Sam Donaldson

Sam Donaldson

ABC News Veteran

Samuel Andrew Donaldson, Jr. was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up just across the state line in Chamberino, New Mexico. His father died before he was born, leaving his mother and one older brother to run the family's cotton and dairy farm. His mother drove 25 miles every morning and night to take him to school in El Paso. He became interested in broadcasting at an early age and, after graduating from New Mexico Military institute, majored in telecommunications at Texas Western. He immediately began working at local stations as a disc jockey, announcer and interviewer. While still in El Paso, he had his first taste of television, working as an announcer in the region's first television station.

After a single year of graduate school at the University of Southern California, Donaldson returned to El Paso. At that time an enthusiastic young Republican, Donaldson worked for the Eisenhower campaign over the summer of 1956, arranging the El Paso stop of Vice President Nixon. This was only the first of many encounters with the nation's political leaders, but Donaldson's politics were to change dramatically over the years to come. The following autumn, Sam Donaldson reported to Fort Bliss to fulfill his military service as an ROTC commissioned second lieutenant of air defense artillery. Although the defense cutbacks of that year shortened Donaldson's obligation to six months, he volunteered for another two years of active duty. After receiving his honorable discharge in the spring of 1959, he settled in Dallas and found work as a television announcer at the local CBS affiliate. At 26, he was restless and ambitious and, after only a year in Dallas, left the Southwest for the first time to seek his fortune in New York City. After initial setbacks in New York, he found a job at WTOP, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C. He has lived in the Washington area ever since. He rose through the ranks of WTOP's news department, and had just been promoted to weeknight anchorman in 1967 when he accepted an offer from ABC News. At the time, ABC's news division, chronically underfunded and understaffed, ran a distant third among the three networks. In his first decade at ABC, Donaldson's work attracted little attention, but he persisted, covering the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey, as well as the Vietnam War and Watergate.

The turning point came in 1977, when he was assigned to cover the incoming Carter administration as ABC's Chief White House Correspondent. Donaldson's aggressive style of questioning, much assisted by his powerful speaking voice, quickly drew the attention of the public and the immense irritation of the White House staff.

Later that year, the fortunes of ABC's news operation took a precipitous turn for the better with the appointment of Roone Arledge as head of the division. Arledge, who had already revolutionized television sports coverage, brought the same hard-driving approach to the news operation. He expanded coverage, and lured distinguished news personalities from the other networks with unprecedented salary offers.

Donaldson prospered too, and the next change of administrations in Washington offered Donaldson a perfect opportunity to make an impression on the public. Although President Reagan held relatively few press conferences, Donaldson took every opportunity to press difficult questions on the new President. Television audiences became familiar with the sound of Donaldson's voice booming over the rest of the White House press corps, even over the drone of the President's helicopter, as the Chief Executive dashed across the South Lawn to escape his relentless inquisitors.

By 1981, in addition to his White House duties, Donaldson was serving as anchor of World News Sunday and taking an occasional turn as moderator of Issues and Answers, a long-running Sunday morning political discussion programs. Towards the end of 1981, a new program, This Week with David Brinkley, replaced Issues and Answers in the Sunday morning line-up. At first, Sam Donaldson only appeared on the program on a rotating basis with other correspondents, but he soon became a permanent member of the panel, questioning guests for the first half of the program and joining in the roundtable discussion with Brinkley and newspaper columnist George Will for the second half.

Donaldson published a memoir, Hold On, Mr. President, in 1987. After the 1988 presidential campaign, Donaldson left the White House beat. He continued to anchor World News Sunday until 1989. The same year, he took up duties as co-host of the evening news magazine Prime Time Live a post he would hold for a decade. After David Brinkley retired from This Week in 1996, Donaldson and Cokie Roberts took over as co-hosts of the program, a job they would share for the next six years. During that time, Donaldson continued a panoply of journalistic activities. In 1998 while still engaged with Prime Time Live and This Week, he returned to the White House beat for a year-and-a-half, lending his insight to the legal difficulties engulfing the Clinton administration.

After finishing his tours at Prime Time Live and the White House in 1999, Donaldson pioneered Internet broadcasting, hosting a regularly scheduled live webcast from 1999 to 2001. For the following three years, he hosted a three-hour daily news discussion program on ABC radio, The Sam Donaldson Show - Live in America. A pioneer of journalism in digital media, he hosted his own half-hour program Politics Live, on the high-definition digital network ABC News Now, a program made available 24 hours a day, on television, over the Internet, and on mobile phones and other wireless devices.

Over the years, Sam Donaldson has received numerous honors for his contribution to broadcast journalism: the Broadcaster of the Year award from the National Press Foundation; Best White House Correspondent honors in 1985, and consecutive Best Television Correspondent honors in the four following years from the Washington Journalism Review; three George Foster Peabody Awards and four Emmy Awards. Today, Sam Donaldson lives in McLean, Virginia with his wife, television reporter Jan Smith. Retired from day-to-day- journalism, he can still be seen on many Sunday mornings as a guest panelist on ABC's This Week.

Photo obtained from:

Sam Donaldson
Landon Lecture
November 21, 1997