Sam Donaldson memories

After 41 years at ABC News, Sam Donaldson retired last week. I had the pleasure of competing against him during the 1980s when we both covered the Reagan White House.  I shared the CBS News booth with Lesley Stahl and Bill Plante. Sam was next door with Ann Compton and Brit Hume.

Sam may be remembered best for shouting questions at President Reagan, which many people thought was rude. The truth is, we all did it. Sam just had the loudest voice. And we had to shout for a couple of reasons.

First, Ronald Reagan held so few news conferences that the only chance we really had to question him was as he came or went from the White House and outside events. But he often didn’t want to talk, so the staff would make sure that Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, kept its engines running while parked.

That meant it was noisy on the South Lawn, so the only way to get Mr. Reagan’s attention was to yell at the top of our lungs. Didn’t always work, of course. He’d cup his ear as if he couldn’t hear us and just keep walking. When Sam yelled, we knew for sure the President was just faking deafness. Tourists waiting in line outside the White House could probably hear Sam just fine.

Sam was also a master at asking simple questions that often produced the most revealing answers. I vividly remember this exchange at a Reagan news conference in 1983, at a time when Congress was debating whether to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday:

Sam Donaldson: Mr. President, Senator Helms has been saying on the Senate floor that Martin Luther King, Jr., had Communist associations, was a Communist sympathizer. Do you agree?

Ronald Reagan: We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we? No, I don’t fault Senator Helms’ sincerity with regard to wanting the records opened up. I think that he’s motivated by a feeling that if we’re going to have a national holiday named for any American, when it’s only been named for one American in all our history up until this time, that he feels we should know everything there is to know about an individual.

Sam’s career had lots of memorable moments. ABC has a video retrospective. And then there’s this memorable interview from the end of the 2008 campaign:

Here’s something else you need to know about Sam. He’s a big-hearted soul who’s fun to be around. Yes, we were competitors and nobody was more determined to beat the other guy than Sam. But he could also be compassionate and  generous. He’s one of a kind.

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