Sam Donaldson, the bushy-eyebrowed staple of ABC News for six decades, has taken on an unlikely role in retirement: volunteer campaign surrogate.
Donaldson spent the weekend in Grand Rapids, Lansing and metro Detroit singing the praises of former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — although the famously frank former network anchor didn’t shy away from criticizing the billionaire for policies like “stop and frisk” and treatment of women in the workplace.
“Last fall, I began to think the field is to me, weak against the thug. Pardon me, I started to be ad hominem, but I think Donald J. Trump is a thug, and that’s the polite way of saying something,” Donaldson said. “… You go up against a thug, you better have a record of being a very strong person. And that’s Mike Bloomberg.”
Donaldson has covered presidents going back to John F. Kennedy. As for Trump, he added, “I think he’s the worst president, of course, that I’ve ever seen, and this is the most significant election since the Civil War.”
Bloomberg is the second candidate Donaldson has stumped for. The first was Jeff Apodaca, who unsuccessfully ran in New Mexico’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2018.
“I think he’s going to win,” Donaldson said of Bloomberg, “so I’ll at least be batting .500.”
Donaldson, 86, said he’s now a Democrat.
“In order to vote in the primary … I ought to join the Democratic Party, which I did. It makes no sense to say I’m for Jeff Apodaca, but I can’t vote for him. That’s not logical,” Donaldson said. “So I’m now a Democrat. I’m happy to throw in my membership.
Donaldson took a swipe at one of Bloomberg’s rivals, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), adding, “Bernie is not a Democrat, of course; he’s not joined the party. He’s like … I didn’t join the Catholic church, but I still want to be pope. Boy, what hubris is that? Chutzpah.”
The Advance talked with Donaldson in a phone interview Sunday while he was in Lansing about Super Tuesday, other Democratic candidates and how well Bloomberg has to do in Michigan’s March 10 primary. He stressed that he’s not being paid as a surrogate.
Asked if he would be traveling to other states after Michigan, Donaldson said he hopes so and joked, “If I don’t, it’s because they didn’t ask me, which means I’ve been a complete failure. The piece you write about what I said to you is just gobbledygook. Not that you wrote it wrong, but you wrote it right, and they said, ‘You can’t say this about Mike; that’s stupid.’”
Donaldson also discussed how Trump compares to other presidents, he’s covered, being there when President Reagan was shot, and that time he tracked down a Nazi in Argentina, eventually helping to bring him to justice.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: Why are you endorsing Mayor Bloomberg for president?
Donaldson: Well, I worked for 52 years in Washington as a reporter and I believe in the ethics that we all try to [have] and everyone else in the business maintains. You don’t give money to political candidates if you’re a political reporter, particularly. You don’t endorse someone.
… But now that I’m retired, I think I can do it. So here’s your question and here’s the answer. Last fall, I began to think the field is to me, weak against the thug. Pardon me, I started to be ad hominem, but I think Donald J. Trump is a thug, and that’s the polite way of saying something. And I want someone to defeat him. I want him out of there. I think it’s very important for the country and what we think of as the America leading the world, torch of freedom for people to come here, lead a good life, work hard and prosper, all of that. You know, what we think of as the American dream.
And I think he’s debased it. I think he’s retreated from the world to our detriment. I think he’s ignorant. He doesn’t know things. And he acts simply on what he says is his gut. One moment he wants to destroy North Korea with fire and brimstone. The next moment we turn around and he says, we’re writing love letters to each other, Kim Jong Un and I. Well, the man is unhinged, to again, be polite.
So I thought we’ve got to defeat him, and the field that I looked at, I didn’t think was that strong in that regard. Good people — I’ve known [former Vice President] Joe Biden a long time. I covered him in Washington, and the Senate, and vice president. I think he’s a good guy and all of that. But you go up against a thug, you better have a record of being a very strong person. And that’s Mike Bloomberg. And when Mike got into it, I thought yes. I thought about it, and then a couple of months later, I guess I went up and said, ‘Got a place for me as an unpaid volunteer?’ And I’m doing what I can.
Pardon me, I started to be ad hominem, but I think Donald J. Trump is a thug, and that’s the polite way of saying something. And I want someone to defeat him. I want him out of there.
Michigan Advance: What is it about Mayor Bloomberg that makes him strong?
Donaldson: Well, from afar — I’m not a social friend of his; as a reporter, I’ve talked to him three or four times and got to know him a little bit, and watched him from afar as a political reporter. First of all, he built a business from scratch. And it had a little money. But Mike’s a guy whose father never made more than $6,000 a year, which in the 1950s wasn’t bad. And yet Mike still had to do part time jobs to work his way through Johns Hopkins [University].
… He built that business into the largest company of its kind in the world, and in the process made a huge amount of money legally, ethically. … That’s the American dream. As long as you do it legally, you don’t hurt people on the way up and all the rest. So I admired that.
And then we became mayor of New York, I thought it was a smart guy. My fellow reporters in those days, I’m told — I don’t have a transcript, but I have it from people who were there. After 100 days, they ask him the favorite question that Franklin Roosevelt was known for: 100 days and he was a whirlwind trying to get us out of the [Great] Depression. So they said to Mike, ‘What have you accomplished in your first 100 days?’ His answer was, ‘I’ve assembled a group of good people to help me run a city.’ [They said;] ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what have you accomplished?’ [Bloomberg answered:] ‘I have assembled a group of good people to run the city.’
Well, that’s smart. I mean, he’s the guy who wants data. There is a tote bag that they give away from headquarters. They have the money to buy tote bags and it says. ‘In God, We Trust. All Others, Bring Data.’ Now to some people that’s a weakness. Where’s the touchy feely? Where’s the emotion? Where’s the gut? No, it’s the data and he ran the city that way. And you want to allow me to string out all the statistics that they say he accomplished in his three years as mayor?
I mean, one is significant. It is true. When I say he, he was the mayor and there were other factors, all right? But crime decreased overall. … And surely some of his policies resulted in that. And of course one of them [was] very controversial that he’s recognized, that was wrong. Stop and frisk. That was not something you do, throw young, particularly young Black men against the wall without probable cause, because you try to get the guns off the street.
But he was a good mayor and he was a strong mayor. And that’s the biggest city. Pardon me … I’m just going on with the soliloquy to the Thessalonians or something, but no one can know who’s going to really be a great or a good president or a bad one till they get there. I’ve followed them.
I’ve been White House correspondent for three of them and I knew the rest of them, beginning with John Kennedy. But I think looking at his record, as old Harry Truman used to say, ‘Let’s look at the record,’ says to me he’s got to make a good president. But then it also says to me the imperative. He is best suited to defeat Donald J. Trump, and I think that has to happen.
Michigan Advance: You have covered presidents for decades, going back, it looked to me like Lyndon Johnson, but perhaps John F. Kennedy …
Donaldson: Well, Kennedy, I was a young kid. I was younger, at least. The least important reporter in town, I assure you. But I still could go to his press conferences, and I never had the courage to try to ask a question, let alone be called on. But I admired him. It’s true. My generation fell in love with him. We didn’t know about some of his faults that came to light later, but I guess we didn’t care. Here was this elegant man. Yes, in the Senate he hadn’t done much. Playboy, all of that. Yes, that’s true. But he found his sea legs finally, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was going to go on, did go on, in my view, from there, to a pattern of greatness.
But can you imagine listening to Donald J. Trump give a speech, talk to his rally or something? One time, Kennedy, maybe you know this story, gathered for a banquet in the evening at the White House, some of the most distinguished Nobel Prize winners … distinguished Americans who had excelled in their particular field. And he got up and he said, ‘Never has the White House had such a gathering of knowledge of distinguished pursuits of things important to Americans than tonight. With one possible exception, when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.’
Oh, Donald Trump coming up with something like that? Are you kidding?
Michigan Advance: How does Donald Trump stack up against the other presidents who you’ve covered?
Donaldson: Well, I’ve never seen anything like this. Have you? I mean, you voted, I’m certain. Don’t tell me how, I’m not asking, but have you ever seen anything like this?
Michigan Advance: I have not.
Donaldson: I’ve seen and covered presidents who were not vulgar, certainly not in public. … Trump does not know the country, does not know the world. He does not know facts. He dismisses science — [says] most of it is a hoax. He says things which are contravenes of the actual facts, [like] the moon is made of green cheese. He hasn’t said that, but he could possibly say it, and want us to believe it, or else accuse us of being treasonous for not believing it. I mean, how do you deal with him? I don’t know.
People say to me, ‘Oh, you should get back there. Boy, I don’t care you’re 86.’ I couldn’t do any better than the fine men and women who were trying to cover him. But how do you deal with a congenital liar? You just say you’re a liar. Well, that’s not our place yet.
But still, I think he’s the worst president, of course, that I’ve ever seen, and this is the most significant election since the Civil War. If we don’t get this right, if we have another four years of ignorance, of corruption, of an ego that sees no good in anyone else — unless they’re his subservient ally — we’re going to be in bad trouble in this country. I think we’re already in trouble. But I don’t think it’s too late to begin the reversal process this November.
I think he’s the worst president, of course, that I’ve ever seen, and this is the most significant election since the Civil War. If we don’t get this right, if we have another four years of ignorance, of corruption, of an ego that sees no good in anyone else — unless they’re his subservient ally — we’re going to be in bad trouble in this country.
Michigan Advance: Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t really have much in the way of foreign policy experience, and so how would you —
Donaldson: No. He has some, but not much.
Michigan Advance: How would you expect him to handle issues in Syria, Iran, Iraq and more, especially following the Trump administration?
Donaldson: Well, they have some position position papers which I read, which gives his current view. Israel … he’s for a two state solution, which is like being for Lazarus, for Lazarus raised from the dead. He is against the invasion of … Iran. He’s for a restoration of our treaty that was hammered out painfully with Iran, which inspectors international in saying what they were abiding by, which curtailed their ability to move toward an atomic weapon for 10 years when it was signed. And he just tore it up. Why? Because it was [from former President Barack] Obama. He tore up the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was Obama. He got us out of the Paris Climate conference. It was Obama. He retreated from our leadership of the Pan-Pacific Trade [Partnership]. Now it belongs to Xi Jinping of China, because it was Obama.
There is something about this man who can’t stand the thought — and forgive me, I know what I’m saying — that this Black man, this man who was not born in this country, he maintained for two or three years, accomplished things. I’ve never seen anything like this in a president or in most politicians I’ve covered.
Michigan Advance: How important do you think it is for Mayor Bloomberg to win Michigan’s primary on March 10 for his candidacy?
Donaldson: Well, I think, I don’t know that he wins, but I’ll tell you what I think is important. Before [the] South Carolina [primary], last night, we were postulating, most of us, that it was going to come down to a two-person race. Bernie, with the most delegates going into the convention, but not 1,991, and Mike, with the second-most delegates. Because everyone else would have been dropped out. They have no money. Mike has the money.
Now, after South Carolina, Joe Biden may have resurrected himself — been resurrected by [U.S. Rep.] Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), and the African-American community. We will see this coming Tuesday. How is it going to reset? Does Biden come out doing very well in 14 states, which until 7 days ago he had not had the money to spend one dime on television advertising? … Bernie has most delegates from Super Tuesday. He wins most delegates, in the view of most of us.
We thought Mike had a good chance to be second, because the other two dropped out. [U.S. Sen.] Amy [Klobuchar (D-Minn.)] has no money. [Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor] Pete [Buttigieg] has no money. [Ed. note: Both dropped out after this interview]. [U.S. Sen.] Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) may struggle on a bit, but it’s Bernie who has that side of the Democratic Party, and she’s not going to get it away from him. She doesn’t shout loud enough. She doesn’t wave her arms, mostly. And she has the good sense to come back and say we do have to pay for my plan, don’t we? Bernie says, ‘No, we’ll figure that out later.’ … You’re going to buy a car. And I say to you as the salesman, ‘Great, you like the car; sign the contract.’ But you say to me, ‘Wait, how much does it cost me?” Well Bernie [says], ‘No, sign the contract. We’ll figure that out later.’
But Elizabeth Warren’s not going to survive. I think it comes down then to three people, and Michigan, Super Tuesday having perhaps reset it after South Carolina, Michigan now resets the reset after Super Tuesday. I think it looks very favorable, but I don’t know Michigan. You know Michigan. … So I can’t forecast for you how many delegates in the 15% requirement anyone’s going to get. I think Mike will do well, but what does that mean? We’ll see.
Michigan Advance: Is there a reason why you’re in Michigan over the weekend, instead of in one of the Super Tuesday states?
Donaldson: Hey, I go where they tell me. ‘I’m at your service, madam.’ And I started this last weekend. I went to Colorado, and I went to Missouri, to Denver, and then St. Louis. Started in Grand Rapids yesterday. I’m in Lansing today. … And then I’m going to a suburb of Detroit later today. Michigan’s important, as I say, it’s a reset from Super Tuesday. And when they said, ‘Will you go to Michigan?’ I said, ‘Sure, wherever you want me to go.’
… I know early balloting means a lot … even before the first debate, [at] which Mike did not do well. I mean, in Denver, I said to a group of people who support him, basically, I said, ‘How many of you are disappointed in that debate of his? Raise your hands.’ Half the room raised their hands. I said, ‘Well, there’s one more. Mike’s disappointed.’ He knows that he didn’t do as well as he has the capacity to do, as he will do in the second. And he did much better in the second, and the third on March 15, I guarantee you Susan, he will do better than he did in the second.
Michigan Advance: You mentioned the controversial stop-and-frisk policy —
Donaldson: Oh yes. It’s a vulnerability.
Michigan Advance: And another issue that came up in the debates —
Donaldson: NDAs [Non-disclosure agreements] with women? It’s a vulnerability. And you’ve got to answer for it. I don’t think you can explain, stop-and-frisk you can explain if you want to, but you don’t dare. You don’t dare say, ‘The police convinced me that it was working. I supported it. I even increased it in the middle, and I began to think about it and I decreased it toward the end of my mayoralty,’ which is all true.
But you know, throwing human beings up against the wall without probable cause is not the right thing to do. And one judge has found it unconstitutional in some respects. And he’s [Bloomberg] apologized for it, said, ‘I was wrong.’
How many apologies has Mr. Trump given us? Are you kidding? He’s never apologized. He was at the feet of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s lawyer, never concede a point. Never apologize. Never admit you’re wrong for anything. Do whatever it takes to win. I don’t care whether it’s legal; I don’t care how many people it hurts; do it. Took that message to heart, and he’s been successful in the sense of getting his people behind him who are in trouble, and the country, and who may have a streak of big prejudices. How about what’s going on on the border between Texas and New Mexico, and Mexico? My first wife was half-Mexican. We all got along. I mean that great Western philosopher Rodney King, having been beaten practically to death by the Highway Patrol of the great state of California, said later, ‘Why can’t we all get along?’ Yes, Rodney. We got along.
But now when Trump … he generates dissension, division in this country. He gives vent to people who have suppressed their prejudices to the best they can. Now it’s OK to do it; it’s OK to say it; it’s OK to go rah-rah. He’s dividing the country further, withdrawing from the world.
Michigan Advance: I did want to know what you thought about the NDA issue with Mayor Bloomberg.
Donaldson: All right. He was wrong about that. So he says, ‘I’m releasing,’ there are three. As I understand it, I take their word for it, but I believe they’re honest in this. There were only three of the NDAs that specifically targeted him, said Mike Bloomberg did this; said that. Not laying on hands, not Harvey Weinstein by a country mile, but he said uncomfortable things. He made bad jokes. … Sexist jokes, what have you. So he released them. Elizabeth Warren, he said was right. She was right. I can’t hide behind this. If they want to talk, they’re released. Now the others, I don’t know how many there are, but they do not, I’m told, specifically say it’s Bloomberg. It’s some other men in the organization. Well, he said, “If they want to release, fine.”
… And he said, “We will never have an NDA on this subject again, by anybody in my organization. I got it, I finally got it.” He’s redeemable, he’s teachable. This guy, who’s 78, is teachable. And at that age, since I’m his elder, and he should treat me with some respect, even though we’re not in Japan. [laughs]
… Let’s say you’re really feeling bad. You want someone to feel your pain. Call Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton will come, and because he is sympathetic to you, he does want to help you, and he’ll sit with you, and feel your pain, and you’ll feel better because there’s someone who sympathizes with you, then he leaves, and you still have the pain. But if you want someone to find a way to not only ease your pain, but possibly get rid of your pain, don’t call Bill, and don’t call Saul; call Mike. He has a record of solving problems as mayor of New York, of taking actions.
Michigan Advance: I’m wondering, what’s the most interesting story that you’ve ever covered?
Donaldson: Well, I have two. One’s short, the other’s too long to hear. The short one is on March 31, 1981, I was standing 5 1/2 feet away from John Hinkley Jr, when he shot Ronald Reagan and three other people outside the Washington Hilton. That was an exciting story. We didn’t think he’d been hit. I watched him being pushed in the car by his great Secret Service agent, and he didn’t think he’d been hit. His agent said as we’re going back to the White House, he radioed back, ‘Shots fired at the president. They missed him.’
And then, Gary Parr was the agent’s name, saw blood coming out from Reagan. Reagan said, ‘Hey, you broke my ribs’ … and they realized it was a lung shot as they went to the car. It was a Friday afternoon, George Washington Memorial Hospital emergency room, everyone sitting around. Nothing going on and a police car screams up, stops and a big black limousine stops and the president of the United States hitches up his trousers — he always did that when he was going to meet the public — and then collapses. And to say, that was exciting.
Michigan Advance: Well, who is the most interesting person you’ve interviewed? I have to ask, you did this for so long —
Donaldson: Well, the most interesting person is the person — I said I wouldn’t tell you the story about. I’ve interviewed presidents, interviewed Anwar Sadat, interviewed [Mikhail] Gorbachev, but after he left the presidency. Interviewed Hollywood stars, but not a lot of them, but James Bond, the one — Sean Connery, my fellow Scotsman. … I’ve interviewed businesspeople, mainly politicians, though. And most of them I’ve liked.
But I’ll tell you about the man who made the most impression on me, the interview that made the most impression on me, but it’ll take more than one minute. In 1993, the Argentine government then decided that they’ll come clean in the world about the Nazis it had harbored after World War II. It has opened up its books. And with the help with the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, which a few months later was bombed, people killed, I went down. I showed you these big, musty books that you write in laboriously.
… I went down to Bariloche, Argentina, a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires, to meet a man that we had located with the help of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and also the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires. When I met him, we knew where to find him. We were on a sidewalk. He was an 80-year-old grandfather, kindly-looking man who’d been helping at a children’s school. Came out, he spoke pretty good English.
His name was Erich Priebke. I said, ‘Herr Priebke, Sam Donaldson, ABC Television.’ Here are two big cameras. ‘May I talk to you about what you did in the Second World War?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He was an S.S. captain in the Gestapo in Rome. The day before, a group of partisan Italians — because now by this time, the Italians were on our side — had killed a group of German soldiers. Hitler demanded a 50-for-1 civilian reprisal. Marshal [Albert] Kesselring, who was the commander of the Germans in the south, got him down to 10-for-1.
And the Wehrmacht would not round these people up to shoot them. But the Gestapo was happy to do it. And Erich Priebke was the No. 2 man in the Gestapo, helped round up under his orders, and actually his command, 335 Italian civilians. They could only find 85 Jews on short notice. It’s hard to fill a quota when you’re not given some time to do it right. It took them out to the Argentine caves, and they shot them the back of the neck, one by one by one, and killed them all.
And he told me about it, and he was trying to make me understand he didn’t want to do it. He said, ‘I didn’t want to do it but we had the orders. We had to follow the orders.’ Well, I had seen the film from the Nuremberg trials and I also had seen lots of movies, men playing the drum and they were just following orders. But he was just a small fry; he was just a captain in the SS. He wasn’t [Hermann] Göring; he wasn’t Martin Bormann; he wasn’t [Heinrich] Himmler and all the big guys. But he made a great impression on me.
We argued about it. I said, ‘It’s not enough to say you weren’t following orders. That’s not an excuse for killing civilians.’ ‘Well,”’he said, ‘you did it in Vietnam.’ He was pretty educated. Went back and forth. Finally, he was exasperated and you could tell by the fact he was actually standing there and not running away, he really believed he had a case to make to me. He had no choice but to follow the orders. So, we retired with that subject. I changed the subject and I said, ‘Now, the last year, the Germans were pushed into Northern Italy.’ [He said:] ‘That’s right.’ ‘And you were there for another year before the war ended.’ [He said:] ‘That’s right.’ ‘And did you not work for … the Gestapo, headed by Adolf Eichmann.’ Well, he was smart enough not to try to convince me. ‘Yes, I did.’ But he said, “We got along with the Jews in Germany. We got along fine.’
And we had Holocaust … papers with his signature on them, not rounding them up himself but authorizing as the authorizing officer from the area, 6,000 Jews to Auschwitz at different train logs. He said, ‘No, we got along fine.’ Well, I showed him. Well, at the end, he was tired of trying to convince me he was a nice guy. He said, ‘You came over to me like this. You’re not a nice man.’ He got in the car. He said, ‘I have to leave.’ And I said, ‘Just fine.’ He looked up and he rolled down the window, he looked up and he said, ‘You are not a gentleman.’ And I lost it. ‘I’m not a gentleman? I’m not a mass murderer.’ And he drove away.
We put that story on the air when we got it all together, and Italy demanded his extradition. He had escaped from the British prisoner of war camp after the war and … he lived under his own name there for years. … No one bothered him. … So after a year and a half tussle in the courts, he was extradited to Italy, which has no death penalty for any crime under any condition, any time. But he was given ultimately a life imprisonment term. Yet, I’m told — I didn’t cover the trial — when he came into the courtroom, he was Harvey Weinstein; he was in a walker, he was like a decrepit old man. Oh mercy, mercy. Mercy, where’s the mercy?
We showed all this to the rabbi who was head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and said, ‘The SS organization was volunteer organization. He liked the policy.’ But that’s the end of the story and it’s a long story, but it made the most impression on me. I was 7 years old when the fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, so I didn’t fight in World War II, but I was near enough to it as we came out of it to be steeped in what had happened, and then the film from the Nuremberg trials and all of that. So, to be talking to a guy, small fry — again not one of Hitler’s top henchmen — but small fry, who was a murderer, who did these things at the time, I’m convinced liking to do it. Maybe later he repented when he was trying to, years later, convince me he didn’t want to do it. But he did it.
… Plato says, ‘Justice is giving each man his due.’ When I first was taught that in college, I said, ‘Well, what does it mean?’ And then I realized what he was saying was whatever society, at a given moment, thinks is the due of the person, is a good person or bad person. If that person gets what society thinks is his due, that is justice. Well, I think Priebke’s due was punishment. And so, that’ll teach you to ask me a question about, which I can’t answer with yes, no, maybe, I don’t remember or up yours. All right, Susan. I better let you go now.
Michigan Advance: I appreciate you taking so much time to speak with me.
Donaldson: Well, I like to talk to reporters. I was one for a long time, and on behalf of Mike Bloomberg, I like to talk to reporters because I really think I have a case, OK? Oh, by the way, watch [Sunday night]. … He’s bought airtime for three minutes both NBC and CBS on how to handle a possible pandemic of this new virus because Donald Trump doesn’t have a clue. Mike does, remember? Mike will get rid of your pain, not just feel it.