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Hold On, Mr. President Hardcover – March 12, 1987
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From Library Journal
The book's title expresses how this veteran TV newsman sees his job: unrelenting, skeptical questioning to find out what is really going on. Using an entertaining anecdotal style, Donaldson relates how he became a newsman and explores what he sees as the ends served by his work. He defends his pointed questioning of Presidents Carter and Reagan and argues that the presshimself includedis often too respectful of authority and not sufficiently challenging in performace of its oversight role. He views TV as a superior news medium because it permits viewers to see and hear events and judge situations for themselves. Offering behind-the-scenes insights into the lives of notables in government and in the press, this is recommended for the general reader as well as the news media specialist. BOMC alternate. Mark K. Jones, Cincinnati, Ohio
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Unfortunately, this book really bogs down after the first few chapters. The middle part of the book, until nearly the end, is a painfully detailed summary of many of Donaldson's experience covering the Washington Beat. Perhaps it was more immediate for the telling, and therefore more interesting, when the book was written in 1987. In the year 2002, it was simply too detailed to be anything but boring.
Still, this is a well written book, giving an insider's look at Washington, the presidency, and network news workings. Of considerable interest is Donaldson's descriptions of the early days of ABC.
You would never believe that Donaldson's career exemplified that sort of cowardice from this self serving book. Instead of being a bullying member of a herd - never striking out with something original, never speaking truth to power, only turning on unpopular Presidents - this book shows that Donaldson thinks of himself as some sort of hero. As with all too many third rate autobiographies, if you deleted the first person pronoun, you would have a book half of its current length.
The index to this book includes the following note, perhaps in jest: "There are three names mentioned too often in this book to index: Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Sam Donaldson." And not necessarily in that order.
I had high hopes for this book. Donaldson was a character of television news when I was growing up, the late 70s and early 80s. Whereas other television newsmen offered various lighter shades of pale, Donaldson was a colorful bulldog, always ready to put the Leader of the Free World on the spot, whether the issue at hand was hostages in Iran or his wife's taste in china. Once Donaldson cornered Reagan when the president was a guest at an ABC function, grilling him about the latest embarrassing kafuffle at the White House. Network higher ups talked of firing him, but Reagan just chuckled: "Oh, that's alright, that's just the way Sam is."
That's from the first chapter, the best in the book. Donaldson analyzes his role and how he felt he served the causes of democracy and good television. He tells some funny stories, and makes some good points: "So when I cover the president, I try to remember two things: First, if you don't ask, you don't find out; and second, the questions don't do the damage. Only the answers do."
Donaldson was a good question-asker, too; not needlessly prosecutorial or opinionated like Helen Thomas, not pinheaded and trite like Chris Wallace or countless bottle-blondes. Donaldson had substance.
And ego, too. Boy, does that come across here. It could be a drinking game for a non-social drunk. Find two sentences in a row without the words "I," "me," or "Donaldson" in it, or else take a slug. Add the words "we" or "our" and you'd have an easier time climbing K2.
Another problem with this book is it's clearly not the work of a print journalist. There's little depth, even when the subject is the news business itself. That Harry Reasoner was a surly drinker who didn't put forward his best effort is great dish, but Donaldson doesn't do much more than throw that particular skunk out there and let the reader wonder. Jimmy Carter could be brusque, but he cared. Reagan is an amiable dunce, with some moments of clarity, but trapped by his own primitive ideology.
I found Donaldson's description of Reagan most interesting, not because I agree with it (I don't) but because it demonstrates the media mindset Reagan had to work through and around in securing the goals of his presidency, clearly the most successful one since FDR's. Donaldson takes Reagan to task for missing out on arms control agreements with the Soviets, noting that one such treaty would have left the U.S. with a decided advantage. But reading later Reagan bios like "Role Of A Lifetime" and "Dutch" demonstrates Reagan had vision where Donaldson and the rest wore bifocals. He didn't want to pass limits on nuclear weapons, he wanted to eliminate them, and the world's most dominant tyranny in the process. Donaldson shakes his head at Reagan's use of the term "evil empire," but 20 years later it is the majority view Reagan spoke the truth.
A shame this book fails to analyze the larger role of the media, including the ups and downs of covering stories that may be hot one day, ice-cold the next. Also, I've yet to read a good book on Frank Reynolds, ABC's sterling anchorman from the late '70s until his death in 1983. A better take of the Reagan White House's relationship with the press, in many ways more critical of Reagan but at least more probing, is Hendrik Smith's "The Power Game." Donaldson has some ideas about the future of the media, but they seem inseparable from Donaldson's career goals. He hardly deigns to notice, when discussing the future direction of presidential press coverage, the role of cable television, instead wondering aloud whether he might anchor the news himself. In fact, Donaldson may have been the cable revolution's Marie Antoinette, his style playing well for a 30-second soundbite in an evening news program but really fey and grating in the 24-hour news cycles of our post 9/11 world.
Big fizz, little belch. Well, it is about television after all.