Sam Donaldson, town crier of the White House press corps
Washington — THE White House press room door opened, someone yelled, ``Everybody out to the Rose Garden!'' and suddenly it looked like the running of the bulls at Pamplona. Hesitate and you might have been trampled in the crowd of reporters and photographers charging toward the first glimpse of President Reagan in weeks. It was a delft-blue spring day, crisp and windy enough so that the American flag snapped in the breeze as the President strode out toward the Rose Garden microphones. The White House press corps was funneled by guards to a position behind ropes at the back of the garden, squeezed in beside bleachers for TV cameras. The press also faced an additional obstacle: a moat of several dozen White House staffers standing directly in front of them, creating a 30- to 40-foot barrier. For reporters taking notes, it was nearly impossible to see the President, jaunty in a dark gray suit, white shirt, and emerald green tie. They heard him praise the US Coast Guard crew who rescued 37 survivors from a Russian freighter that foundered off New Jersey and welcome them to the United States. Then he walked briskly back to the White House portico as the press groaned and muttered because they were cordoned off too far away even to bellow a question. Suddenly a reporter shouted, ``Sam's got him!'' and another murmured, ``Sam's always got 'im.''
ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson had headed the President off at the steps, just a second after he turned and gave a final wave to the crowd. Donaldson, the author of the new book ``Hold On, Mr. President!'' (Random House, N.Y.) had done it again, getting in the only questions of the day. By the time the rest of the press corps had trooped back to the porch, Donaldson was writing notes on the back of an envelope with a foxy smile on his face.
Donaldson has been both praised and panned for his aggressive reporting on a distanced President, for shouting questions at Reagan in a megaphone voice that can be heard even above the helicopter rotors when the Reagans take off for Camp David. Recently the rest of the press has been shouting at the President, too. ``I used to have the field all to myself, but in the last couple of years or so a lot of reporters have taken the opportunity, because we're all frustrated at not having access to the person we're there to cover.''
He tells what it's like to cover the White House for 10 years in his book, but a few more insider's secrets slip out during an interview at the ABC News offices here.
``I find the way to get the President's attention, aside from the obvious one of being heard ... is you've got to unlock his mind.'' Donaldson cites an example from his book: the President in Boise, Idaho, refusing three times to comment on Donaldson's question about whether he would apologize to President Mubarak of Egypt over US interception of an Egyptian airliner. But when Chris Wallace of NBC asked, ``Do you have anything to apologize for?'' Reagan said ``Never!'' Donaldson says the President had been told not to comment, ``but you had to unlock his mind.''
The technique outside of a press conference, says Donaldson, ``is to secure his attention, ask a simple, direct question, the answer to which can be phrased without great complexity. Now, it may be something like `what is your view of...?' or `how do you respond to that?', not just a `yes' or `no' answer.''
At the White House, Donaldson is all business, standing tall and peering clinically around the place to make sure not a fleck of news gets past him. You see him on camera doing his ``stand-ups'' on the White House lawn in a resonant baritone, a dapper and sometimes caustic town crier spreading the news of the day. In person, off the White House beat, that daunting attitude disappears and a more expansive, relaxed person emerges - one who's even more candid than he is on-camera.
He is still dressed in his stand-up duds: gray and white pin-striped suit, red foulard tie, white shirt. The face is familiar from close-ups: the sleek, dark hair has threads of auburn and gray, the thick eyebrows - which both seem to be raised in a permanent query above gray-green eyes flecked with black, the wide, skeptical mouth.
As he relaxes in a conference room at ABC, Donaldson talks surprisingly of Nixon and Reagan: ``And I'll leave it to you to decide which man deserves more of our - oh, anguish. Nixon set out deliberately and with every tool at his command to cover up for his people because of the Watergate break-in. There's no evidence yet, and I think we'll never find any because I think it doesn't exist,'' that Reagan acted with the same zeal. ``See, I'm probably one of the few people in Washington who believes he actually forgot.''
Donaldson notes that FDR had press conferences twice a week; that President Carter had them every two weeks and was available on a daily basis for comments. ``The problem with Reagan is that except on those ceremonial occasions when he presents himself to us, we never see him.'' It had been four months between press conferences when Reagan appeared on March 19.
``Think of all the legitimate questions for the President of the US in four months, outside of the Iranscam story!'' he says. ``[Presidential press secretary] Marlin Fitzwater is talking about trying to find some new way to find time to question the President without shouting at photo opportunities.''
Mr. Fitzwater says of Donaldson, ``Sam is one of the best. He's a serious student of the issues, always inquisitive about the facts, and aggressive in their pursuit. But I think the most praiseworthy of Sam's traits is the fact that he's always relevant. I mean, he asks questions that are germane and central to the issue.
``Sam often has a degree of confidence that allows him to report a story just based on his own knowledge. And there aren't many reporters who have that confidence, and who are right.''
Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas of United Press International says, ``If there weren't a Sam Donaldson, we would have had to create him. He may be the enfant terrible to some people; to me he is the absolute essence of showing democracy at work in the White House, that we don't put presidents on pedestals. We respect them, we respect their role, but we challenge them, and we make them explain, and be accountable.''
Donaldson bridles at the Reagan administration's recent treatment of the press, as epitomized by former presidential aide Patrick Buchanan: ``The only use they want of us is as a conduit. If we don't docilely accept that fate, then they try to use us as foil to generate hostility to us and therefore support for them. It's Nixonian that way. The reason I keep excepting Ronald Reagan is not that I don't know he, too, has these feelings of frustration about the press ... but that most of his public life ... I've felt he has generally understood the role of the press.''
NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace calls Donaldson ``a first-rate professional'' and notes that ``people concentrate on the shouting and the theatrics. You know that's Sam's game.'' But it isn't his greatest strength, Wallace says, explaining: ``There's a considerable effort made every day at the White House to put the best face on the news, to distract us, sometimes, from what's really happening. Sam is very good at keeping his eye, his focus on the news, on what's really important. And I think that's his greatest strength, not lung power.''