Ronald Reagan's last day in office was quiet, the White House press room mostly empty. But Sam Donaldson had not given up even though it was his last day, too.
"Let's see what's in the driveway," he said, and trotted outside into the bright sunshine of the crisp January morning. "That's one of the things I told Brit (Hume, his successor). If you hang around outside, you see a lot of things."But there was nothing to see, even though Reagan had conducted an East Room ceremony and a small motorcade was lined up in the West Wing parking lot.
Donaldson stood on a curb, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun, and searched for signs of the principals. Two White House guards walked by, amused. "There's Sam on a stakeout," said one, laughing.
Donaldson moved to another vantage point opposite the door to the West Wing. A vague smile seemed to drift across the face of the Marine guard stationed at the entrance as Donaldson strained on tiptoes and shouted at the empty doorway, "Come out! Come out!"
He finally gave up.
The prevailing mood in the White House seemed to be boredom. In the press room, there was nostalgia: it was the end of "the Donaldson administration."
Donaldson, 54, had been ABC's chief White House correspondent for 12 years and was leaving the beat for a new, prime-time news program scheduled to debut later this year.
During his White House years, especially during the Reagan administration, Donaldson became synonymous in the public mind with the pushy reporter. It was Donaldson who most often shouted questions at Reagan from the press corral during public appearances. Donaldson's shouting seemed to many viewers rude, unseemly, disrespectful.
For some right-wing columnists, Donaldson even became shorthand for what they saw as a biased, liberal, Eastern press.
"The height of this," recalled Donaldson, sitting on the curb of the West Wing drive, "was in Richmond, Ind., I thought, right after the Republican convention. And (then-vice presidential candidate Dan) Quayle went there, as I recall, and there was this sort of confrontation as he tried to answer reporters' questions. People, I'm told, were booing me - `Go on Donaldson! Go home! Get out of here, Sam!'
"I wasn't there. I wasn't within a thousand miles of there. I don't think there's anyone who looks like me, and vice versa. So you see, the reaction was simply to find my name and use my name as a symbol.
"I do not welcome this," he said. "I will be delighted as this recedes.
"But I understood it, because these people who loved Ronald Reagan as a political hero would condemn me and other reporters.
"I put it to you this way. Yes, I'm aggressive by nature, and I do not believe in the adage, `One should be seen but not heard.'
"No one ever heard me yell at Jimmy Carter. . . . Because it was unnecessary. To talk to Jimmy Carter, except in the last few years of his presidency when he hunkered down over the hostage crisis, he was available.
"For Reagan, the alternatives were go for months, or speak out, and if, as they always did when he was in public, keep him 50 yards away, to speak out meant that you had to raise your voice. I trust from what we know about him, no one will have to yell at George Bush. But what I'm saying, I've used whatever tools I felt I needed at the time to do my job as a television reporter, no more - but no less."
If he raised the ire of viewers, Donaldson earned the respect of his colleagues, despite a healthy ego that once prompted Washington Post reporter Marty Schram to observe that if there were no such thing as television, "Donaldson would go door to door."
Sanford Socolow, former executive producer of the rival "CBS Evening News," says Donaldson "served a very important function - insisting on openness in a Reagan administration that increasingly tried to close up."
"Everybody fought that battle," Socolow said, "but Donaldson was always up there unremitting, uncompromising, two-fisted, fighting for everybody."
"I had a negative impression of him before I went to the White House," said Maureen Santini, who has covered the White House for 10 years, first for the Associated Press and now for the New York Daily News. "Once I got there and met him and got to know him a little bit, I totally changed my impression. I've seen that happen time after time after time. People get to know him and realize he's this delightful character."
It was Donaldson, she said, who most often stood up for the other reporters' rights.
ABC News last week signed CBS correspondent Diane Sawyer to be co-anchor with Donaldson on the new program, as yet untitled. Looking forward to the new assignment seemed to have muted any sentimentality Donaldson might have felt on his last day at the White House.
"I want to go. I've wanted to go now for some time," he said. "If you were to say to me, `You're going to walk out that gate, and you're never going to do anything again that's going to be as interesting or as important in your business,' yeah, I'd be upset.
"But I don't think that's the case."