Veteran newsman chats in lighter tone

The Baltimore Sun

On television news, it's Sam Donaldson, serious reporter. He has covered American presidents, reported on the ground during the Vietnam War and anchored various news programs at ABC News, where he began working 42 years ago.

The veteran newsman displayed his lighter side last week when he spoke to a group of more than 200 people at The Key School in Annapolis as part of the school's 50th anniversary celebration, riffing on current events, the presidency and the state of journalism.

Seizing on the news of the day - the collapse of former Sen. Tom Daschle's Cabinet appointment because of unpaid taxes - Donaldson joked as he addressed the crowd. "We were just a little late tonight because I let my car and driver go," he said. "And I was poring over my taxes."

Donaldson, 74, has some room to make light of the ways of Washington now, as one of the elder statesmen of broadcast journalism. He maintains a presence on the network, appearing on This Week, ABC's weekly public affairs program airing Sunday mornings, while also writing commentaries on ABC News' Web site and hosting his own half-hour program, Politics Live, on the high-definition digital network ABC News Now.

While still busy, he said he could see himself "going part time" in the next year or so.

"I'm still in the news business," Donaldson said. "People often tell me, 'It's terrible what's happening these days.' When the kids come to me with their Facebook, and they come to me with their 'tattle tale,' what is that? Tattler? Titter? Twitter? ... The transmission belts have all changed. I don't care what your transmission belt is, remember if you're going to tell people things, they should be accurate."

Iris Krasnow, an author, journalism professor at American University in Washington and the mother of four Key School students, invited Donaldson to speak at the school.

"He's a national treasure," Krasnow said. "He is America. He is history. He is politics."

Donaldson began his career in broadcasting in Dallas in 1959, working as a television announcer at the local CBS affiliate. In 1967, after trying to break into the television news business in New York, he got a job with ABC News, where he became chief White House correspondent 10 years later. He has also hosted World News Sunday and Prime Time Live.

During his hourlong talk at Key School on Wednesday night, he reflected largely on his years covering Washington politics.

Of Jimmy Carter, he said, "I covered him, and I happened to like him."

He could relate to George W. Bush, he said, because of their Texas backgrounds. Donaldson was born there, though he was raised in nearby New Mexico.

"I felt a kinship with him," he said of Bush. "He meant to do well."

President Barack Obama is "a smart guy, clearly," Donaldson said.

"I have never known a president, beginning with John Kennedy, who doesn't come to the office saying, 'I have the answer, I've been elected, and I'm going to do good,' " he said.

Hearing Obama issuing a mea culpa on five television networks for the Daschle drama was shocking, he said.

"I have watched every president, because they're all human, and they're human beings, screw up, to use what now has become the popular phrase in the last 24 hours, but I have never in my life heard it admitted," Donaldson said. "Barack Obama yesterday, if you watched, submitted voluntarily to public floggings.

"I've seen other presidents, when they had these early missteps; they lose a certain amount of public confidence. ... Some of the people that thought they walked on water, say, 'Hey, what's that sloshing around his knees,' " Donaldson said. "And then I've watched presidents who've learned from those mistakes, change their M.O.'s and go on to successful presidencies. And let's hope, no matter how we voted that that's the case in this case ... because if this president blows it ... we all go down the drain. ... So we all have to hope it works out."

He added, "On the other hand, the problems still remain. If these guys are so smart, why did they nominate all these people when these people had problems?"

Marcella Yedid, the head of school at Key, said she was accustomed over the years to seeing the serious, gruff newsman on television and was smitten by his off-camera persona.

"I watching him regularly on Sunday morning and there's a much more serious side to him, and what you find here is charm," Yedid said.

Donaldson ended the talk by advising others on what he measured as his key to success - hard work.

"I left so many people behind that were so much smarter than I am," he said, "and certainly better looking for television. But I was willing to outwork them."

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