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Hold on, Mr. President!

Hold On, Mr. President!

Let's get this out up front: I like SamDonaldson. More to the point, I even liked the guy when we were hurling insults and accusations at each other in the White House briefing room some years back. Unlike some of his colleagues, he always came straight at you. If he had a story he knew you'd hate--and he often did--he'd make sure you got a chance to have your say. And when you talked to Donaldson about a story, you were dealing with the man who makes the decision. No ninny in New York was going to call in at the last minute to tell him how to cover the White House.

Well, now there is a Donaldson book*, and itcomes right at you, too. It's vintage Sam. He says he rejected the idea of hiring a ghostwriter, and it's clear that he's telling the truth. Read a few paragraphs aloud and your eyebrows begin to arch upwards in that inimitable Donaldson style. It's him alright.

* Hold On, Mr. President! Sam Donaldson. Random House,$17.95. To be published at the end of March.

The Donaldson ego is there, too. Toward thebeginning of his chapter on television news reporting he unabashedly observes: "Call me a braggart, call me arrogant. People at ABC (and elsewhere) have called me worse. But when you need the job done on deadline, you'll call me.'

Still, there is more than the usual ration of self-deprecatingstories and admissions of error. The latter are rare enough in Washington books of any description and particularly scarce in those by journalists.

Hold On, Mr. President! does not claim to bea scholarly dissertation on the last quarter century of Washington journalism, and it's not. Mostly it is a collection of stories, anecdotes, and observations. At that level it is the best such collection to come along in quite a while. In at least two areas, however, his book has serious things to say about business immediately at hand.

The first has to do with the nature of areporter's job, particularly at the White House. Appropriately, his first chapter is entitled "Challenging Presidents.' What he has to say is hardly new, and it might not have seemed terribly important three months ago. Now, with most journalists pumping out lame defenses for their six-year failure to challenge much of anything about the present administration, Donaldson's dogged approach deserves more than casual consideration.

Most of the journalists now squirming in thewake of the Iran scandal wouldn't be caught dead shouting a question at a president from behind a saw-horse. Some even turn up their noses at presidential press conferences. All are now using presidential answers to Donaldson questions to explain belatedly to the public what this administration is really like.

Who asked the question on Martin LutherKing that produced evidence of profound presidential ambivalence over whether King was a "communist sympathizer?' What about the one that elicited the sweeping condemnation of the Soviet Union at Mr. Reagan's first press conference? Or the one that produced the first statement from the president, or any other administration official, that the goal of American policy was to "remove' the Sandinista government of Nicaragua? You guessed it, and the list goes on and on.

Donaldson says his job is to challengepresidents, to press them for explanations and justifications, to get the man at the top on the record and keep that record straight. Not a terribly original idea, but one that has suffered from some degree of neglect in recent years. Indeed, a reasonable case can be made that more attention to establishing the record and keeping it straight over the past six years might have kept the administration and the country out of the mess in which we now find ourselves.

The other thing that Donaldson's book shoulddo, though I'm not sure to what extent the effect was intended, is to disabuse all but the most perverse of the idea that political or ideological bias is the major problem in Washington journalism. It is simply not possible to read Donaldson's account of the truimphs and disasters of his career--charges onto convention podiums, leaps from airplane doors, stake-outs, ambushes, and all the rest--and conclude that he and his colleagues are primarily interested in promoting a political point of view. Their interest, sometimes to excess, is getting a story and getting on the air, preferably at the top of the evening news and ahead of the competition.

The bias toward being exciting and being firstcan produce its horrors, as several of Donaldson's stories make clear and as those of us who've been on the receiving end of network coverge will readily attest. It's that problem, not political bias, that those "media critics' should be addressing.

Actually, Donaldson's book may have anotherconsequence--one that was almost surely unintended. Some of those people out there who have delighted in Sam Donaldson as the television correspondent they love to hate, who damn his irreverent questions even as they delight in the answers they provoke, are going to read his book. Their curiosity will simply get the best of them. And they're going to end up seeing their old bugbear as a very human, witty, even--God help us--likeable fellow.
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Author:Powell, Jody
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1987
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