Changing of the Guard a Breeze

Hail to the chief.

He’d been at the White House many years, not without controversy. He had many fans, but he also had countless detractors and enemies. They accused him of manipulating the TV camera, of not knowing what he was talking about, of making a fool of himself, of being too rigid, of being too superficial, of being too narrow, of being too much of an actor. They even made jokes about his hair.

But now the inauguration is over, so America won’t have Sam Donaldson to kick around anymore.

Friday’s transition of power from Ronald Reagan to George Bush in the White House was accompanied by a transition of power from Donaldson to Brit Hume on ABC’s White House beat.


Both transitions were peaceful and orderly.

As ABC’s Peter Jennings put it Friday just before Bush was to take the oath of office: “This is the end of the Reagan/Donaldson Administration.”

But not all of the Reagan/Donaldson prominence. While working on a possible magazine series for ABC and continuing as a regular on “This Week With David Brinkley,” Donaldson will surely be even more visible than Reagan. What else is new?

During his 12 years of covering the White House, Donaldson became at once the most famous correspondent in TV history and a controversial metaphor for the ever-swelling imperial mediacy. Just as his microphone became almost an extension of his right hand, Donaldson’s regular stand-ups from the White House fixed him as a physical--although not a philosophical--extension of the presidency. Perhaps, more than any other journalist, he has symbolized the electronic media’s growing influence in politics and government.

So, if Reagan-to-Bush was akin to “a father turning over his family business to his son,” as CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl noted Friday, the same could be said of Donaldson-to-Hume. And that reporting business--given its instant accessibility to the public on a regular basis--is one of enormous importance.

“A new breeze is blowing,” President Bush said in his inaugural address.

A calm breeze. As many TV reporters noted Friday, the very nature of the inauguration itself epitomized an exhilarating component of American democracy. “It is an ennobling thing to see,” NBC’s John Chancellor observed about “this orderly, decent, civilized transfer of power.” He added: “There you see it on your screens.”

Some of us could see it on our screens. Too few of us.

The drafters of the 20th Amendment obviously did not foresee televised inaugurations when they prescribed a date rather than a day as the start of new presidential and vice-presidential terms. Hence, schoolchildren and those who worked outside the home Friday were excluded from watching this “ennobling thing” that should have been available to all Americans. Doesn’t inauguration day deserve national-holiday status? The awesome irony here is that somehow more Americans will watch Sunday’s Super Bowl than will have watched George Herbert Walker Bush be sworn in as 41st President of the United States.

Including the pre-inaugural pomp and post-inaugural parade, the event was a TV spectacular that lasted much of the day, producing not only magical pictures but also the inevitable last-minute Reagan/Bush comparisons and forecasts for the new White House.

Energizing atmospheric changes almost always accompany such transfers, however. So the Bush term and the traditional honeymoon accorded new Presidents began simultaneously, with TV analysts mostly pouring on verbal confetti and submerging negatives in the euphoria of the moment.

There was also the inevitable trivia leading to the inaugural address of the pork rind-loving Bush. “Pork rind--what are they?’ ABC’s David Brinkley asked. “You know what bacon is--just use your imagination,” Donaldson said. Jennings said he still didn’t understand.

Later, Dan Rather joked on CBS about having pictures of the Bush limo’s license plates being changed.

Chancellor gave his assessment of Vice President Dan Quayle, finding him not “the airhead . . . that people said he is.” Added Chancellor: “People in our business have gotten the Dan Quayle story wrong.”

Contrasting with that was Quayle’s appearance this week on “CBS This Morning,” where Kathleen Sullivan asked him about a campaign where he often was ridiculed as the kind of guy who might walk from the men’s room with a piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe. In all straight-faced seriousness--no joke intended--he replied: “The campaign was a great experience. I don’t wish that experience on anyone else.”

Whether it was Rather or Jennings and Brinkley or Tom Brokaw and Chancellor with Bryant Gumbel on NBC, there was something comforting about the words of anchors on this particular day. They, too, are voices of continuity, rather like electronic bureaucrats of the airwaves whose careers somehow become our most visible unifying links between presidential administrations.

Commenting on the passing of the baton to Bush from Reagan, ABC’s Jennings recalled what Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, had written in his book “Crisis” about how abruptly the trappings of power vanish once a President leaves office.

Right up to the moment of Reagan’s swearing-in, Carter had entertained hopes that America’s hostages in Iran would somehow be released. Immediately after the Reagan inauguration, Jordan called the White House situation room for an update on the hostages, but was told that “classified information is no longer available to you” because only moments earlier Carter had ceased being President. Period. Exclamation point.

Immediately after Reagan had ceased being President, Sam Donaldson ceased being ABC’s White House correspondent, and watched perhaps for the last time as Reagan and Nancy walked toward a deafening chopper.

“Any final thoughts?” a familiar voice shouted at Reagan. But the former President didn’t seem to hear Donaldson’s final question.

Meanwhile, Jennings welcomed Hume to his new White House beat. “Peter,” began Hume, “I’d of course like to thank Sam . . . .”

The new breeze blows.