Sam Donaldson:
‘Hold on, Mr. President!’

By WND Staff

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Veteran White House correspondent Sam Donaldson sometimes drove conservatives crazy with his intense questioning of Ronald Reagan, but he also gained their respect for his toughness
with Bill Clinton.

Donaldson was the only reporter at a White House press conference to ask
Clinton if the claims by Juanita Broaddrick that Clinton raped her while he was Arkansas attorney general were true.

Clinton gave Donaldson a nonanswer by referring the question to his attorney, David Kendall.

Insight magazine caught up with Donaldson, who’s tackling talk radio these days with a two-hour ABC Radio program, ”The Sam Donaldson Show – Live in America,” and asked him about his question to Clinton, his interview style and about the leadership qualities and personalities of the presidents he’s covered.

Insight: From where did you get the gumption to say ”Hold on, Mr. President”
and to ask presidents and other powerful people such tough questions?

Sam Donaldson: I think I’ve always been fairly aggressive in what I would
hope is a civil and polite way. In our business, it seems to me, when you’re
dealing with public officials your job is to try to make them explain their programs and defend their policies. And, to get them to defend their policies and programs and their future course of action with an answer which
is owed to the general public, you have to require them either to answer or
to make it clear that they’re not going to do so. I don’t know that such
questions are tough, but they should be direct and they should have a point.

By point, I don’t mean that questions should have a point like a spear. But
many questions are asked that are either all over the lot or namby-pamby.
Why take up everybody’s time to ask those?

Sometimes reporters think they have to start a question that may even be
tough in the end by buttering up the president in the sense that, ”Well, I
want everyone out there in the audience to know that I’m not against this
great president of ours, so I’ll compliment him before I try to get him to
answer something.”

I don’t think that’s necessary, because reporters are not either for or
against the president, or ought not to be. So it’s not necessary to say,
”He’s a great man, however I’m asking him why he hasn’t picked his nose.”
Just ask him, ”Why haven’t you picked your nose, sir?” and let it go at
that.

Q: You were the only one who asked President Clinton about the accusation of
rape from Juanita Broaddrick.

A: I did. It was in March of 1999. I hated asking the question. That day I
went to the press conference with three, four or five subjects in mind, but
one of the main ones was the Juanita Broaddrick thing. She had just done
this interview with “Dateline NBC.” There had been lots of stuff in the press,
and not just the conservative press. It was a horrible accusation. Quite
clearly, in Clinton’s case, he needed to address this. When he called on me,
it was kind of late. If I had been the first to be called that day, I probably would not have asked the question. I probably would have asked one of the so-called mainstream or more important questions from the standpoint of public policy. But he called on me rather late, and so I asked the Broaddrick question. I tried to be polite about it.

The thing that struck me is this: He had his canned answer, which he was
prepared to give to any questions about scandal, and that was, ”I have said
to the American people that I intend to spend every minute of the rest of my
presidency serving them. They have put me here to work for them, and I’m
going to work for them rather than answer questions like that.”

But this question was on a subject so horrible that he gave me this song and
dance and said, ”See my lawyer, David Kendall.”

Of course, David Kendall had
not been accused of rape to the best of my knowledge, so his view on this it
seemed to me was of no public interest. And I tried, as he turned away to
the next question, to follow it up, and I said ”Mr. President, can’t you
just deny it, sir?” Because I have to tell you, if I’m ever accused of rape,
you’re going to hear me say ‘No!’ and you’re going to hear me say it loud
and clear. But he said again, ”See Mr. Kendall.”

So I’ve said to journalism students, ”In a way, you probably have your answer, don’t you?” You don’t have a direct answer, so you can’t, of course, claim that. But those kinds of nonanswers speak volumes. He should have said no.

Q: So his nonanswer increases the credibility of Broaddrick’s allegations in
your mind?

A: In my mind, it suggests that maybe those accusations ought to be taken
seriously. When the man can’t say no, and instead says see my lawyer, that
doesn’t sound to me like a denial. It makes her allegation more credible.

Q: Why do you think other reporters, your peers, never followed up with
further questioning?

A: Rape is a terribly important subject. But, from the standpoint of the
questions of public interest, it was not and should not have been at the top
of everyone’s agenda. To follow up in the sense of making this the question
of the day forever, or even at the next press conference – well, there are
other, more pressing questions.

Q: Are reporters tougher on President Bush than Clinton, less tough, or about the same?

A: I think they’re less tough, and I think there are some reasons for that.
You apply the force to the ax to chop down the tree that it’s necessary to
fell. I’m not saying the president’s a tree and we wield an ax, but in Clinton’s case, getting that old boy to sometimes tell the honest truth, as opposed to a dishonest version of the truth, was difficult.

I think in President Bush’s case, while again you want to cut the cards, he
hasn’t given us a lot of examples of someone who is not telling the truth.
So I think the approach of the press has been different as a result. And I
think that many times the way the questions are asked is different. One of
the reasons is you don’t have to put as much force behind your ax in his
case.

Q: How do you think President George W. Bush handles the press compared with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton?

A: The thing that struck me about the press conference following the
midterm elections is that while George W. Bush said all the things that
sounded humble – Oh, I’m not the one; it was good candidates – he bestrode
that room and that television set like a conquering hero.

Have you ever seen him as self-confident in what he said, the way he handled the press, the way he handled himself? I thought we were seeing in his body language, his tone, a man who knows he’s in the driver’s seat, who knows he’s in charge. I thought he was quick on his feet. I thought he showed
thought in his answers. There were almost no Bushisms. I thought in three or
four instances in that press conference the president did a pretty good job
of sharpening his answer even when the questions didn’t require that he do
so.

Q: What do you think the main differences are between the way presidents Bush and Clinton handled the press at press conferences?

A: I could give you an answer if we leave out the long Monica Lewinsky
part, because Clinton was on the defensive then.

Bush handles the press with folksiness, with jousting. Although he’s
president of the United States and you know it – you’re not on his level –
he’s letting you know that, hey, he’s a regular fellow. And if he weren’t
president, and you weren’t just a lowly reporter, you all could have
barbecue on Saturday night and sit around and have a beer and have a lot of
fun. No, he doesn’t drink anymore, forgive me. Have an iced tea or something like that.

Although George W. Bush runs a pretty good second, Clinton is still the
master politician of our times when it comes to people skills. Clinton will
walk in a room with reporters and charm them all, even those from the
Washington Times. Ask your guys. He just has that kind of knack. So while
reporters saw the little-boy side of him that was so disastrous for this
man, both in and out of the presidency, it was easy to ask him questions –
Monica aside – and get answers, even volumes of answers, about policy and
what have you.

After the Monica affair, it was a tough period. I did a couple of interviews
with him that were off the Monica subject, and he could still be charming
and friendly. Now Clinton didn’t really mean it perhaps. He had no great
love of the press, but he was able to conceal any hostility when he was
around you and do effective interviews.

Clinton and Bush are two separate men, with two separate personalities. Each in his own way, on a personal level, has been able to work pretty well with
reporters.

Q: Any other observations about how George W. Bush handles the press?

A: On the level of getting information, this president gives what he wants
to give, and that’s it. If he wants to give name, rank and serial number,
and that’s all, that’s what he does, and you can just like it or lump it.

I think he has a deep suspicion, as most politicians do, of the press. I
think he has on some level an inbred dislike of the general press, again, as
most politicians do. And while he will give lip service to the role of the
press in a free society, the First Amendment and all that, he certainly does not believe that the press, exercising its function of trying to find out
what’s really going on, has any business trying to find what’s really going
on until and unless he decides to tell them.

I have never seen in my working time in Washington so successful an effort
at secrecy in government. And we’re not talking about troop movements,
national-security secrets or intercepts. I’m talking about general secrecy
of government functions, policies and programs.

He really doesn’t believe that we have any right to the information, in
the general sense of a body politic with the press as a conduit, until he is
ready or unless he believes it’s in the national interest to tell us. And,
of course, I think that’s wrong from the standpoint of public policy and
politically.

If something happens that gets him into trouble, and suddenly he’s not 55
feet tall, it’s not going to be a good thing that he hasn’t encouraged the
free flow of information in a way that to me is the right way to go.

Q: What is your perception of President Bush’s overall leadership style in
comparison with other presidents you have covered?

A: People said, ”Ronald Reagan is going to march off a cliff.” And I said,
”Yeah, maybe so, but at least he knows where he’s going.”

And this president, thanks to his ability to be commander in chief, is projecting the
same kind of leadership in politics. There’s no question about it.

Q: You would say he’s more like Reagan than like his father?

A: Yes. I like George Herbert Walker Bush for many reasons. But this acorn
fell far from the tree in many senses. I’m not making an invidious comparison, except to say there is this difference: George W. is a true West Texan. Conservatives were right to suspect his father of being a moderate. In 1990, he made the deal on raising taxes. George W. would never do that. He’d go down in flames, I think, before he’d do that.

Q: What was Reagan like to interview?

A: Reagan did not give a good interview. He was affable and forthcoming, but
he generally stuck to his dialectic, which he knew thoroughly, and his
ideology, which he knew thoroughly. I’m not opposing that; that’s fine. …

The best interviews are the ones where you get something in addition to what
everybody already knows about the person. If you interview Ronald Reagan and you say, ”How do you feel about the country, sir?” he tells us it’s a
shining city on a hill, he talks about tax cuts and why he thinks they’re
good for the economy, and, in his day, why the Soviets are dirty people who
must be opposed and put on the ash heap of history. But I know that; he’s
said that repeatedly. What more? Why didn’t you see your grandkid for
eighteen months? You don’t get an answer from him.

At his last press conference, I asked him one of these philosophical
questions: ”Please reflect, sir, on your eight years. What do you consider
your greatest triumph?” And what I got was right out of one of his political
speeches. He didn’t open up. He’s not a philosopher in that sense, politically.

He had a great political philosophy, but he can’t ruminate or didn’t choose to. I think it was not part of him to ruminate on things other than his core beliefs, which he believed firmly and he could recite very well.

That’s why he wasn’t a great interview. He was a great master of the tube
and of public appearances. And the fact is I think, to a person, all of us liked him. We liked the person Ronald Reagan, whether we thought at times he
didn’t quite know what was going on or whether we individually as voters, as
opposed to reporters, didn’t like his policies. That’s beside the point. I
like a lot of people in this town that I wouldn’t vote for. If they
represent their views, and are honest about what their view is, I respect
them.

Q: Presidents or otherwise, what is your favorite, most revealing interview?

A: It was with a man you’ve never heard of: Erich Priebke, a Nazi SS officer. We went down to Bariloche, Argentina, 1,000 miles south of Buenos
Aires, and we found him. The morning after we got there, we were waiting for
him on the sidewalk. He comes out, and he was 80 years of age, had white
hair, a tiny-looking grandfather and a pillar of the community.

I identified myself and we had two television cameras. I said, ”May I speak
to you about what you did in World War II?” and he said, ”Yes,” in English.

He was the No. 2 Gestapo chief in Rome, and he helped execute 135 Italian
civilians – they could only find 80 Jews – and they shot them in the caves.
He explained to me, ”We were just following orders.”

We had documents in his own signature deporting 5,000 or 6,000 Jews from Northern Italy to Auschwitz. … I lost my cool and asked him, ”Should old
men be required to pay for what they did when they were young men?”

He said ”Yes, they should,” but that this was not a crime. So I lost my cool
and I said, ”Herr Priebke, I think many people think you should be executed
for your crimes.”

Something in his eyes said, ”Is it a good idea to be talking to this idiot?”
He looked up at me and announced, ”You are not a gentleman.” To which I
replied, ”At least I’m not a mass murderer.”

When we put this story on the air, Italy immediately demanded his
extradition. … They convicted him, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison. He’s now 88, and I wish him a long life.

And that was the interview that made the most impression on me.


John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine.