Donaldson's Doctrine

News legend shares thoughts on nominees, accountability

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The nominees for president in 2008? It's anyone's game. Such is the political gospel according to veteran ABC news correspondent Sam Donaldson.

Chief White House correspondent for ABC during the Carter and Reagan administrations, Donaldson addressed the nearly 1,000 attendees of the opening general session of the Restaurant Leadership Conference, a joint venture between Leadership Network Corp. and CSP Information Group, held at the Westin Kierland Golf Resort & Spa.

Donaldson, whose hilariously self-deprecating [image-nocss] manner could not disguise an astounding knowledge of history and politics, managed to cover dozens of topics and tell dozens of stories in his hour-long talk. When asked about his thoughts on the Republican and Democratic nominees for president, he couldn't cite one candidate who stands out from the crowd.

On the Republican side, he listed Rudolph Giuliani (attractive as the hero of 9/11), Mitt Romney (switched teams on abortion issues) and John McCain (a hero but too tied to war policy). For the Democrats, he talked of Hillary Clinton (too mechanical), Barack Obama (someday, but it's too early) and John Edwards (people might think he should have made a different choice in wake of his wife's recurrence of cancer).

The wild card, he said, is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. People discount third-party candidates, he said, but then cited Ross Perot's respectable 18% of the popular vote back in 1992.

Aside from talk of 2008 elections, two of Donaldson's resounding messages were about leadership and accountability.

First, he said, great leaders own up to their mistakes. He cited U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales' assertion that he knew nothing about the firing of seven U.S. attorneys. Information has come out recently that showed that Gonzales did indeed know about the firings and was involved in discussions about them. Donaldson predicted that Gonzales eventually will resign over the scandal.

It's a classic cover-up, Donaldson said. It's the wrong thing to do.

The second point Donaldson made: Know when to quit a losing game. Former president Ronald Reagan sent marines into Lebanon to try to quell that country's unrest; when he saw that it was fruitless, he pulled the troops out. He thought we'd bring peace, Donaldson said, It was ridiculous. Same went for former president Bill Clinton and troops in Somalia.

Which brings us to the situation in Iraq. At the moment we're in a losing game in Iraq, he said. There are two possible outcomes to our troop presence in that country, he said: It will either end badly but manageable, meaning the United States will still suffer troop casualties but the Shiites will establish leadership; or it will end horribly, meaning no end to the civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis.

We say we're fighting terrorism, but we should be fighting the people who are trying to kill us, Donaldson said. The only reason we should go to war is if we're mortally threatened [as a country] or if one of our allies is threatened.

However, he said, we have to hope that the president is right about the troop presence in Iraq.