we can't win in Iraq."
On the UAE port deal:
"I think the president's right. I think there's not a security issue."
On female presidential candidates:
"Five years ago I would have said there could well not be a way even if she walked across the tidal basin in a white robe. ... Today, I think yes--but not just any woman.3"
On the important role cameramen play in television news:
"Television is pictures. It's not some guy standing there. It's not good writing, although you can appreciate that regardless of media. It's the pictures."
On the future:
"Friedman's right. The world is flat."
On his career:
"I'm proud to say I'm a member of the old school. We make a lot of mistakes. We're lazy. But we try, we make the effort in a distinguished way."
1 In other words, not all of this is in chronological order. He was, to use his own phrase, bobbing and weaving from topic to topic, often returning with knockout force to a theme he'd only jabbed in the earlier rounds.
2This was prefaced by an erudite recounting of the history of Iraq's formation and a direct comparison to the fractured former Yugoslavia.
3Hillary Clinton stands a chance, Donaldson said. Although he'd pick John McCain over her today (who he sees an unlikely GOP candidate). By 2008, he said things are likely to be fundamentally different than they are today.