Hold On, Mr. President!

After commencing with a sketchy autobiography (reared in New Mexico, weaned on radio broadcasting), Sam Donaldson launches into the subject he knows best: how to triumph in the journalistic skirmishes that result when a reporter seeks the truth from officials who do not necessarily view honesty as the best policy.

Donaldson recounts many revealing, sometimes hilarious exchanges between himself and witty, wily politicians. Beyond these anecdotes, however, he offers incisive appraisals of the people he observes daily. Donaldson devotes the most time to presidents Reagan and Carter, examining them from a reporter’s eye view--neither gets off lightly. He faults Carter for not having organized his presidency well enough; he says of President Reagan that “often Reagan does not seem to know the details of what is going on around him, even though he is a participant.”

Choppiness may be one result of this book having been written rapidly, but timeliness is another; the Iranian arms deal story is analyzed from its inception, and Donaldson provides a chronology of governmental errors. While his account is necessarily critical, it is presented in a scrupulously careful, even-handed (perhaps even overly polite) manner. Reagan may have referred to him as the “Ayatollah of the press corps,” but Donaldson writes respectfully of the statesmen he watches and interviews. His dogged stalking of key politicos is not ruthless, merely professional.

The book bogs down in some places; the writing itself is often plodding, and there is a bit too much about how determined and tireless a reporter Donaldson is. His insider’s perspective and timely commentary, however, are welcome.