Sam Donaldson Talks Politics

This is a partial transcript from Hannity & Colmes, October 14, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

ALAN COLMES, CO-HOST: Joining us now, the host of the Sam Donaldson Radio Show on ABC Radio, Sam Donaldson.

How are you doing, Sam?


COLMES: Thanks for being with us. You, for years, you know, covered the president. Do you miss that beat? Do you miss the White House beat?

DONALDSON: No, I don't. I'm going to let other people do it. Once in awhile when I watch the president, if he ducks a question or something I'd like to be there and say, "Well, sir, you didn't answer the question." But I think they do a good job at the White House without me.

COLMES: How does this president do in terms of answering questions?

DONALDSON: Well, he doesn't, really. But then, that's not unusual. Most presidents don't want to ask…answer the question asked. They want to answer the question they wish had been asked. And so they sort of dodge it and duck it.

I say to reporters the best way to ask the president a question is not ask a multiple part question, A, B, C. Answer one or none. One question directly put, respectfully put, but pretty sharp from the standpoint of getting an answer. Then if he doesn't answer, at least people will say, "Well, he didn't answer the question."

COLMES: People thought you went out to get Ronald Reagan (search). But that's not true. You did that to all the presidents didn't you?

DONALDSON: Well, I said facetiously, half-facetiously, say you should be equally vicious to all presidents.

Look, I haven't known a president, beginning with John Kennedy (search), who thought he was getting a fair break from the press. I mean, Bill Clinton (search) really used to rail against the press. I covered him for a while.

Reagan knew what we were doing. He didn't like it a lot of times, but at least he understood why we were there.

And if you go down the presidents, with the possible exception of Gerry Ford (search), every one of them left office thinking they'd been unfairly used by the press.

COLMES: But Gerald Ford was one of the more accepting of the press, of the presidents?

DONALDSON: Yes. You know, I think he toward the end felt he wasn't getting a fair shake. But we've known him a long time. When I say we, I don't mean just me. The people that covered him in the House of Representatives. He understood Washington, and he understood what the press does in Washington.

COLMES: Do you think this president, George W. Bush is being fairly or unfairly treated by the media right now?

DONALDSON: I think he's being fairly treated. I mean, he's called on some things that he wishes he didn't have to be called on. But I think he's gotten a lot of praise in the press since 9/11.

Right now it's quite contentious. He said the other day, you know, that American public was not getting the truth about Iraq. Because his critics are saying and it's reflected in the press that maybe the policy isn't working.

And I thought to myself, well, what's the truth? At the end of the day we'll know. Either it will have worked, in which case he's right, his policy is the right one. Or it will not have worked, in which case, as Abraham Lincoln (search) said, 10,000 angels swearing I was right will not help me.

COLMES: Yes, we often hear and the debate goes on forever, the liberal media versus the non-liberal media. Do you subscribe to that theory that the media leans left and that the president on the left, someone who is more liberal a politician, will get a better treatment than a more conservative politician?

DONALDSON: Well, I don't. I've just said that Bill Clinton…ask Clinton. Ask any of the people around him. He thought the press was vicious. Night after night being called a liar, not just by people in the Independent Counsel's office but by people on television and in the newspapers. He didn't think he was getting special treatment from the so- called liberal press.

And I can cite many other examples.

I think the press generally, and you ask me an exception here and there, generally calls it as we think we see it. And sometimes that says the president did a terrific job.

COLMES: Why do you think there's a perception...

DONALDSON: Sometimes it says he missed.

COLMES: Why do you think the perception is the media is liberal? A survey just came out. Overwhelmingly, people said the media is either neutral or leans to the left. Why do you think the perception is that?

DONALDSON: Well, I can't tell you, because people have got a right to make up their own minds. I can't tell you what you or any of our viewers think. I mean, that's up to them.

I can only say that I think reporters in general try to find out what's really going on.

Now if you like the guy in the White House, and something that's really going on says, well, his policy may not be working, you're going to say, "Well, maybe my hero's policy isn't working"? No, you're going to say, "The vicious press is out to get him."

Now if you don't like the guy, then you're going to say, "Thank goodness for the press. At least they're trying to keep him straight."

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST: Sam, always good to see you, my friend. Welcome back.


HANNITY: Congratulations on the success of the radio show.

Look, I've often said this about you and I've told you in conversations we've had, both publicly and privately, you were fair as much as this. You would say…scream, "Mr. President," to Ronald Reagan. But you did the same thing to Bill Clinton. So I think you were fair in your coverage.

But I don't think most of the media is fair. In the Gallup poll that Alan was referring to, it shows that the question was "Do you think the news media is too liberal, just about right, or too conservative?"

Forty-five percent of respondents…this is three years and running, Sam…said too liberal. Only 14 percent said too conservative. And 39 percent said just about right. But the overwhelming majority too liberal.

Are the people wrong? Do the people have a misconception?

DONALDSON: Sean, the people aren't wrong for themselves. If I had answered the poll and said, "Well, the press is too liberal," you can't tell me I'm wrong.

I'm just arguing that the perception is that if you don't hear what you think you want to hear…and right now George W. Bush has a lot of supporters. The polls say he's going through a rough patch. He may or may not recover, I don't know.

But if you are a devotee of this president you don't want to hear that someone says the policy to Iraq is not right.

HANNITY: Yes, but...

DONALDSON: You don't want to hear that someone says that tax cuts are not working. So what are you going to say? Are you going to say, "Well, maybe the reporters are right"? No, you're going to say, "That liberal press again."

HANNITY: You mentioned past presidents, and you pointed out Bill Clinton was upset about people saying on television he was a liar. He did lie, Sam.

DONALDSON: He did. He did, of course.

HANNITY: It was…Yes, so I mean, the fact that people covered that is amazing, you know.

But I think if you look at the attacks against the president on the issues of either Joe Wilson (search) and his wife and supposed leaks and no weapons of mass destruction. It is clear, based on what David Kay (search) and his interim reporter said, Sam, that the media has ignored significant portions of what this man has put out there. That is why many of us that are conservative point out a liberal bias in the mainstream media.

DONALDSON: Well, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, the problem is, you know, newspaper reporters can be said to have misquoted somewhat. But we have the president on videotape telling us that Saddam Hussein had, indeed, weapons of mass destruction sufficient to cause us a security threat...

HANNITY: But Sam, here's the bias on that.

DONALDSON: And you've got to find them.

HANNITY: No. But Bill Clinton said the same thing, and these same people that are writing about this now, covering this issue now, nobody demanded that we check the intelligence of Bill Clinton when he laid out an even stronger case in 1998. And it is that double standard that we point to as conservatives that definitively tells us there is a media bias.

DONALDSON: Bill Clinton did not send American forces into harm's way...

HANNITY: He bombed them.

DONALDSON: ... in Iraq.

HANNITY: But he made the case.

DONALDSON: It may be necessary that you do that, but you give a reason to the nation. And all I'm telling you is, roll the videotape. President Bush said the reason was he had weapons of mass destruction ready to go.

HANNITY: Well, Sam, roll the videotape in December of 1998. Clinton was far more definitive about biological, chemical, and nuclear threats of Iraq, and yet that was never investigated. His intelligence was never brought into question.

And it is an example, in my mind, of how I feel there is an institutionalized bias. And obviously, based on this Gallup poll, I'm in the majority here.

DONALDSON: Well, I'm not going to be able to convince you that 1998 was then and no war occurred. No strike against Iraq occurred.


DONALDSON: And now there has been a war, a strike against Iraq. We bought it. We paid for it. It's ours. And we're going to find some way to accomplish our objective.

To say, well, Bill Clinton didn't do this in 1998, to be a reason why we can't or shouldn't examine whether the Bush policy is working today, to me, frankly, is silly.

HANNITY: All right. I've been called worse, Sam.

DONALDSON: No, I'm not calling you names. It's an analogy here.

HANNITY: To be called silly by Sam is not the worst thing in the world.

My point being…You know something? If you look at the president's poll numbers now, they're on the rebound and they're on their way back up and a significant bounce, 56 percent now.

DONALDSON: I saw that.

HANNITY: I think this daily barrage of "the president's a liar, the president's a liar, the president's a liar" by the Democratic candidates and candidates in general is having a negative impact now on the perception of people, that they see this for the transparent political attack that it is.

DONALDSON: Well, you know, if it's a political attack with no substance, then of course it's not going to hurt the president.

In Iraq his policy may be working. We'll know at the end of the day, Sean. The end of the day being we'll either leave Iraq with a stable democratic government that is no longer a threat to its neighbors or us, or not. And it won't then be necessary to people to argue, well, it worked or it didn't work. We'll know.

HANNITY: All right. Sam, I want to…you know, you've been a great political observer for all these years. And we're heading into a campaign year here, a presidential election year.

And I'm listening to all of these Democratic candidates. They're all trying to be more liberal than the next. They're following Howard Dean's lead here. Now we have Lieberman's plan, tax increases for the wealthy.

None of them think basically, except for Lieberman, that we did the right thing in Iraq. Is that going to fly in a post-9/11 world?

DONALDSON: I don't know, Sean. If we recover and the economy is doing well next year…and you pointed out a lot of people think it will be…and if Iraq is working out, and if it looks like we're doing it, then I don't think it will get much traction. I think the president will be re-elected pretty handily.


DONALDSON: But if you're going to be someone who wants to be president, you don't say, "Well, you know the guy in there is doing a pretty good job. I just think I can do it better."

HANNITY: That's expecting a little too much.

DONALDSON: You've got to say he's making mistake after mistake after mistake and hope that events will prove you accurate.

HANNITY: You know, it reminds me. I've used this analogy on the radio before. It reminds me of a small market talk radio guy who does an opening monologue. He gives out the phone number. Nobody's paying attention. The phones don't ring. Comes back from the break, doesn't have much more prepared.

And they get more shrill, more extreme, more outrageous in the hopes of getting noticed. It seems to be what these candidates are doing. More people cared about the governor's race in California than these guys running for president.

DONALDSON: Well, do give them a little credit. I think they're sincere about believing the president isn't doing a good job, whether it comes to taxes, whether it comes to Iraq, whether it comes to civil liberties. I mean, go down the whole list.

And I think they're making points that resonate with some of the population.

You know the poll that you pointed to, and you're right, 56 percent now. He came up from 50 percent in that particular poll. In that poll it said 38 percent of the people are going to vote for him for sure next year. Thirty-eight percent of the people are going to vote against him for sure next year, and 24 percent of the people are undecided.

COLMES: Hi, Sam. It's Alan. I'm getting the distinct impression Sean doesn't like some of the Democratic candidates. I don't know. I'm getting an idea.

But you are great crafter of questions. You saying last segment that when you ask a question it's got to be pointed. How do you go about deciding what question you're going to ask, and what would be appropriate questions to ask these Democratic candidates to draw them out so the American people can really understand how they think?

DONALDSON: Well, I think on Iraq the appropriate candidate is, all right…question is forget whether we should have struck or not, we did. We're there. Now exactly how would you get us out to accomplish what everyone concedes is the goal we want to accomplish?

Yes, you can complain about president's policy being wrong, and it's not doing this or it's not doing that. If you were president today, precisely what would you do differently? And pin him down, if you can, to specifics. Not just generalities about trying to make democracy...

COLMES: Is the press corps not doing enough of that? Do you watch other people doing what you used to do? Does it frustrate you that those pinpoint questions are not always asked and the candidates aren't being drawn out? And you're there saying, you, Sam Donaldson, you like to do it differently and get the right answers.

DONALDSON: Well, I think as we get nearer the primaries, you're going to find more individual questioning of the candidates.

Right now, I've got to compliment the Democrats. They're doing a good job of questioning each other in these debates, particularly the last debate. Sure they're ganging up on the flavor of the month, happens to be General Clark at the moment. But they're questioning each other in a way that I think reporters will take over when the field narrows.

HANNITY: All right, Sam. Good to see you. Continued success.


HANNITY: I appreciate you being with us.

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