Sam Donaldson Interview (page: 9 / 9)
ABC News Correspondent
The type of story you just mentioned, bringing an admitted criminal to justice, is that the type of story that gives you the most satisfaction?
Sam Donaldson: It is now. Most of my life in Washington has been spent in the hard news beat, covering Congress -- the best beat in town -- the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House. I enjoyed starting the day asking questions of Presidents Carter and Reagan, and other Presidents, Clinton, Bush, Nixon, and at 6:30 at night the story would go on the air for a minute and forty.
But I think the work I'm doing on PrimeTime Live now, in the later part of my working career, is probably more important. It closed a military base in Bermuda. We found that there was a U.S. naval base there, very important during World War II, very important during the Cold War, but when we went there I said to the admiral, "Do you have any ships?" He said, "No ships." I said, "Do you have any planes?" "No planes." But they had some very nice VIP quarters.
The base was kept open to run the airport for the Bermuda government. That's a British airport, paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Congress closed that base and saved $33 million. I thought that was interesting. I liked that. We've taken up the story of whistle blowers. We've done a story about sexual harassment in the workplace, in the Navy particularly, and in the armed services. It's had some results, I like that.
We've done stories about insurance scams and frauds. This young woman had two kids dying of cancer, but her HMO wouldn't give her the money for a bone marrow transplant, because it was an experimental treatment. We shamed them into it and she got the bone marrow transplant. I've lost track of her now, but at least for a while, she was doing better. I think that's worthwhile.
I think those things are more fulfilling, in a sense, than when I bring the news from the White House and say, today President Reagan did this, or he didn't do that. Personally, when I go home and we've done something on PrimeTime that helps people and changes things for the better, I really feel fulfilled, and I really think that's the way to go.
Speaking of cancer, you had a brush with it yourself, didn't you?
Sam Donaldson: Yes. In July of 1995 I discovered, soaping my groin one night, that I had a lump. What's this lump? I was marginally smart enough to understand that wasn't good. The next day I went to the doctors and had a biopsy done, and yes, it was a melanoma. Seven and a half years earlier I'd had a skin lesion removed that looked a little bad on my ankle, but they'd sent it to three separate laboratories, and three separate pathologists had all said it was not cancerous, and they were all wrong.
That's one of the mysteries of cancer, where were those cancer cells for seven and a half years? What were they doing? Lying on the beach? Suddenly they got a wake up call, "Okay, it's time to grow." Not a thing for seven and a half years, and then all of a sudden this lump.
I had it removed obviously, and all the lymph nodes. There was one node that was involved, the others were clean. So what does that mean? Well, according to statistics, a little over half the time people who have had this particular situation see it again. It comes back, typically, within about two years.
A little less than half the time, they never see it again. Now, which am I? Is it going to come back? Is it not going to come back? The verdict's already in, but I don't know it. So I'll just wait and see, and if I get hit by a truck at age 80, I'll figure it didn't come back. And if in a year or so we're having a different type of conversation, then it has.
Did that experience cause you to pause for reflection?
Sam Donaldson: Well, I wasn't scared. I'm not scared of the unknown and death. On the other hand, I'd rather not at the moment, thank you, because I'm enjoying life. I'm having a great time. Selfishly, I have to tell you, I want to stick around.
I was sad, because like most people I didn't know a lot about cancer. The word melanoma, to me, meant instant death. I understood it was one of the most vicious types of cancer, because it's not susceptible to radiation or chemotherapy, thank you. So, when I learned it was a melanoma I sat my wife down and I said, "We have to prepare, it may be a short period of time: a few weeks, or a few months." And I was sad, because I love her and I'm enjoying life. But I wasn't frightened in the sense of, "Oh, I'm going to die." Maybe if I was 30 years old, I would have been. But I'm 62, as we speak, and while I'd like to be 72, and -- if I remained in good health and had the mind -- 82, it's not like a young person. I've lived a lot of life and I've done a lot of things, seen a lot of things, and I understand the actuarial tables. We are not going to live forever.
[ Key to Success ] Courage
So I figure that, if I cashed out at 62, I'd like to have lived longer, but I had a pretty good run. In fact, as I've said, it may never come back. And if it doesn't, terrific.
What else would you like to achieve at this point?
Sam Donaldson: Most of my life, I've had no big goal. I'm in awe of people who win the Nobel Prize. The other day, I asked a guy who had won the Nobel Prize in science, "Did you set out to win the Nobel?" He said, "No. You don't set out, to win the Nobel Prize, therefore I'll go to the laboratory and do this. I'm inquisitive about this. What I do is go into a laboratory see if I can find out about this."
So what would I like to do for the rest of my life? Keep working. I don't have a goal to say like, "I'm going to find a big story and blow the lid off it. I'm going to bring down a president." No, no, no. I'm going to keep working, and if I do things and they're successful, maybe they'll win recognition, maybe they won't. It really won't matter, because that's not why I'm doing them.
Of all the people you have interviewed, presidents and other people, is there a particular interview that you remember and enjoy in particular? What type of interviews do you enjoy doing? Is there someone you really admire, that you've talked to in the past?
Sam Donaldson: Well, I do. My friend, Ted Koppel, does certain types of interviews on Nightline. The late Eric Sevareid did hour-long interviews with great thinkers of the western world. That's not what I do. I do political interviews mainly, interviews in which I'm trying to find out specific information. Often it's people in trouble, in trouble politically, in trouble because they've stolen money, in trouble for one reason or another.
So the type of interview I enjoy most is the one in which I get information that the public wants, that the public needs, out of someone who doesn't want to give it. If I can get it in some give and take, sitting down on David Brinkley's program on a Sunday morning, on a PrimeTime Live location, that's the kind of interview I like.
One time, Jimmy Carter flew to the Mideast to try to put together the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. They had put together the cornerstones at Camp David, but it was slipping away. The last percentage was not working out. And all of Mr. Carter's political advisors said, "Don't go. There's nothing in it for you. It's a no win situation. The odds are you won't be able to do it, and everyone will blame you. And they won't blame you if you just stay home."
But Jimmy Carter, being Jimmy Carter, said, "No, I'm going," and he got in his airplane and he flew over there and he saw his friend, Anwar Sadat and then he went to Israel and saw Menachem Begin. And the last night it looked like he had failed. Everyone knew that Mr. Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, was being obstreperous by not giving in on some key points that President Sadat of Egypt had insisted on.
When we left the next morning, everyone thought the mission had been a failure. We stopped at the Cairo Airport, and Sadat came out and they all went into a little Quonset hut. Begin had stayed in Israel. When they came out, President Carter gave the most obscure little talk. He said, "We have now set in place the cornerstones on which we can build success." What did that mean?
He was walking down the red carpet, down to Air Force One with President Sadat. Now, I sang out and I said, "Mr. President," I said, "is it peace? Is it peace?" He said, "Well, I don't think we better go beyond what President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin and I agreed to say at this point." And I said, "But you said something to the effect that if the Knesset agrees that -- are you saying that it's peace?" And he looked at me and he said, "Yes." Well, everyone ran and filed. And of course, all the smart guys told me later, "Well, we knew that all the time." And I said, "Well then why did you wait to file 'til he said that at the rope line?" Now, you say, "Sam," you're going to say, "that's a great interview?" No. I mean, is that one of those wonderful interviews that lives in history? No. But I got a piece of information that, at that precise moment, told the world something that was quite important. And as a reporter, I thought that was a great interview.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
I was quite pleased to have done that.
What book in particular is most memorable to you? What book inspired you in your life and in your career?
Sam Donaldson: As a young kid -- I guess I was in my teenage years -- Plutarch's Lives, one of the great classics, interested me. I've always been interested in history, in biography. Plutarch's Lives is simply the biographies of people in an ancient era: Caesar and the Antonines You study how they lived and what they did, and how they thought.
I can't tell you I came away from it saying, "Okay, now I'll pattern myself after this guy, and this guy, and this guy." But I came away with the sense that some people who were very ordinary when they started out could make something of themselves. And the very title itself! Plutarch was, of course, the author, the compiler of all of this. But lives? What is it about various peoples' lives who are successful, who make something of themselves, who make a mark in history and on the world? That book influenced me.
Now today, I get 10 books from publishers every week. Why? Because they think I'm so wonderful? No. Because they want PrimeTime Live to help the sale of the book. I can't read them all, but I skim some, and I read as many as I can.
I come back to biography, books that some of the great writers of today have done about our presidents, Harry Truman or Richard Nixon, a fascinating person if there ever was one, in the dictionary sense of the word "fascination." I enjoy these books, David McCullough, all of the historians who write. They're the ones that influenced me the most. When I get on an airplane, I buy a little Pocketbook, a mystery, or a spy novel, or Ludlum, and I spend four or five hours in an airplane going from one coast to the other, and I read that and forget it. That's escapism.
When I'm on an airplane, I read briefing material, if I'm going to shoot an interview, if I need to prepare myself for something the next day. Otherwise, I don't want heavy thinking. I'm like most people, I just want to sort of read along. The car plunges over the cliff, and the guys with the machine guns shoot, and of course the hero escapes. That's good enough.
What do you do for fun?
Sam Donaldson: My wife and I have ranch land in New Mexico. It's my native state, as you know. I'm a farm boy, born and raised in the Southwest. When I was young, I couldn't wait to leave the farm. Now that I'm older, I can't wait to get back.
It's a working ranch, and we're trying to make a profit there. We're not doing a very good job. Cattle prices, as we speak, are in the cellar. There's been a three-year drought. The old-timers say it might have been worse during the Dust Bowl of the '30s, but I'm not certain. Wool prices this year were awful. You see, that's what I do for pleasure. I keep the books, I write the checks, I pay the bills, I make out the government reports, I confer every day with the ranch manager. We make decisions about whether we're going to have to sell some of the herd, because we don't have enough to feed them.
What are we going to do about the coyotes, that are eating the lambs like there's no tomorrow? They're eating so many lambs, I thought the other day I'd put out some mint jelly, in case they want it with their mutton. Every time I say this, the conservationists and the people who love animals just jump all over me. "What? A coyote is a predator and has a right to live." Yeah, they have a right to live, I'm all for that, but they're eating my lambs, folks. I just put it to you, doesn't the lamb have a right to live? "Yeah, but you're going to sell the lamb and they're going to kill the lamb for the money." That's right. If you're going to be in the sheep ranching business, you have to try to get rid of the coyotes. Otherwise, you're not going to stay in the ranching business.
People want to reintroduce the Mexican wolf. That's wonderful! Wolves kill calves, not just sheep. If there's a government program to compensate ranchers, okay, it's fine. But if you say to the ranchers, "We're going to put the wolf out there. It's going to eat all your calves, and if you don't like it, lump it." I don't think that's the way it ought to work.
It's okay for me. At the moment I'm making a good salary at ABC. But I know people out there that have worked on the ranch all their lives. They don't have an ABC salary, what are you going to say to them? "So your daddy made this, and your grandfather made this, but we want to put the Mexican wolf here because the wolf once roamed here, so go find other work. See if you can become a newscaster?" No, that's not realistic.
The other day in Washington, two groups came to town from Hollywood. They were wearing their red badges to show that they were in the fight against AIDS. I'm all for the fight against AIDS, and I applaud them for doing that. They came to town, I should add, in order to join people who wanted to save the animals, all kinds of animals. "We shouldn't eat meat, we shouldn't kill animals." But they suddenly discovered they were being picketed.
They were picketed by AIDS activists who say, "We need animals in the laboratory to help discover ways to cure AIDS." It must have been a terrible contradiction for these people. I think animals have a right to live. They're part of our ecosystem, they're part of God's creation. But as long as we have the society that we have, they play a part in which they provide food for us, and they help us unlock the mysteries of science to preserve life.
In conclusion, is there anything you'd like say to young people who are aspiring to achieve what you have?
Sam Donaldson: No. You'll do it. I say, in conclusion, if I could make it, anyone can make it.
Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
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