President Barack Obama has yet to get his feet on the ground. George H. W. Bush is underrated, while John F. Kennedy is overrated. Ronald Reagan did indeed help to end the Cold War. And while he may have been a crook, Richard Nixon dealt with the Soviet Union and China effectively.
Those are among the thoughts Sam Donaldson shared with Newsmax as he retires after 41 years with ABC News.
Donaldson, 74, is most remembered for shouting questions at Reagan as the president climbed into his helicopter, Marine One. As if he couldn’t hear the questions, Reagan would cup one of his ears. Reporters thought he was being cute, but Secret Service agents say Reagan actually was hard of hearing. Eventually, he got hearing aids.
While most people think of Donaldson as a liberal, his questioning of presidents was equally sharp for Democrats and Republicans. He is a friend of conservative columnist Bob Novak and introduced him at the Ronald Reagan Banquet at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
While today’s reporters are good at asking tough questions, Donaldson says, they went easy on President Obama at his first press conference.
“Now there was one question I wanted to ask, and had I been there, I might have asked it,” Donaldson says. “And that is something to the effect that, ‘Mr. President, you told us last week, you know, you said you screwed up on some of these things, because you didn’t have one rule. Now you have one rule that will apply to everyone,’ we’re talking about taxes, right? ‘so what do you have to say about Treasury Secretary Geithner? Are you going to ask for his resignation?’ Well, of course he would say no.”
Looking at a rating released by C-SPAN of American presidents, Donaldson says George Washington, rather than Abraham Lincoln, should have been rated as No. 1.
“If George Washington had not been the general that he was, and if we hadn’t had someone like him, we would not have beaten the British,” Donaldson says.
He disagrees with John F. Kennedy’s rating of No. 6.
“For my generation, John F. Kennedy was Barack Obama,” Donaldson says. “That was the excitement. I came to Washington in February of 1961, and I was mesmerized by this young president. But I don’t think he was the sixth most effective.”
On the other hand, Donaldson says George H.W. Bush should be rated higher than No. 18.
“I think he was a much more effective president in a lot of ways than the voters give him credit for,” Donaldson says.
Donaldson became a White House correspondent when Jimmy Carter was president. He thinks Carter should have been rated slightly higher than No. 25. While Carter made a lot of mistakes, “I think some of the things he did are cornerstones that historians, if they are dispassionate about him, will say this was good, this worked,” Donaldson explains.
While Nixon is rated No. 27, “There are a lot of people who think he should be last,” Donaldson says. “But I don’t, if they rate him on effectiveness. Yeah, he was a crook. Singularly, he left the presidency, we all know how. But the way he handled the Soviet Union and . . . China . . . were all important.”
Donaldson agrees that Nixon should be rated higher than George W. Bush, who came in at No. 36. He says he feels ambivalence toward Reagan, who was rated No. 10.
“As time goes by, my view of him gets better,” he says. “Not that I had a terrible view at all, I liked the man. But some of his policies — not all by any means — which at the time I thought were absolutely dead wrong, I’m now grudgingly conceding were not that bad.”
It was “impossible to be around Reagan much and dislike the man,” Donaldson says. “Forget the politics, for the moment. He wasn’t a ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ like a back slapper, but he was someone whom you genuinely liked. You liked the way he carried himself, you liked the way he acted; at least I did.”
Donaldson says Reagan’s expenditures on weapons systems and the so-called Star Wars missile shield hurt the country financially. “But I now recognize that he did outspend the Soviet Union in a way that hastened the demise of Soviet Communism, which I think is a good thing,” Donaldson says.
Donaldson agrees that Reagan should be rated higher than Bill Clinton—who was No. 15—and Lyndon Johnson—who came in at No. 11.
“Bill Clinton’s first two years were terrible; and then, from a combination of things, with great help from Newt Gingrich and the boys who shot themselves in three feet, he turns out to be pretty good,” Donaldson says.
Of the newest president, Donaldson says, “The victory of the stimulus package kind of smothers some of the nits about the misfires on taxes and what have you. On the other hand, it is clear that he has not got his feet on the ground yet . . . And what new person coming into the presidency ever does?”
While segments of the press were pushing Obama during the campaign, Donaldson says he does not think that affected the outcome.
“I really don’t think we’re in an era of less press fairness,” Donaldson says. “If you go back to the days of William Randolph Hearst, we’re probably much fairer today in general than the so-called mainstream press, which was more Republican then.”
While Donaldson broke the story, based on findings in my book “The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency,” that the Justice Department was investigating abuses by FBI Director William Sessions, he still can’t bring himself to speak harshly of him.
[Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]
“I found it impossible to dislike Judge Sessions, and I don’t dislike him,” Donaldson says. “But clearly some of the — let’s call them mistakes — were not what you want to do.”
In recent years, Donaldson has been co-hosting “Politics Live” on ABC’s digital and Web channel, “talking to an audience of dozens,” he jokes. Donaldson notes that while he will be leaving his full-time job at ABC-TV next week, he will not be leaving broadcasting.
“I’m going to be on ‘This Week on ABC’ once a month,” he says. “I’m going to do radio every week. And ‘Good Morning America’ says, ‘We’ve been using you and Cokie Roberts from time to time as a political duo, can we do that?’ And I said yes.”
As for the press’ honeymoon with Obama, Donaldson says, “If in six months or less they aren’t just scratching at him as usual, then I’ll be terribly surprised.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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