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If you like Sam Donaldson's story, you might also like:
George H.W. Bush,
David Halberstam,
Nicholas Kristof,
Charles Kuralt,
Peggy Noonan,
Dan Rather,
Neil Sheehan
Mike Wallace and
Bob Woodward

Sam Donaldson's recommended reading: Plutarch's Lives

Sam Donaldson also appears in the videos:
Perseverance and the American Dream
Advocacy and Citizenship: Speaking Out for Others

Related Links:
University of Texas

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Sam Donaldson
Sam Donaldson
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Sam Donaldson Interview (page: 5 / 9)

ABC News Correspondent

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  Sam Donaldson

Going back to your mother for a moment, she obviously played a tremendous role in your upbringing and influenced your life tremendously, what did she think when you told her that you wanted to go into broadcasting?

Sam Donaldson: As a farmer, she thought that was fine. I did not come from a family of so-called high achievers. My father, who died before I was born, was a farmer. It wasn't a family where, "If my son isn't a doctor, if my son isn't a lawyer, if my son isn't President of the United States, if my daughter doesn't go on to become famous, then you've failed."

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
I don't mean to be critical of people, I just have to give you my opinion. I think it's great if parents push their children to learn, push their children to understand work ethics, push their children to understand how to be moral, good citizens. But if the parents try to live vicariously through their children, or they say, "You've got to be a Nobel Prize winner, or else you're a failure," it tips the other way. Now the kid is overwhelmed, and if he or she isn't a success immediately, gets guilty about it. I think parents go too far if they make that strong an attempt to push it.

There was this tragic case of the young kid whose parents pushed her to fly across the United States solo at the age of what, seven? I don't know that a seven year-old really knows her own mind as to that kind of ambition. I always felt that it was at least one, if not both, of the parents that wanted to achieve it for themselves. That's wrong.

Besides your mother, was there any particular person who inspired you to pursue what you're doing?

Sam Donaldson: I'm sure along the way I ran into some great teachers and people that I admired, but other than my mother, who pushed me and gave me so many things, there is no one person that I can point to and say, "That person." When I got older, there were people who gave me breaks in this business, without whom I could not be sitting here today. I appreciate what they did for me.

Let me give you an example. When I got to Washington, D.C., having practically starved to death in New York, there were six or seven of us auditioning for the job. The man who was president of the company came in from his sick bed. He just said, "I want to come in. I don't feel well today, but I'm going to do it," and he chose me. Some time later, after he gave me the job and I was doing fairly well, he said to me, "You know, I didn't really think you were better." He mentioned a couple of other guys and said, "They were probably a little better than you were." But he said, "I was in the Army in World War II, and you were in the Army, and I thought -- I like this guy." What a lucky break! What if he hadn't come in? What if he said to his deputy, "You take this audition." The deputy hadn't been in the Army. He would have chosen one of those other guys. It's a lucky break that happened.

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
I've admired a lot of people in this business, and other people have done things for me, but I'll name one, although to name one is to exclude everybody else. Howard K. Smith was a CBS television correspondent. I didn't ever work for CBS, but the CBS news bureau was housed in the same building as the local station I worked for in Washington. I admired Howard. And then later, Howard worked for ABC and I worked for ABC, and I admired him there. I thought he was an excellent reporter, a very level-headed, sober journalist. I will always think of him as one of the best people ever in this business. There are lots of others. Frank Reynolds, who died tragically of cancer at the age of 59, was the anchorman at ABC for long years. He was another person I admired tremendously.

When you were starving in New York, what impact did that have on your later years? Hitting rock bottom, and moving on from that adversity, how did that affect the rest of your career?

Sam Donaldson: If you have a setback, and you're not doing well and then you overcome it somehow, it always sticks with you. You know it could happen again. I don't think of it in the sense of not being able to buy my next meal. On the other hand, it could happen. I barely knew the Great Depression of the '30s. I was very young, and we were very lucky. Living on a farm, we weren't deprived of food or clothing. But young kids today have no memory of that whatsoever, and even their parents don't have any memory of it. That's good. I'm glad we're not going to have another great, worldwide depression.

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
On the other hand, maybe it doesn't occur to them that sometime in this country, let alone in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, it did happen, and it could happen again. So when you're out of work, and you're not making any money, and the bill collector's pounding at the door, it does give you a realization that this could happen again.

Other than that, I think my New York experience didn't do anything for me, or against me. Although I'll confess something to you: to this day I don't particularly like New York City. Nothing personal guys, but we hold grudges, don't we?

Washington has certainly agreed with you very well.

Sam Donaldson: Well, now it has. But I want to tell you a couple of things. People ask me all the time, "Well, you had a game plan, right?" And the answer is no. I wanted to be in this business, and once I got into the business I knew I enjoyed it, and I liked it, and I wanted to continue, but I never had a five year plan. "Okay, in five years I'm going to do this, in three years I will advance to here, in eight years I'll be the White House corespondent." Nothing like that.

I worked at this local station in Washington for six years. And ABC came to me and they said, "We'll hire you as a Washington correspondent." Now, if it had been CBS, or NBC -- which in those days, in the mid-'60s, were the major news networks, poor ABC was kind of a distant third -- I would have jumped at it. But it took me about three weeks to decide, well, okay. So, I went to ABC. I was lucky though, and I think people should think about this when they look for opportunities. ABC was a distant third, but the competition therefore was so much less. I got to do in the first few weeks and months things, and I drew assignments, that I would never have drawn at CBS or NBC. I would have been the ninth guy, hanging on by my fingernails waiting to go on. Whereas at ABC I was anchoring some of their programs, some of their specials, immediately, because there wasn't that much competition.

Now that was an upside of going to an organization that didn't have a lot of depth. The downside was, of course, who knew it? I was the Watergate corespondent for ABC in 1972 and '73 and into '74, but who knows that? They know that Daniel Schorr was the CBS Watergate correspondent and he was everywhere. Carl Stern was the NBC Watergate correspondent, and he was everywhere. I would go home after our evening newscast, and I'd eat my heart out watching these specials the two major news networks put on night after night. We didn't have one. ABC didn't have one all summer long in 1973, when Senator Ervin conducted the Watergate hearings in the Senate.

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
Some wags said we were number five in a three-man field. So the downside was that your wares were not particularly seen or appreciated. But look at what happened. Roone Arledge came to ABC News, having made ABC Sports the terrific number one division that it was, and he turned ABC News into a terrific number one division. And those of us who were here laboring in the vineyard -- Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Tom Jarriel -- suddenly were able to show people what we'd learned and what we could do.

So I guess the lessons there are twofold. If you can't get a job immediately with the number one organization you want to work for, think about the startup organizations. Think about the new enterprises. Okay, I'll go to work for them. I won't make much money there. I won't really be running with the big boys, but I'll have an opportunity to show what I'm worth. And if this company prospers, then I'll be Mr. Number One, even though I wasn't able to get a job with the Mr. Number One that I thought existed at the time.

And secondly, if you just keep working, maybe some break will come along and propel you up. I didn't have anything to do with the fact that Roone Arledge came to ABC News and made such a great success of the news department, but I was able to benefit from it. Whereas, if I'd say, "Well, I've got to run off now because, heck, we're still number three," instead of, keep on truckin', keep on doing my job, I wouldn't have been there.

Who was it who said, "learn to labor and to wait?" That sounds like such a downer slogan, "learn to labor and to wait." I think there's some truth there. It doesn't mean you just sit there in an anonymous sense and continue to lead your life "in quiet desperation." It means you can't be flitting around all the time. Keep your eye on the ball and keep on working.

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