Sam, I Still Am

Even removed from television, Sam Donaldson still seems a little bonkers.

Partly it’s his look: those bushy, angular eyebrows, bent upward like a jack-o’-lantern’s; those halfback shoulders and spindly arms; that swirly chestnut … mane. Partly it’s his manic body tics-the jerky shoulder shrugs, the flailing hands that chop-chop-chop down on each articulated point, like an angry chef mincing mushrooms.

But mostly it’s the Voice. Everyone knows Mr. Donaldson’s Beltway belt-forceful enough to petrify a President, sharp enough to pierce the buzz of Air Force One. The Voice can be sing-songy, like a Mel Blanc character’s-it swings up and down, from gentle to loud, with extra emphasis and pauses for critical points … and … words . It’s a happy madman’s voice: Quiet for one moment, it singes the hair on your neck the next.

“This North Korea thing is heating up ,” Mr. Donaldson said. It was a cold-as-a-mother January morning in New York, and Mr. Donaldson was sitting, in a crisp white shirt and red tie, inside a studio at WABC Radio in Times Square, where he was broadcasting his upstart talk show, The Sam Donaldson Show: Live in America .

You may not have heard it in a while, but the Voice is still kicking.

“George Bush is turning his attention to something he didn’t want to deal with ,” Mr. Donaldson said gravely. “North Korea says that it is withdrawing from this treaty immediately . It’s supposed to be a 90-day withdrawal period, but it says, ‘Forget the 90 days-we’re out of here .’”

After a lifetime in television, radio looks to be Mr. Donaldson’s epilogue. At 68, he’s a famous television newsman without a channel. Jettisoned by his network, ABC, which released him and Cokie Roberts from This Week in favor of a young Sunday-morning anchor named … George Stephanopoulos, he now unleashes the Voice upon Joes and Jills in pickups and S.U.V.’s. Live in America was launched shortly after Sept. 11.

Mr. Donaldson’s show, usually broadcast from Washington, has displayed promising growth, but is not a mega-hit. It airs in 42 cities, the host said, a fraction compared to Rush Limbaugh’s 600 or so. Live in America is on in places like Houston and Syracuse and Monterey, Calif. It is not on in places like Chicago, Los Angeles or New York City.

Mr. Donaldson remains enthused, but for a man who spent much of his life grilling heads of state, talk radio is an adjustment. This morning, the subject was North Korea; Mr. Donaldson was talking not to Kim Jong Il, but to a woman named Mickey.

“I’m not sure what we should do,” Mickey said. “I think this military has been gutted and that’s a very bad thing.” It was Bill Clinton’s fault, she said.

Mr. Donaldson made a face, as if he sensed the Clinton swipe coming from a mile away.

“I used to be a Democrat,” Mickey said. “But eight years of the Clintons and their shenanigans-that was enough for me.”

“Mickey, thanks for your call,” Mr. Donaldson said. “Thanks for your view.”

It was like this a lot, radio. Though Mr. Donaldson began his career as a teenage disk jockey, the radio wave he surfs today is largely the domain of conservative howlers and their, well, Mickeys. Mr. Donaldson, by contrast, is moderate, if a tad liberal. If he shares his point of view, it’s usually a thick, yellow stripe down the middle of the road.

“I’m not right-wing, I’m not left-wing,” Mr. Donaldson said during a commercial break. “My job ultimately is to have a civil discourse. I’m not rude to the callers; I don’t hang up on them.”

This was apparently a competitive problem, and it felt strange. People used to complain that Mr. Donaldson was too mean for television. Now they worry he’s not mean enough for radio.

“Some stations have resisted putting me on because they don’t think I’m hot enough,” he said. “The outrage level isn’t there. One guy said to me, ‘You don’t sound as outraged as you should!’”

Mr. Donaldson’s boosters believe there’s a place for him in the talk-radio universe. He could be an antidote, they believe, a centrist neo-liberal answer to the hyperbolic Rushes and Sean Hannitys. Not NPR … but not Fox News, either. “I think Sam’s in the right place at the right time doing the right thing,” said his friend Ted Koppel. Mr. Donaldson’s boss, WMAL Washington president and general manager Chris Berry, called Mr. Donaldson on radio a “home run.”

Well, maybe it was a nice single. Mr. Donaldson was determined, but not as certain he’d prevail. “I’m not sure it’s going to work,” he said. “But what you are hearing is what I feel.”

He swiveled around in his seat; Live in America ‘s commercial break had concluded. Now Mr. Donaldson was hearing and feeling a guy named Jim, who had some thoughts on North Korea, too.

“We are the 800-pound gorilla,” Jim said. “We ought to act like an 800-pound gorilla. We’ve got to stop screwing around with these people.”

Then there was Don, who didn’t have much of a problem with vaporizing Pyongyang.

“Are you advocating we use atomic weapons against North Korea?” Mr. Donaldson asked.

“Why, certainly,” Don said. “That’s what they’re advocating.”

Like a scientist handling uranium, Mr. Donaldson was able to delicately swing Don to the idea that diplomacy might be a good idea first. It was a mild victory, the kind the former co-host of PrimeTime Live -Mr. Donaldson always shouted “Live!” like his pants were on fire-took comfort in these days.

“Don starts out saying, ‘Nuke ‘em-drop the bomb!’ and all that,” Mr. Donaldson said during another break. “But if I talk to him, he comes around to the fact that no, you’ve got to talk about this.” He sounded like an instructor teaching a 6-year-old how to swim.

Mr. Donaldson said he didn’t miss television. But, of course, he did a little. “If you come to me tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, you want you to do this on television?’, I’ll probably do it. As long as it doesn’t interfere with this . If you come to me tomorrow and say, ‘O.K., we want you to do television but give up the radio,’ I’d say, ‘No-I love this.’”

The radio job did have its perks. Mr. Donaldson was still working five days a week-he was up by 5 a.m. reading papers, but he was finished by noon. Thanks to new technology, he could do his show from his ranch in New Mexico if he wanted.

“I could do this broadcast anywhere,” he said. “Do you want to go to Honolulu with me?”

But he remained a stranger on the scene. A giant of one news format, he’d gone from the top to somewhere in the low to middle in another. It could be humbling. Mr. Donaldson could remember the days Rush Limbaugh was just a chatty guy out in Kansas City, not the 600-station giant who loomed over all radio like a balloon at the Macy’s parade. There was also the rise of a former ABC correspondent Mr. Donaldson remembered as “good,” but “nothing special.”

“His name is Bill O’Reilly,” Mr. Donaldson said of the Fox News champ, who has also joined the radio ranks.

Mr. Donaldson will never have the reach of Mr. O’Reilly or Mr. Limbaugh. But he wasn’t going to try and cop their style. Nor would he mail it in. This morning he was fired up, fussing with his producers to get him updated news, better interview subjects, crisper segues to commercial breaks. This would not be an old anchor’s slide toward retirement. He wanted this thing to work.

“This break is going on interminably !” Mr. Donaldson said during a commercial interlude, to no one in particular. “I hope it means we are all making a lot of money ! There could be no other excuse for depriving people of my …. “

Mr. Donaldson stopped himself. “Now I sound like Bill O’Reilly,” he said. “My brilliance, I started to say.”

Mr. Donaldson joked that he hoped his microphone wasn’t on. Then he did an impression of Ronald Reagan doing his infamous microphone-check gaffe. It felt like listening Bob Woodward do Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech.

“I’ve just outlawed the Soviet Union,” Mr. Donaldson said in a light voice. “The bombing begins in five minutes.”

Mr. Donaldson and Mr. Reagan are linked forever, of course. Mr. Donaldson arrived in Washington in 1961, but rose to national celebrity during Mr. Reagan’s Presidency. To some, the ABC News star was a grandstander and a ham, but to colleagues he was a wonder. Mr. Donaldson’s queries were so persistent, said Mr. Koppel, that the White House would turn on the helicopter motors on the South Lawn “so President Reagan could cup his hand to his deaf ear and pretend not to be able to hear what Sam was yelling at him.”

“Sam’s great ability was to just kind of cut through the horseshit,” said CBS’s Bob Schieffer, the host of Face the Nation . “He and Ronald Reagan were made for each other.”

Mr. Donaldson deflected credit for his rise to his old boss, the late Roone Arledge, who let him be himself. “He always backed me,” Mr. Donaldson said. “Whether he backed me out of a sense of journalistic integrity or he saw me as the Howard Cosell of the news division … I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

Indeed, no one gets the joke of Sam Donaldson more than Mr. Donaldson himself. He knows that audiences found him a little cartoony, a larger-than-life caricature on the White House lawn. He embraces the image, and people love him for it. His old colleague at Prime Time Live , Diane Sawyer, recalled a train trip down to Washington, D.C., where Mr. Donaldson wandered up and down the cars arguing with passengers. It was like Michael Jordan hosting a pick-up game. “By the end of it, he had every car on the train engaged in some political argument about Ronald Reagan or something,” Ms. Sawyer said. “They all wanted to talk to him.”

As his career progressed, Mr. Donaldson reveled in playing against type. He became one of David Letterman’s favorite guests, because although he was stiff, he was funny, not at all the tight-ass people expected. Not long ago, Mr. Donaldson hosted a Webcast on ABCnews.com, where he interviewed people like Carson Daly, the dudes in Metallica and the Rock. That was half the joke-someone like Sam Donaldson gamely interviewing the dudes in Metallica.

“He was never afraid to make fun of the Sam Donaldson you saw on TV,” said Mr. Schieffer.

But he always considered himself a journalist first. Now outside the White House looking in, Mr. Donaldson said he thought the reporters covering George W. Bush were generally doing a “good job,” though he felt they were generally “too chummy with power.”

“I watched a news conference a few weeks back when the North Korean thing bubbled up, and thank God for Helen Thomas,” Mr. Donaldson said. “I don’t care what you say about her-she was the only one who tried to require him to say what’s the difference [between North Korea and Iraq].”

Indeed, Mr. Donaldson-a man who may have been the consummate Washington insider, but also asked Bill Clinton about Juanita Broaddrick-felt today’s press could use a little bit of toughening up. “There are some curmudgeons today who still do it-Christopher Hitchens is one-but not many people do,” he said.

Though he exited television perhaps earlier than he’d planned, Mr. Donaldson said he didn’t feel too upset when his This Week run ended last year . He said he knew his time on This Week would probably end when Ms. Roberts signed a one-year contract and told him she would depart when it was up.

“I didn’t have any illusions that somehow ABC would reconstitute the show and I would stay although she would go,” Mr. Donaldson said. “It was neither a shock nor a terribly bitter experience when it became a reality.”

Mr. Donaldson said that he is in frequent touch with Ms. Roberts, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. He said she was doing “very well” and that the reports from her doctors had been upbeat.

As for Mr. Stephanopoulos, who is currently third in the ratings behind Tim Russert’s Meet the Press and Mr. Schieffer’s Face, Mr. Donaldson was complimentary but crisp.

“I think he’s doing a good job,” he said. He added that Mr. Stephanopoulos was hampered by the problems that ailed the preceding version of This Week , chief among them lead-in programming. Mr. Donaldson maintained that This Week ‘s lead-in programming on Sunday mornings was considerably weaker than Mr. Russert’s on NBC.

Mr. Stephanopoulos deserved time to prove himself, he said.

“People who are my friends come over to me and they say, ‘Oh, Sam, we miss you-it’s not nearly the show it was,’” Mr. Donaldson said. “I say, give George a chance. First of all, he has to find the men’s room, get comfortable. Second, he has to settle in.”

Mr. Donaldson said that he, too, was still settling in. “I think I’m better today on this radio program than I was the first week, or the second week, or the first month,” he said.

“Remember, in our business, it’s momentum that counts,” Sam Donaldson said. “I sent Rush a memo the other day that said, ‘Hey, you have plateaued. I’m still on the upswing.’”