By some yardsticks, 1998 may have been a worse year for Sam Donaldson than for Bill Clinton. The statement he uttered four days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke -- that if Clinton "is not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days" -- made him the poster boy for errant punditry.
The president's escape from Monicagate has forced Donaldson to acknowledge that he's been operating "with the baggage of the old rules which no longer apply."And April's issue of Brill's Content magazine names him one of the "Worst White House Reporters," accusing him of being more "talking head" than "reporter."
To millions of Americans, ABC's 65-year-old chief White House correspondent -- and co-host of "20/20" and "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts" -- is the classic "gotcha" journalist, barking impertinent questions to important people at inopportune times. And if the Lewinsky scandal exposed a major "disconnect" between the Beltway media and the rest of the populace, it proved daunting for the man known for the arched eyebrow and archly phrased question.
"I made a lot of wrong predictions early on in this thing, and one of the reasons . . . was that I brought the Nixon grid," said Donaldson in an interview. "I was ABC's Watergate correspondent . . . and I thought at the end, the lesson was no man is above the law; if you commit felonies in the Oval Office, you have to leave. So, I come and I set that grid down (thinking) 'I know how to do this; this is what happens.' Wrong!"
Donaldson may have been bloodied by the past year's lessons, but he is typically unbowed. People who complained that the media were beating the Monica story into a bloody pulp "are being disingenuous in the sense that our business is not to stop," he said. "Very frankly, we don't have to worry about the public opinion polls as to whether they like us or not.
"I knew, everybody in the press corps knew the first day (the Lewinsky story broke) that Mr. Clinton was lying," Donaldson declared. Yet the reporter who has covered the White House since Jimmy Carter's tenure acknowledges that the Clinton administration is uniquely adept at news management.
"It's Clinton basically," he explained. "He's at the center of the ability to persuade, to assuage, to convince, to change the subject . . . Once in a while -- August 17 was a perfect example, of course -- he's off, he strikes the wrong note," he said, citing the president's prickly public performance after his grand jury testimony. "But other than that, it's wonderful. Who couldn't like him? I like him."
If Donaldson harbors any residual ill will about the flogging he and others took for their obsession with Lewinsky, it is reserved for journalistic critics like Steven Brill and New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Anthony Lewis.
"The complaint suddenly became from journalists that other journalists were actually trying to investigate this story as if there was something wrong with putting out the facts," he said, oozing incredulity. "Now what was that about?"
Brill, whose August "Pressgate" article attacked the Beltway media for slipshod coverage of the scandal, seems particularly capable of raising Donaldson's ire.
"I am proud to be on (Brill's) list of the 10 Worst White House correspondents," he said. "Cokie (Roberts) and I play in his magazine . . . So what are you gonna do? Try to sell your magazine against the press by pointing out that Sadie Gulch, who represents three stations, is a bad reporter? No."
One other lesson of the impeachment scandal is not lost on Donaldson: the impact of the cable news networks. "They're putting us out of business, those of us who thought we were the hard news broadcast centers of America," he observed. "You know, the cable networks are not watched by many people, minuscule audiences. But their reach and their influence goes far beyond that . . . 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, (there were) things we would immediately put on the air as a bulletin . . . we don't bother now."
Asked whether the nightly network newscast is headed for extinction, Donaldson said, "I don't think we, at ABC for instance, will make a decision internally that we want to discontinue our early evening newscast. The danger comes from our affiliates. If the affiliates come to us and say 'guys, it's over,' then it's over."
Finally, Donaldson -- like the rest of America -- watched Barbara Walters's interview with Lewinsky and sized up the woman who helped launch one of the most intense media frenzies in modern times.
"I think she's pathetic and shallow," he said. "Here is a young woman who clearly doesn't feel any personal shame, doesn't really think she did anything wrong . . . The presidency is in this sense forever tarnished as far as the history books go . . . and she's part of that . . . And she doesn't get it."