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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: 6 / 9)

ABC News Correspondent

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  Sam Donaldson

To paraphrase something out of Watergate, what did you know about achievement and when did you know it? When did you realize you were on the right path? Not only the big break in your career, not only the Washington job, but the network job that has propelled you to where you are.

Sam Donaldson: I knew early on that the news business was right for me. I enjoyed it, it was fun. If I thought it was work, I might not have done it. There's a great lazy streak in me for things that I am not really interested in, but I think that's true of everyone. I thought it was great fun, and I enjoyed it, and I thought I was doing something that was important and that fulfilled me.

Now, my goal when I came to Washington was to some day, some day, earn $10,000 a year. I thought if I could earn $10,000 a year I could write back to El Paso, Texas and say, "Look at me." I've done a little better than that. But I guess my point is, there was no money in the news business when I started in it. That was not the goal, to make money. And I never thought about being famous. It didn't occur to me that that was going to happen to me. I simply enjoyed the work. I think people ought to think about their goals, not in terms of, "I'm going to make millions of dollars," or "I'm going to win the Nobel Prize," if you're a scientist, or "I'm going to win an Oscar," if you're an actor. You think in terms of what you'd like to accomplish in your field, what you'd like to do. And then, if you're lucky enough to be able to do that, these things may come, or they may not. But they're not the goal. It's something else that's the goal. And then material benefits, or other so-called benefits, will flow from that.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

All my early years in the '60s, whether working for a local station in Washington, or beginning at ABC, I didn't think of myself as successful in terms of, "I'm a big star, I'm a big Pooh-Bah, I'm a number one reporter." I did think of myself as successful in being able to compete and get the job done. Some days the competition would beat me and I'd go home thinking awful thoughts, want to hide under the bed, depressed. But of course, in the news business, when you're working a daily news broadcast, you get your victories and defeats every day. If you get a defeat today, go back tomorrow morning and you may beat the competition. And you go home thinking you're on top of the world. "Boy did I whip them! Did I get the story!" And so, I thought of myself as successful in those terms. I could compete, I could get my share of the stories, I could get a television report on the air that told you something, that was accurate, that was right on, and that was enough for me. I didn't think in terms of, "And some day I'll be way up here," or "I'll make all of this." it was simply that I was doing well, enjoying what I was doing.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

It wasn't until the late '70s that a lot of people knew me. People would stop me on the street. It was sort of a new phenomenon. My print colleagues began to write about me, not always favorably, may I say. They like to pull my tail a little bit. It's fair. Then I began to think, "Something's happening here. It's not just that I'm laboring away, having a good time in the news business, getting my share of successes, getting my share of failures. In fact, I seem to be doing pretty well by everyone's standards."

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
I tell the story about my friend, Ted Koppel, who began Nightline in 1980. He is a brilliant success, and does it better than anyone else I can think of in the business. People said, "Where'd he come from?" The answer is, he worked for 20 years learning his craft, and nobody knew him. If you'd said to him, "Are you successful?" He'd have said, "Yeah, I'm successful." But not in the terms that he is now thought of.

I covered every campaign, on the bus, from 1964 'til 1988. In '64 it was Goldwater, '88 was Dukakis, book-ended with two losers. I had a few winners in between. Jimmy Carter was one of them. I covered Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1976, and then ABC made me the White House corespondent.

Now, the White House beat in Washington, in those days certainly, was a prestige beat. It was the most used beat in town. Executive producers came to the White House for stories, whether they really should be on the air or not, because who could complain to them if they said, "It's the President of the United States. What do you mean, it wasn't the lead?" So if you're the White House corespondent, you got known. You were very visible, you were on the air a lot. This became the kind of success that lifted you just slightly above what you'd been, which was the ordinary, street-working reporter. I never thought of myself as better than my colleagues, simply that I was in a favorable spot there. On the other hand...

The White House beat is the most sterile beat in town. You're not doing any original reporting. You're sitting there in the press room, waiting for a press secretary or a president to come out and tell you whatever they want to tell you, and you pass it along. It's the old garbage in, garbage out. You try to do a little more than that, but it's not investigative reporting. It's not really going out there and digging up stories. So while at the one moment you have the most prestigious beat in Washington, the other moment you have the most sterile beat in Washington. That's why I was there 12 years, and I thought I'd stayed there too much.

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
When Roone Arledge came and made ABC News important, he did it in lots of ways. He brought us money, which we hadn't had before. He brought us air time, which we hadn't had before. He brought us an élan and a spirit as an organization. With Roone, we knew we were with a winner, so we began to act like winners. And the audience began to see us as winners. He hired a lot of good people. David Brinkley is a perfect example of a perfect hire by Roone Arledge.

David left NBC because the NBC president at the moment didn't think much of him. Didn't think much of David Brinkley? This man should have his head examined. Roone snapped him up in a moment. Now David has had a career at ABC as long as the career he had at NBC, from the standpoint of doing the Huntley/Brinkley report 14 years and he's done This Week with David Brinkley on ABC for 14 years.

As we moved into the '80s, and after Ronald Reagan became President, then I understood that more people knew me, and more people wrote about me, and more people watched me than ever before. In some terms, I guess this was more success. But I didn't enjoy it any more than I enjoyed it back in the early '70s when few people watched us, and I was the Watergate correspondent. I was still doing a job, and enjoying it and loving it.

Sam Donaldson Interview Photo
With this recognition came other trappings of success. Some of the money in my business today is absurd. I believe in the marketplace but, from the box office standpoint, to equate news reporting on television with people in Hollywood, who draw in hundreds of millions of dollars, and therefore get that kind of money, I think is kind of silly, but it happens. But it was never the goal.

I say to young people today, "If you think you're going to get into the television news business to make money, think again. First, it's the wrong motive and you probably won't succeed because you won't have your eye on the right ball. And second, it probably won't happen, because it's not the rule. It is, to some extent, the exception.

Hey, I'm not going to give it back. I've earned it honestly, but this kind of success was not what I was seeking and it was not my goal in life. It was not what keeps me enjoying the business then or now.

Don't tell the people at ABC who must write my next contract, but I would work for far less if I had to, in order to do the business. It's not about making money, it's about telling news, investigating stories, putting them on the air, whether on PrimeTime Live now, or arguing with Cokie Roberts and George Will on the This Week round table. It's about doing the work, that to me is what success is: doing the work and enjoying it.

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This page last revised on Aug 30, 2009 13:23 EST
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