I was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1934 and grew up on our family farm in New Mexico. My father, also Sam Donaldson, had bought the farm in 1910, two years before New Mexico became a state. My mother, Chloe Hampson Donaldson, was a schoolteacher. I went to the New Mexico Military Institute and then to Texas Western College in El Paso.
I’ve always been fascinated by broadcasting. My mother bought a radio after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and we listened to the war news every night at 9:00. The world was coming into our living room through a small box.
In college, I majored in telecommunications, and I managed the campus radio station and worked at a local commercial station. I was a disk jockey and an announcer, reading the news as it came in on the Associated Press wire. I also covered local elections. In those days, if an election was close, you wouldn’t have the final tally until 5:00 a.m. So I’d stay up all night, broadcasting updates as they came in.
My Service Days
After graduating college in 1956, I joined the Army and served for two-and-a-half years as an artillery officer. I had a great time in the Army – I was single, the mood of the country was optimistic, and we had a president who resisted pressure to get us into another war. The French were fighting to reclaim Vietnam, which they had lost in World War II, and wanted the United States to get involved. President Eisenhower declined. It’s been my experience that people who have fought in wars are reluctant to start new ones.
After my stint in the Army ended in 1959, I moved to Dallas for a while. I’d learned to play bridge while I was in college, had gotten pretty good, and thought about going professional. Aficionados of the game take it very seriously, and there’s a tournament circuit where you can win a fair amount of money.
Know Your Worth
But before I could break into the world of competitive bridge, my money started to run out. I saw a newspaper ad for a ghostwriting position at the H.L. Hunt Oil Company. I applied and over a period of several weeks met with various department heads.
One day, I got a call from Mr. Hunt’s secretary, a Mrs. Reynolds, telling me that Mr. Hunt wanted to meet me and that I was the leading candidate for the job. So I went to the Mercantile National Bank Building, where I was ushered into H.L. Hunt’s office. At the time, he was considered the richest person in the world, worth $3 billion.
Hunt’s office was unremarkable; clearly, the man was all business. He was about seventy, slightly stooped, with wispy white hair and a stern, shrewd expression. He was wearing a suit that looked like he’d bought it at Robert Hall, a chain of inexpensive men’s clothiers where the best suit ran about $19.95. I put his sartorial choice down under the rubric of “watch the pennies and the billions will take care of themselves.” A small brown paper bag that I assumed held his lunch sat on a corner of the desk.
I sat opposite him. He asked me a few routine questions about where I was born and my education. Then he said, “How cheap will you work?” I was taken aback. But I thought I was pretty brilliant and answered, “Mr. Hunt, I’m out of the army, I’m single, I have some savings, and I don’t have many needs or wants. I’ll work for what you think the job is worth.” Then I added, tentatively, “To begin with.”
Hunt pursed his mouth, asked me two or three more perfunctory questions, and then thanked me for my time. A couple days later, Mrs. Reynolds called to tell me that I hadn’t gotten the job. “But you told me I was the leading candidate,” I protested.
“You were. And then Mr. Hunt asked you how cheap you would work.”
“You didn’t give him a figure. Mr. Hunt believes that if a man doesn’t know his own worth, he doesn’t want to hire him.”
Ready for NYC
The day after Mr. Hunt turned me down, I went down to Harold Square in Dallas and got a job at KRLD, a CBS radio and television affiliate. I did double duty, reading the news and occasionally going out to cover a story. I was getting good. Damn good. At least I thought so.
After a year, I went into the station manager’s office and resigned. He asked me if I felt I’d been mistreated. I answered, “You’ve treated me very well.”
“If we gave you a small raise would you stay?”
“No. I’m resigning because I’ve learned everything I can here. I’m going to New York.”
So I went to New York thinking, “I’ll take this town.” New York promptly let me know that a year covering water main breaks and drunken brawls in El Paso wasn’t exactly an express ticket to the top.
I went on calls, auditioned, and couldn’t get a job. A lesson in humility ensued. I finally got hired as a summer relief announcer at station WTOP-TV in Washington. This was 1961, and six white males competed for the job. One of my competitors was better looking and more qualified than the rest of us. I got the job because the stationmaster had served in the war and liked the fact that I’d been in the Army.
Three months later, a colleague at WTOP named Roger Mudd, who went on to become a great newscaster, was hired by CBS News in New York. I was promoted to correspondent and have been one ever since.
I had a great time at WTOP, covering the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the summer of 1964, and the presidential election that fall, in which President Lyndon Johnson defeated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
Landing at ABC
In 1967, ABC News hired me as a Washington correspondent. I covered the 1968 presidential campaign, in which former Vice President Richard Nixon defeated sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and in 1969, I began anchoring the 11 p.m. weekend network newscasts.
I covered the Vietnam War, and in 1973 and 1974, I was the network’s chief correspondent during the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resigning the presidency. In 1976, I covered Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and was then named ABC’s chief White House correspondent, a post I held for twelve years.